Friday, August 15, 2008

What makes you write?

Over at Edge of the American West, there's a good post and comment thread about the kinds of things people keep on their desks to make them write.

In the comment thread at EAW, people mentioned quotations, figurines, pictures, and, of course, the ever-popular terror inspired by a deadline. If you take as a given that time is part of it is time (see the 43folders post on Neal Stephenson), what makes you actually start writing?

I know I'm about ready to start writing if I get the urge to start rereading things I've recently published and things other people have recently published. At some level this seems reassuring, as though to say "you've done this before and you can do it again. Other people can do this, and you can, too." And despite my best efforts to use all the morning creativity I keep reading about, I am much more apt to start something and to find the real concentration needed if I work on it from late afternoon through the evening.

So is there a talisman, a quotation, a favorite pen, a mood, a piece of music that makes you get started?


Professor Zero said...

Coming up with the first line and knowing what idea I want to end with.

People say just write, write, write and this will make you see what you are doing. Through the so called process of writing you will figure out what you mean, they allege. I think that is completely crazy, at least for my case ... writing is just stewing and will only ruin your thought process unless you have already decided what you are doing. Until such time as your first line comes to you unannounced, and you know what the content of your last paragraph is going to be, you are much better off just meditating as far as I am concerned.

If I do that, all I come up with are a whole lot of great first pages. I could do that for months and even years - and HAVE done it for that long sometimes - and never finish a single piece.


My most classic example of this, to which I have alluded before:

When I was in college and graduate school I had a typewriter, not a computer. (In college and through my Ph.D. exam it was a manual one; for my dissertation I bought a self-correcting one by Olympia.) For all papers I kept handwritten notes and would then write directly on the typewriter, no revisions. My dissertation director couldn't believe my dissertation draft, she said it read like a book, how could this be, but she would have just DIED had she known I had composed it directly like that. She had been yelling at me because I had said I was only writing one page a day, with Sundays off, and would write the whole thing that way in a year. She nearly fainted when this turned out to be true.

Of course in order to be able to do that I had to sit around and think about it for several months first. It took seven months to come up with a dissertation prospectus. Then it took ten months to think. Then it took nine months to write, and four months to have the committee read it and then for me to enter it into my very first computer and print it out on acid free paper. This adds up to 30 months during which I also moved to a new country and took a full load of graduate courses in a new subfield, in a language I was not (initially) very proficient in.]


This methodology is the only one which works for me, and/but I warn everyone that even it only works if one is actually working on one's ideas (not stewing, not rushing, not worrying, but WORKING) in a calm, organized, but *concentrated* way in the meantime. That is what will, in good time, make a first line come into one's head ... and one knows it is the RIGHT first line because with it comes the content of the last paragraph.


Am I really weird to work this way?
I think it is normal, but it goes so much against all writing advice I have ever heard that I have tried to take the writing advice I had heard. That was very bad for my writing record during a certain period, in which I kept trying to write prematurely and to write multiple drafts like a normal person. (During that period I was also supposed to send all my articles to PMLA first, get comments from them, and then go down the list until I got them in somewhere. I was designated as wicked because I sent things to where they really fit in in the first place. Too rebellious, too self assured, not feminine enough, I know, I know, I know.)

Professor Zero said...

Or how about this: what makes me write is when really interested in taking an idea somewhere and not wanting to resist giving into the pursuit of the project?

(What *enables* it, though, is having an adequate place to do the job. Remember the money and the room of one's own.)

undine said...

Great comment, Professor Z. I had a self-correcting Smith-Corona--self-correcting if you removed the tape cartridge and put in the correction cartridge, that is.

I'm glad to hear you say that about your composing process. The whole freewriting thing sounds good (write down whatever until you discover your topic), but, like you, each sentence somehow casts the course of the next one and requires huge amounts of time to write. If I go down the wrong path by freewriting, my thoughts have gone in an entirely different direction, too, and they might not get back to my original track again.

Hemingway talked about writing "one true thing" and then waiting until you knew another one to write down. That's what you've described.

undine said...

Should be: but, like you, I feel as though each sentence somehow casts the course of the next one and requires huge amounts of time to write.

Anonymous said...

If Prof. Zero relies on the first line, I am more dependent upon a good title. I know I'm ready to hit the ground running when I come up with a title. Of course, the title often changes and, I should add, my titles aren't particularly remarkable. But, somehow, for me, that's the moment I get going.

I'm also glad to discover that I am not the only person who goes back and rereads previous publications. I have always felt rather shameful about this practice -- it seemed so self-indulgent. I much prefer your interpretation, a reminder of past accomplishments.

Anonymous said...

I am also extremely title dependent: forgot to say that. The title comes first. Way first. The wrong title or no title utterly messes me up.

And yes - all of this is because each sentence takes a long time and determines the next.

I also like to read past publications, etc. And start the writing day by rereading what I wrote the day before.

Also: the time to stop writing for the session, or the day, is not when you've run out of steam or gotten stuck, but when you've just figured out what to do next and even started in a little bit. That makes starting again easy, since you know exactly where you are.

Especially for long projects that could have a lot of tangents or go in all sorts of directions, I have a "box" (used to be a shoebox with index cards, now it's a couple of blogs) where I write down ideas or sentences I like but which don't fit. I put them in the box. That way I don't feel bad about not including them now. Then later, when I get stuck somewhere, I pick a random card out of the box (look at a random post on one of the blogs). Usually this jogs something.

But I keep talking about process, and about continuing, and not about starting. Starting the beginning of something, that really is the hardest.

Talismen - coffee, even if I don't drink it, I have to have it and touch the cup!!! I also have to face the window, or at least have the window to my right. Ideally the door should be to my right side, too. The box of secret ideas, and the handwritten notes, go on the left. Notes to an outline - of what people will actually see - go on the right, but the more inchoate stash of thoughts goes on the left.

(I come across in person as a relaxed and flexible type, but by this you can see I am actually a ritualistic fetishist of the first water.)

I also promise myself breaks I am not going to take in the promised form, but the promise is really important. I promise to smoke cigarettes and drink miso soup!!! Then I keep procrastinating about actually doing these things. I say, you have to go to the store and get cigarettes and miso soup! Then I say oh but I don't want to, it is so far, and I am busy! So I don't go, but I do have the idea of an out.

Yvonne said...

Titles are good, I've known the joy of inventing a strong title and going from there. But since a great deal of my writing doesn't have titles (or rather, these are predetermined by formula) it's Prof. Zero's experience that really rings true for me.

Not just coming up with that great opening line but coming up with the great opening line that shows the way to the great final paragraph. Sometimes I have to forge ahead and write anyway and mostly it all turns out pretty well. But the pieces I've written with the beginning and end "in hand" have without fail been my best.

undine said...

bitternsweet, that's interesting about the title: almost always, that's the very last thing I do, and I'm rarely happy with the titles I choose. I did one piece this summer where the title came to me, but that's it.

yvonne, do you ever find that your ending has to change as you write? I usually know sort of where I'm going but never have a conclusion.

cero, I'm totally going to try your index card/box idea. Starting is absolutely the hardest thing.

Anonymous said...

Starting is the hardest and this is why, I think, so many books start several times. Acknowledgments, preface, introduction, chapter 1, each is an alternative beginning.