I’ll be discussing the obstacles that face the professional and creative writer, but I will presage my discussion with an overview of my own working method. I would not presume upon my readers to guess the stages by which their writing is first conceived and fashioned into the finished product that they present for public enjoyment, but I have noticed over the years that my own process revolves around these central steps:
- My original conception of the project, which usually involves a central theme or scene that has captured my imagination or intellectual interest. I will often spend as little as a week or as long as six months in turning over this concept in my mind.
- My outlining of the project. I’ll confess freely that I am an outline ADDICT, in relation to both my creative and academic writing. What I love about writing outlines is that you can cram a ton of words on a page and frame your ideas in as inelegant a manner as you like while still feeling that you’ve accomplished a great deal. And you have — this brainstorming process is essential to your project because it leaves you free to explore and fine tune some of the weirder and more daring aspects of your idea without having to worry about whether your sentences are actually coherent to anyone besides yourself.
- The actual goddamn writing of the project. Here, Dear Reader, is the stage that can either be absolute bliss or a soul-sucking swan dive into the Slough of Despondency. It all hinges on how unrealistic your expectations are of how your first draft should appear. In my youth, I was a laborious writer precisely because I believed that every sentence that I fashioned had to at least approach perfection before I could move on to the next sentence. You can imagine how this sort of attitude, combined with the fact that I was still working out my thoughts in my first drafts (as every writer does) would lead to a mind-boggling slow writing rate. Eventually, I came to realize the folly of this attitude and worked out my own methods for overcoming this trap (which I shall outline in greater detail later).
- The editing process which is boring but also, for me at any rate, less nerve-wracking than the third step. For one thing, the pages are already down. Nothing can ever take that way from me. (UNLESS MY HARD DRIVE FAILS. OR MY FLASH DRIVE. OR BOTH. AND IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT’S HOLY, WHY AM I TEMPTING FATE LIKE THIS?)
- The final draft, i.e. the terminus of your editing process which means that either your deadline arrived or you reached the point where you realized that if you ever read your own opening sentences again, you would be in grave danger of smashing your fist through your laptop screen.
Sooner or later, if you are a writer, this will be you.
Now that we’ve established the essential steps of my writing process — and, with a few minor alterations, probably the writing process of most other writers — I’ll get to the obstacles that face Our Author at each of these steps. The first two steps — the conception and the outlining/imagining steps — are perhaps the two least fraught with trial and hazard. For one thing, they require very little in terms of disciplined action. For another thing, they are usually an unadulterated pleasure. The idea seized upon Our Author because it was interesting, because it was engaging. At these steps, the project requires little more from Our Author than ardent devotion and contemplation.
It’s at the drafting process that problems begin to arise. As Our Author begins to put solid words down and formulate concrete sentences out of formerly vaporous, delightful dreams, the fear arises: what if the idea actually loses its merit once it is conceived? What if what was once thought wonderful and engaging is shown to be a fraud, a deceit?
The first thing that a writer has to do when confronted with these doubts is to recognize them for what they are: the common malady of authorial paranoia. Once one is of a frame of mind to belittle these fears, the mind can more easily engage with the project at hand rather than waste its energy in battling and resolving these little self-defeating neuroses. Another helpful tactic is to establish a kind of writing mantra mindset — a state of mild self-hypnosis, if you will, that allows the author to immerse himself or herself completely within the act of writing, to the exclusion of all distractions. This self-hypnosis and immersive state of mind can be engaged in a myriad of ways, depending on one’s own personal preferences. For me, the best way to enter this state is to listen to a familiar song on repeated loop until I enter a state of almost monastic, concentrated reverie. At the peak of this state, not even my phone going off can wrench me from the task at hand. The best way to enter this state, whatever your method, is to consciously determine that for a certain space of time, your writing is your only thought and task and, working from that general decision, choose some background stimulus that reinforces this decision.
The greatest danger during the editing process is, I fear, not anxiety but tedium. I would advise editing in shorter and more concentrated bursts than one employed during the drafting process. I ward tedium away by listening to mild, ambient tracks without vocals (Steve Roach and Michael Stearns are both terrific for this, as are Basinski’s Disintegration Loops), but anything else that helps alleviate the sheer monotony of rewriting and proofreading is helpful.
The final obstacle for every author is, of course, knowing when to let go of your project. Here, the advice of peer readers is immensely helpful. Trust them and take their advice. If they say your story is good, then believe them. Remember: the time that you spend in endless revision is also time taken away from newer, fresher projects that are begging for your attention as well. Don’t let them languish for the sake of a tenuous and perhaps even impossible vision.
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Obstacle Course.”