I have been a writer since before I could actually write.
When I was a toddler, both of my parents worked outside the home. The woman who was my babysitter was a retired school teacher, who loved to read, so I was reading before I ever went to kindergarten. I was also memorizing and reciting poetry, sometimes, poems I’d created myself.
At the time, they lived inside my head, since I was still learning how to write and spell. My father was a storyteller, even though he only went as far as the third grade in school, but was later taught how to write and to read a little — by my mother, who finished eighth grade. He would often rock me to sleep at night, while he sang to me.
What he sang were stories, stories about angels and animals and farmers. It was all so vivid to me. I could see the horses and cows talking as they worked, and the roosters strutting about the yard, bragging and showing off for the hens.
I was hooked, even though I had no idea — at the time — that writing, with its joys and pains, is a hard habit to break. Even during the times when it seems intent on breaking you.
In the decades since then, I have written millions and millions of words — even more if you count the unfortunate ones that ended up in the waste basket, without ever being exposed to the world outside my typewriter or computer. Those deemed not good enough to be invited to the coming-out parties.
I have written for newspapers, magazines, books, websites, the stage, reports, training manuals, TV, technical journals — and more. And over the years, have experimented with writing styles and several methods of getting to the end product, which is a well-written “piece,” be it fiction, nonfiction, “literary,” hard-boiled, persuasive, explanatory, thought-provoking, or simply informative.
I have studied other writers and tried to use methods and approaches they said worked for them. I have written in the early mornings, long before daybreak; late into the night, after the phones stop ringing and the house quiets down; and in the middle of the day, between meetings, before or after appointments, standing, sitting, kneeling or staring at the ceiling.
I have written long hand on legal pads, on old manual typewriters and up-to-date laptops and desk tops. I have talked into tape recorders, then transcribed the results. Each writer has to use the methods/modes that work best for him or her.
I used to do elaborate outlines early on, because I read that some highly successful writer — don’t remember who at this point — insisted that a “real” writer, or “serious writer” had to outline, needed a map to keep from running off the road or over a cliff.
I also used to sit and wait for inspiration, often listening to what I thought was muse-inducing music. But years of working for newspapers cured me of that. I was forced to write with, or without, inspiration. Rather, my inspiration became the next deadline.
Now, I rarely outline. I prefer to let a story gather weight in my head. Particularly with fiction, ideas come and hang around; I hear dialog, characters talking. It’s like I’m overhearing situations, story lines, confrontations, power struggles, characters living in the worlds developing between my ears.
I have learned to listen more intently, to follow their lead, rather than mostly imposing my will on them. It is like the point guard on the basketball team learning to let the game come to him or her, rather than forcing things, creating awkward situations on the floor.
One of the habits I’ve developed that seems to serve me well is often difficult not to break. It is taking the first draft of whatever I’m writing — a novel, short story, work report or poem, — put it away for a period of time, usually two weeks or more. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and a more critical attitude.
That surely is when the real work begins. Once you’ve gotten the story or idea out of you, you have the blue print. Now, you can set about shaping, molding, honing, making it better. Writing is really thinking, and re-writing is re-thinking.
What comes out in that first draft is the raw material that, with focused, thoughtful re-thinking and revision, can become the masterpiece that might surprise even you.
I am at that point right now, trying to stick to that tried-and-true habit. I had given my self a deadline of Thanksgiving to have a complete first draft of a new novel I’ve been creating. I did that and put it away earlier this week.
It’s only been a few days, but it’s driving me crazy. I want to get right back to it and read through it, tamper with it, test it. I want to know whether the months of effort I have spent on it have been “much ado about nothing,” or “sometimes a great notion.”
I keep telling myself I’ve got to stick to the plan, since it has served me well many times in the past. But this time, perhaps because I feel myself getting older and am not sure how much time I have left (and there are so many projects on the runway, on the taxiways, and some still inside the hangar) I want to rush the process.
Right now, the book is titled: “I Owe You: a novel of love and revenge.” Although it contains some suspense, it is different from the detective stories and thrillers I have been working on in recent years. I really want to know if it is up to snuff.
I am trying to take my mind off of it, and let it simmer for perhaps a month. It needs proper time to rise, before going into the oven. I had hoped writing this blog post would help me direct my thoughts in other directions. But that doesn’t seem to work for long. When I turn to other projects on my growing list, my thoughts soon return to the first draft of that novel.
I think I should get away from the key board and try to watch some football. Maybe that will work. I just wish the Atlanta Falcons were playing better these days. Interceptions and fumbles by the home team don’t do much to lower my anxiety.