Monday, September 15, 2014

The Door: Notes On My Writing Process

Step 1: Acknowledge the Person and Site Who Involved You in the Challenge
When I first stumbled upon Allie's blog, I had the uncanny experience of peering into a mirror. Such was the strength of our commonalities, which include a shared love for yoga, dogs, good food, all manner of outdoor adventuring, the American Southwest, and a desire to craft a simple, intentional life. The more I read, however, the more I realized that, despite our similarities, Allie's voice is her own. In the world of blogging, Allie stands out to me for her unwillingness to be anybody but herself and to peel back the layers of that self, writing with honesty about topics that others might shy away from, like how she's healing her relationship to her body.

Allie, thank you for the kind words, for tagging me in this challenge, and, most of all, for your refreshing vulnerability. You are a true original. I can't wait to see where your journey leads.

Step 2: Answer 4 Questions About Your Writing Process
I think this question may be referring to specific projects, but I prefer to answer it in broader terms.

So, here are some things I'm working on:

Writing with integrity (capturing the nuance)
Describing the thing that illustrates the idea, instead of stating the idea
Not comparing my writing to others
Trusting that the only way to touch upon the universal is to illuminate the deeply personal

I don't really think of my writing as belong to a certain genre, although I suppose most of what I write could fit roughly into the autobiographical essay category, which is so diverse I would find it nearly impossible to compare and contrast my own work with others' of the genre. Mostly, I try to capture and share snippets of my own life that changed me somehow. There are so many writers doing so gracefully (more gracefully than I, certainly) whom I admire. So, I suppose my relationship to other writers of the same genre could best be described as aspiring.

“The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.”
--Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves
The thing about writing is that it's actually fairly tedious work. I don't know about you, but I am rarely, if ever, astounded by my own brilliance. Never have I jotted down a sentence and said, "Aha! Now that's the opening line in the autobiography of my life." In fact, whenever I read back through my writing, I am, instead, stunned by its utter repetitiveness. Quite frankly, a lot of it is pretty boring.

The act of writing itself is fairly boring too, if you're doing it right. There is no instant gratification, no possibility of comments or likes, no links or hashtags or notifications. It's just you and the page and the compulsion from somewhere deep within: to give shape to the shapeless, to give momentary form to the tumble of the cartwheeling mind. It's pretty merciless stuff, really.

But here's the other thing about writing. When you maintain a regular practice of recording your innermost inklings, you begin to notice themes within the chaos, certain patterns that emerge like clusters of glittering lights from the fog.

You might notice, for example, that you've written "I feel called to be more kind to myself" on five separate occasions in the past month. And you decide, ok, I'm going to be more kind to myself. Or you notice that you keep writing about your yearning for adventure. So you think, huh, that's interesting; maybe I should plan some travel for this year. So you do those things, and you begin to realize that some part of you is revealed to yourself through your writing. You begin to trust that voice. As inarticulate and wholly unremarkable it may seem, it appears to know you.

Writing is the knock and it's the open door. It's the question that contains the answer. The process by which we pick up our thoughts like smooth stones from the river, and get to make a conscious decision about which ones to polish and which ones to throw back. I'm a kinder, gentler, saner human being when I'm 1) creating; and 2) able to distinguish between my inner monologue and my actual self. Writing, as a practice, means I'm doing both. So I practice and practice and practice some more.

Physically, it works like this. I sit down on my couch with my materials of choice: a classic Moleskine notebook and a fine point Sharpie pen with black ink. Mostly I write in silence, though instrumental music sometimes helps me concentrate. I write in the mornings, because that is when my thoughts are most chaotic and I feel compelled to organize them somehow. Typically, a cup of coffee grows cold at my side, usually my second of the morning. (I like the idea of drinking coffee while I write, but I tend to forget it's there.)

Sometimes the writing in my journal provides material for a blog post, but oftentimes not (see "boring" in #3 above). Other times, I have a blog post already composed in my mind, and skip straight to my computer. About half of these posts remain unpublished, though I occasionally re-visit those discarded drafts for further editing and refinement.

A few other notes on "process."

I find that my best, most authentic writing tends to be about whatever I feel strongly about at the time. So I tend to think about the past weeks,  months, or even years, and the moments that provoked an emotion, whether happiness, sadness, anger, or something else. I then attempt to distill, in words, what it was that touched me.

It's been said that the definition of art is anything that changes its audience. In my writing, I try to find and follow the thread of what's changed me. I'm working on trusting that my audience will perhaps recognize a piece of themselves in that journey, and that they too will be changed.

An ongoing part of my writing process is reading other writers' work, both fiction and non-fiction, on the topic of writing or not. It would be impossible to list all of these influences here, but a few works in particular include: Dani Shapiro's Still Writing, Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird, Seth Godin's LinchpinWriters on Writing, assorted works by Pam Houston, Annie Dillard, Cheryl Strayed, Barbara Kingsolver (her essays, in particular), and countless others.

Finally, I find the well of inspiration flows freely when I am spending plenty of time in solitude and in nature. Ditto when I am regularly moving my body in some way, whether it be running, hiking, or yoga. When I fail to move physically, things feel foggy mentally and my writing follows suit.

Step 3: Pass It On
Caiti, I've loved seeing your blog evolve over the years, and always admire how you manage to capture things I'm thinking in a way that somehow makes more sense than it does it my head (like your recent post about priorities). I'd love to hear more about your writing process, if you're up for it. Just follow the steps above!


  1. I've always admired your writing, so I loved reading about your process! The connection between your aims for your writing and the posts you share here on your blog is really visible. I love that Clarissa Pinkola Estes quote; I have that book but I have not read it yet.

    And thank you for inviting me to share my process! I'll definitely do this after I get back from my upcoming vacation.

    1. Thanks Caiti! I look forward to reading about your writing process!