Writing Stories & Playing Drums

On Thursday night, I finished the first draft of a short story, and just as 20 years ago when I started writing fiction, I feel a thrill. I printed out a copy, wrote the date on it, and slipped it in my “Short Fiction” file folder that is 3-inches thick with drafts and revisions, pieces in varied stages of development.

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Adjusting My Writing Process

I enjoy writing in multiple genres: poetry, essay, short fiction, blog posts, memoir. When I don’t feel the strong desire to write in one genre, I can switch to another. Beyond the genre shifting, I have multiple drafts of numerous pieces in each genre. I won’t mention numbers here, but let’s just say that I have a lot of unpublished pieces in various stages of development/degree of completeness.

As I moved into my semester break in early December, I jotted down a list of writing projects: the third draft of an essay, the second draft of a short story, a blog post for my university. In the past, I would work on one project one day, and then the next day work on something else. This break, however, I thought it was time to try something new: to work only on a draft of one piece until the draft was finished. Then, once I finished that draft, I could continue to the next piece.

How did my experiment pan out? The first week or so of my Christmas break I worked on that essay third draft, a draft that I promised to send to a friend by Dec. 22. I was able to send it to him a few days earlier than promised, and as a result, he sent his feedback earlier than I expected.

I also wanted to complete a second draft of a short story, a second draft that I had begun in July(!) and picked up at a few points in time. Instead, I devoted about 10 days working only on that story. I finished that draft early Saturday morning at a local coffee shop, arriving home to my wife and kids having just awoken.

In both instances, I found that during my non-writing times (while washing dishes, while driving, while doing other tasks), I was thinking only about that piece of writing. For the essay, I was thinking about what to cut, what to develop further. For the short story, I was thinking about ways the plot might develop further, how the two characters might interact in other scenes I’d added.

My greatest accomplishment was that my writing attention wasn’t divided among two, three, four, five (or more) “active drafts.” I can also proclaim that my time spent working on each of these longer pieces (a 10-page essay, an 18-page story) was more enjoyable as well. I was immersed in the world of each of the pieces, my attention (again) not divided.

So as I begin 2018, my writing resolution is to complete an initial draft or a subsequent draft before shifting to the next piece.

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.

Working Alone and Together

It’s stating the obvious to observe that writing is a solitary pursuit, but there, I’ve gone and said it anyway. No one will write my poems for me, my stories for me, my essays for me, or even that book-length memoir for me. No one. I am the one who chooses (or not) to work on these pieces, even this piece.

I’m by myself at this moment (5:45 a.m.), the rest of my family still sleeping.  A glass of cold water and a cup of coffee both within reach, a candle burning, a solitary lamp lighting me as I work. No one ordered me to set my alarm for 5:30.

To be clear, I am mostly comfortable with this arrangement of my writing life. It’s no real bother to be “by myself” trying to put down the right word, then the next right word, etc. (I’m not sure how strong extroverts manage to become writers, but they do.)

But the other day I was thinking about my “condition,” 12 years removed from finishing my MFA, 5 years removed from finishing my PhD. I realized an essential component of the writing life I was missing: accountability with another writer.

To me, one of the best benefits of the graduate Creative Writing courses I took was the accountability built into the system. I had to turn in a story every few weeks. I had to turn in a poem each week. Beyond those structural “checks,” fellow writers and I talked in and out of class about our writing. There was genuine community, and I made friends with many of these folks, people I still keep in touch with to this day.

My writer-friends are scattered around the country: Oklahoma, Illinois, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Georgia, among other states. I see these folks at conferences, at retreats. I see them online.

What did I do about this lack of accountability?

I reached out to one of my writer friends, to someone I thought who knows my “work,” what I’m “trying to do.” Would he like to start swapping work? He said yes, and we’re in the very first stage of this process, more accurately, on the first piece we sent each other.

As I write this, I am rereading the poem he sent, pining over what comments I might make. And in this set of actions, I’m moving beyond that inward focus towards the self. I am instead considering how I might encourage the writer, what words I might offer that can be of help.

It is a tiny step, yes, towards focusing outward, toward others. Of course, I am curious about what comments he’ll make on my poem. Right now, however, I am not considering that. I am (re)learning this truth: we were made for community. 

The Rhythms of Reading and Writing

I’ve commented here before about how I tend to write in the genres I am currently teaching. Although I’ve written for a long time, I’m still discovering things about my writing process, as well as about my writing and reading rhythms. Over the last weeks, I’ve been thinking and analyzing. What trends and tendencies are there? How might I make better use of my time, to write smarter, to read smarter?

One conclusion, after doing some close study, is that when I’m tired, fatigued, or experiencing difficulty concentrating, it’s much easier to write prose. Trying to write poetry, whether drafting or revising, is near impossible and most often futile at these times. I believe part of this is because I’m thinking less precisely on each word, as I tend to do in poetry. (Of course at the later stages of a prose piece, I am scrutinizing each word, but not so much in earlier drafts.)

For instance, a few autumn’s ago, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. each weekday morning to write, more specifically to write short fiction. With the music of Hammock in my ears, with the large mug of hot black coffee, I was ready to enter those fictional worlds. I could pick up where I left off the day before as I gradually awoke to the real and the made-up worlds.

With reading prose–whether novels, short stories, or creative nonfiction–I am also able to enter into the worlds without much difficulty. There’s no warm-up necessary. I resume the novel, the memoir, or start the next short story with relative ease.  Again, this characteristic is a likely result of the way I read poetry, with such close attention.

I suppose it sounds as though I am a “sloppy” prose reader, and when I’m tired, perhaps that’s true. With prose, however, I do focus on the individual sentence, reading just as much for how the writer uses language.

These conclusions are already helping me as both a reader and writer. Poetry is best when I most alert, most awake, which generally means the mornings. I want and need to interact with the poem in as coherent a state as possible. Prose is for any time.

When I have the desire to write but the flesh is weak, I know I can stumble my way through the sentences, wandering through the rooms of paragraphs, not concerned about the hallways, knowing that I can (and will) return when I am alert to renovate the house of prose into a coherent design.