A month ago I wrote a post here about my writing resolutions. I’ve been meaning to follow that up by writing about my writing process. If you are yourself a writer, or a wannabe like me (I’m sorry, “emerging writer” is the appropriate term nowadays), it’s useful to put into words what you find yourself doing, and why. It helps you get a handle on it. I find myself using concrete images, referring to tactile processes: quarrying my longhand notes; sculpting passages in my quarry store.
That said, the process by which I write creatively seems to be changing all the time. Sit down to describe it and all I can do is share a snapshot of where I am now-ish. Ask me again in a year or so and you might get a different answer.
I live in Gothenburg, in Sweden, in a small flat. Three rooms and a kitchen, as Swedes would define it. It used to be that I had the whole place to myself much of the working day, then came Covid and working from home. Mrs SC started joining teleconferences from the guest-room (also her home office). Now she has retired.
Especially at the beginning, when she was first at home and I was no longer in splendid isolation, I felt like my work space had shrunk. For her part she felt I was intruding on her living space. We both still feel these things from time to time, though less often now, nearly two years along. We’ve been feeling our way forward. Trying to accommodate one another, trying to find a point of balance. It is getting easier.
Look, I’m working!
Previously I was often frustrated at my inability to find a regular rhythm to my writing. I’ve had the ambition, for years now, to sit and write on a daily basis, but that always seemed beyond reach. Now I am forced to make as much use of the smaller amount of time I have available, it seems to have focused my attention. And having Mrs SC in the same flat puts me on my metal. As though I have to show her, Look, I’m working!
It’s no bad thing. Especially since the beginning of this year, I find I’m writing more frequently, very nearly on a daily basis, and counting more words written.
At present, most mornings when I get up, I sit at the kitchen table with my tea and a pen and notebook and I write. It’s where I wrote the first draft of this blog post. I call this writing my morning pages, simply because I try to write two or more pages in longhand, and I do it in the morning.
I make this point to disclaim any relation to other people’s “morning pages”. There is a technique of free-writing promoted among some writing groups also known as “morning pages”. You can find out more about those morning pages by searching for the term on the Internet. (“The most cost effective personal therapy”; “Morning pages changed my life”; etc.)
As I understand it, following that practice you are supposed to start each writing day by free-writing for three pages longhand. This is in order to release yourself for the real writing. The free-writing pages you produce in this way are to be treated as waste material, not referred to, abandoned. When you write these you are just emptying yourself for the real work.
I can’t do that. I did try, but it didn’t work for me. If I write something I can’t just abandon it.
Instead, I come back to my morning pages two or three days – or it may be two or three months – later. I re-read them and I quarry them.
This involves me retiring to the bedroom with my laptop and dictating the pages I’ve written through voice recognition software into the computer.
At this stage I often do a bit of tidying up and, if inspired, may even re-write or extend what I am dictating. These pieces I quarry from my morning pages, these quarried words, I store on my hard disk as documents in my quarry store. (Actually in Scrivener. That’s a topic for another day!)
It’s not just my morning pages that I quarry. I also carry a notebook around with me and a pen, and (when the season permits) I take them on walks. I’m teaching myself to sit and write away from the flat whenever I can. Some places are more conducive than others.
Writing out and about
Cafés without muzak or loud conversations are good, as are other similar places with tables and chairs and distance between. Last autumn I discovered the possibilities of the café in Antikhallarna.
Earlier, in the summer, I found a very pleasant café attached to a small exhibition centre down by the river. The café was closed, but the exhibition centre was open all summer long. It was a very peaceful place to sit and write. It’s hard to know if the peace was because everyone was staying away out of respect for the pandemic. It may not be quite so satisfactory this summer. I’ll see.
If it’s fine, I can sit out of doors too, and write sitting on a park bench.
I used to write in libraries, but during the pandemic they were out of bounds for sitting and studying in. Now restrictions have mostly been lifted, but I’ve not yet got back into the habit.
Together with my morning pages, everything I write in the notebook — and the quotes I’ve marked in books I’ve been reading — all form the raw material for my quarrying.
All this longhand writing counts as creative work, but I don’t let myself count longhand words as words written. Not till I’ve quarried them and can use the word processor’s word counting tool. I think of it as keeping myself honest. (If I were to count longhand words I’d probably inflate them. I wouldn’t do it deliberately, but it would happen.)
Do I type directly from my head into a computer or laptop? Yes, I do, sometimes. Especially when I’m writing a blog post that builds on images, or writing comments on someone else’s blog post on-line, or when I’m writing a diary entry, letters or e-mails.
But mostly my work at a computer comes after the quarrying. When I go to the quarry store to find subjects or snippets, or perhaps words or phrases for poems, to work up.
At a real quarry, where stones are cut for sculpture or decoration, the stones are stored in the store until selected by a sculptor or a builder. That’s what I think of my quarry store as being. A place where stories and poems, characters and incidents, images and feelings, wait in a half-formed state for me to come along and pick them out to work on.
I have to admit this element of my writing process is not so well developed. I’d like to be doing this regularly. Visiting the quarry store, taking things out, working on them — chiselling, polishing, enlarging and extending. Turning my quarried words into something I can send off somewhere for feedback. Maybe I’ll get there this year, but I’m not there quite yet.
Last year I came across a quote from Neil Gaiman, who was himself quoting an earlier science fiction writer I think. Something like this:
1) You must write, if you don’t write nothing will happen.
2) You must finish what you write.
3) You must send what you have finished writing away somewhere there’s a chance someone who reads it will want to publish it.
4) As soon as you have sent it away, you must start again.
I find The Rules both encouraging and difficult, but I’m making an effort to use them as my framework for 2022.
How I’m doing?
One and a half months into the year, how am I doing?
Not bad, actually. I am managing to follow the first rule. All the above tells you that. And, with effort, I’m also following second rule.
I’m not sure if I am really finishing things in a way Neil Gaiman would approve, but I’ve been applying the Good-enough Principle. Set myself a deadline and when I reach it, look at the text I’ve been working on and ask myself: Is it good enough?
So far this year I’ve submitted three good enough poems and one good enough piece of flash-fiction, somewhere there’s a chance someone who reads it will want to publish it. So that’s Rule 3.
And, yes, having sent something off, I have started again.
Until writing this, I hadn’t thought about how I was actually doing. So I’m a little surprised to find that, actually, I am following The Rules. Or I have been up to now. I just have to keep on doing so. This blog post was a useful exercise. It’s shown me I’m moving forward when I thought I was just marking time.
How about you? What are your rules? What’s your process? How are you doing?
A note on the illustrations
The header and the first two are my own. The quarry store is a picture by Mike Smith from Wikimedia Commons here. The stone doodle is a medieval sculpture fragment from the Derby Museums Trust also from Wikimedia Commons here.