Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What Writing Process?

“What’s your process like?” 
“Are you a planner or a pantser?” 
“What kind of environment do you need to write?” 
“What inspires you?” 
“Where do you get your stories?”
 “What’s your writing style?”

These questions and their many variations are ones I’ve heard countless times in interviews, discussions, panels, and emails. They’re not bad questions, and I don’t mind hearing or answering them. I understand why they’re asked. The writing process of an author is something that’s romantic to imagine, particularly if you’re not a writer yourself, and when we love a piece of art, it’s natural to want to explore its roots. That’s why there is so much behind-the-scenes footage attached to movies. It’s why we love to watch Jennifer Lawrence doing interviews on talk shows. It’s why we can’t bring up Van Gogh without mentioning that missing ear. We all want to see the man behind the curtain, so that by understanding him, we can more deeply internalize his work. And simply because we’re curious creatures, and that’s a wonderful trait to have. 

But I always struggle with these kinds of questions. I used to chalk it up to my novice status as an author. With only one book truly published right now, and my second waiting in the wings for another two months, I still feel I have a lot of ground to cover, a lot of ropes to learn. Even so, I’ve stumbled and stuttered my way through enough public Q&A’s that I like to think I’ve finally gotten a bit of a grip on how to present myself and my books to the world. And yet these questions—the writing process questions—still take me by surprise and leave me a bit dumbfounded. The answers I gave three months ago, which seemed to finally distill the essence of my writing process, suddenly fall short. More often than not, I find myself formulating new answers on the spot, clumsy, fledgling words that still fail to encapsulate my feelings. And I find myself disappointed, asking What is my writing process? How do I come up with stories? WHO AM I ANYWAY? I never feel more like an impostor than at these moments.

But I think I’m beginning to understand why. They say every writer’s process is different. This is, of course, completely true.

What they don’t say is that every book’s process is different. 

And this is what trips me up. This is where my tongue stumbles and I begin contradicting myself and turning red in the face. “What’s your writing process?” the blogger or audience member or email asks. And I’m left with my mouth hanging open, big blue question marks in my eyes. Do I describe the process by which I wrote Origin? Or should I talk about Vitro? Or the book I’m working on now? Or my early, feeble attempts at novels when I was a teen? Because the processes behind each of these are entirely unique. Some of them have almost nothing at all in common. And so I’m left speechless, because I realize I don’t have a writing process. And then I panic. Am I a bad writer? Am I doing something wrong? (Possibly, but that’s beside the point).

Writing books is like raising children. You can’t handle them all the same way. They have unique personalities, unique beginnings and struggles and moments of triumph. They have different strengths and weaknesses. I wrote Origin in a month’s time, with zero planning, zero pausing, zero rewrites, and zero revisions before I sent it to agents. I wrote Vitro over the course of nine months, with much planning, many rewrites, frequent pausing, and hefty revisions. The books are two entirely different creatures, requiring entirely different methods of care and handling. 

As I move on to new projects, I find—much to my dismay—that once more, I’m discovering a new process along with a new story. I’m reinventing my entire process every time. It’s frustrating. I think, I’ve been through this! I know what works! So why isn’t it working this time? 

As a kid, I was punished in an entirely different way than my younger sister. If I was bad (and I frequently was), I was disciplined by having my books impounded (granted, I always found out where my parents had hidden them and stole them back. They pretended not to notice). My sister, whose veins ran with normal blood instead of the ink that infested mine, had more ordinary forms of punishment, like being grounded from hanging out with friends or having her internet suspended. My parents recognized the differences in our personalities and approached us in the unique ways that would best reach us.

Books are that way, for a writer. You can’t approach each new project with the same methods as the one before it. Well, maybe some writers can, but I know that it never works for me. Every time I sit down to begin a new book, I have to go all the way back to the beginning, where I have nothing: no plan, no secrets, no handy charts, no shortcuts. Just me and the empty page, staring at each other warily, like a child and a stray cat who’ve just met in the front yard. The beginning of a project is always thick with suspicion and hesitance, as I feel out what this story’s personality is, and how best to make it respond to me. Some books can be guided with a feather; others require the subtlety of a chainsaw. Some characters will happily follow wherever I lead them. Others have to be chained and dragged, sullen and resentful, down the right path. I never fully trust myself that I know the direction to go, or even how to get there, but I know I have to try. If I didn’t try, I might as well stop breathing. This is what I was born to do.

And that’s why I love writing. There is a process, yes, but the beauty of the process is that it can’t be distilled. You can’t shape every book with the same mold. You have to start over each time, with nothing but your imagination and your vision. The result is that it never gets boring. No matter how much I’ve written, no matter how many shortcuts or tricks or methods I’ve learned, writing always demands more of me. It always says, “Come, you can do better than that. Let’s go somewhere new.” 

And my doubts and trepidation fall away, and I realize that what I hate most about writing is also what I love most about it: that there’s no level of perfection than can be attained, that at no point will I suddenly “get it,” and from thereon be a “real writer.” It’s a thought that is equally devastating and liberating, depending on the day and one’s mood. The important thing to remember is that it’s not about reaching perfection nor even striving toward it. It’s all about the journey, and the many twisting, challenging, and magnificent roads we’ll travel. I’m a writer now. I’m here. I’ve arrived. And so have you, if you’ve ever put a story to paper. There’s no standard by which all writers are judged either Success or Failure. Every new book is a new beginning, a chance to test new ideas and to make new mistakes. We’ll never be bored, we’ll often be frustrated, and we’ll always surprise ourselves when we discover something new hidden inside ourselves. We’re all pilgrims on the same mad quest. 

So I suppose you could distill the writing process into one word. I think it would be: “Reinvention.”