Writing as Discovery

Last week in Creative Writing: Prose, my students and I read and discussed pieces about the writing process, about why we write, and about writing as an act of discovery. Both sessions with these five eager writers were enjoyable. They are steadily gaining confidence and enthusiasm for our work together.

I’m reflecting on that week because of my own writing journey in a creative nonfiction piece about two of the most memorable days of life from 2008, two days that, to an outsider, would appear mostly nondescript. I’ve started exploring why these two days have impressed themselves so firmly in my memory.

Using one of my favorite writing surfaces—a yellow legal pad—I penned six handwritten pages during 15-minute bursts over five or six consecutive days. At the beginning of September, I typed those pages, making only minor corrections: the goal at the stage was merely transcription. I printed a copy and slipped it in the nonfiction folder of the filing cabinet that sits to the left of my writing desk.

On Wednesday of last week, the day between my two sessions of that aforementioned Creative Writing class, I closely reread that typed draft. Afterwards, I wrote a page of notes, preparing myself for commencing a second draft. I circled passages that I thought might be crucial points in the timeline of the weekend; I made a list of all of the weekend’s events, in chronological order.

The next day I met my students, and because we were discussing an essay about writing really awful first drafts, I decided to make myself more vulnerable, more transparent. Before class, I made copies of my piece’s first page. I circulated the handout towards the end of class and told them that I needed those copies back after they examined them. I said they couldn’t take a picture of my first page.

I hoped that they would discover something about me, about themselves, through my meandering opening paragraphs. The room, however, was quiet because of their silent concentration. Here they were, reading something that their professor had not edited. After a while, I spoke to them, telling them that when I reread that first page, I was bored, and that I thought the first sentence was grandiose and pompous.

Later that afternoon, I was sitting in a shaded back patio, that same first draft in front of me, my writing notebook next to it. My son was inside an art studio taking a drawing class, and I had the next 50 minutes to work on this same creative nonfiction piece. I reread my notes, along with portions of the draft, and then began jotting down more ideas, making another full page of notes.

It was in that further exploration, through the meandering in that relaxed state with the hum of a busy road nearby, the rattling of a large AC unit, and the continuity of a dry breeze, that I at last “discovered” a structure for the piece. I realized that in the roughly sketched four-page typed draft I had hinted at a way to tell this story. And then my notes became more energized and furious as I teased out the implications of the particular structure.

So here I am, having begun that second draft with a much clearer sense of where I’m headed, aware that this piece will likely be much longer than I originally thought. But it is through these discoveries and surprises that I find joy as a writer. I never know how something will turn out. I never know the shape it will take. And that is part of what keeps me writing poems, short stories, essays, blog posts. I’m too busy meandering and discovering to ever become bored.

Summer Writing Update

Heading into this summer, I only set the following writing goals:

  1. Make my poetry manuscript as publication-ready as possible
  2. Complete a first draft of a book-length memoir
  3. Write a blog post every other week here on plainswriter.com
  4. Finish a revision of a short story

Poetry Manuscript:

This project is “done” (for the moment), and it’s a wonderful and exciting and satisfying feeling. The proposal and “final” manuscript have been sent to my publisher for to begin the various processes on their end. At this point I can’t elaborate more on the publishing component, but I will share more information in the future, and I will be using this website to promote the book, which is called Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life: Poems.

Memoir:

As of yesterday morning, I finished the first draft of the manuscript. It’s rough, as would be expected, and because it covers several decades of my life, and sketches out various scenes, I had found increasingly difficult to add “new” content.

My first drafts of any kind of prose writing tend to be more skeletal, and so I decided it was time to call the first draft “done” and print it out. I already have some ideas about how and where I need to develop nascent ideas and places that I probably need to delete.

When I printed out all those pages late yesterday morning, that was a rewarding feeling. I am also excited about beginning the revision process because for me, revision is what I enjoy most about the writing process.

Blog Posts:

While 2016 was my “year of blogging,” this year I moved away from writing for others, for the most part. Part of me feels a little guilty about it, which is, of course, bizarre and illogical. Over the summer, I focused on the poetry manuscript and the memoir first draft, my two “big” projects.

Nonetheless, I wanted to get back into blogging in a less stressful, more freeing-way. I have enjoyed writing a post here on plains writer.com every other week. That rhythm feels about right to me, and plan to continue that schedule into the foreseeable future.

Short Story Revision:

Periodically throughout this summer I’ve returned to a short story that I’m revising for a second draft. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I’ve found it difficult to gain traction on the story to finish a second draft. However, I’d like to make my way through it before the summer ends, and I believe that’s a reasonable goal.

Just this morning I returned to the story and found that I had “fresher” eyes to see the story. After working on the two big projects, revising a story feels so much more manageable.

Memoir First Draft

I’m currently writing the first draft of a book-length memoir. Since the first week of May, I’ve written over 12,000 words, reaching the 30k-word mark on Friday.

I’m a big believer in the quick first draft, a draft in which I do no editing, with the exception of fixing a typo. My approach works well for blog posts, short stories, creative nonfiction pieces, and poems.

The challenge right now, however, is sticking to the “pure drafting” approach while working on something book length—that’s more daunting. For example, in this draft I repeat myself occasionally. When you’re working on a book that covers almost the entirety of your life and your 40, that’s bound to happen.

Another challenge as I write more and more material is the overall structure of the manuscript, yet I’m enjoying the process of writing material without the pressure to organize it in the moment. So as is often the case when I work on nonfiction, as I write more material, I acquire more topic ideas. So in this draft, I create a new section with information enclosed in brackets for new ideas that surface in the drafting process.

My goal for 2017 is to complete a full first-draft (which is at least 50,000 words). I hope to finish this draft before I leave for vacation at the end of July. As of this point, I have nearly 2 full months remaining, so my goal feels both reasonable and achievable.

Once I finish the full first draft, I will go through and outline the draft in the notebook I’m using for the project. I’m not making any committed decisions at this point, but I envision an opening essay that serves as an overture, with the rest of the book built around topical essays with only a loose chronological order.

A friend of mine also recently began the first draft of memoir, and an in email he mentioned the idea of swapping our drafts in the near future. At first the thought terrified me–never have I written a first draft so rough (or so it seems to me). But the opportunity to share the work with a friend whose eye I trust is rather more motivation to continue with the process of drafting the manuscript and also revising that “overture” essay to send to him soon.

Now back to work.