The Writing Process

The creative process is a funny thing. Everyone has their own. I’ve always loved hearing or reading about other people’s, so I want to take a moment to record mine for posterity.

I have three different writing routines, broadly speaking. Which one I choose depends on the day of the week, how much free time I have, and how intensely I want to work. The actual writing process — the way my brain works and the little things I have to do to get it to work in the right, creative way — remains the same across the three routines, though the particular routine determines most of the outward markers we would usually call “the process.”

The first writing routine is Saturday or Sunday writing, on a weekend where I don’t plan to do serious heavy lifting. (Many weeks, I fantasize all weekend long about the writing I’m going to do that week; those weeks see me treating my writing like real work, so I can’t follow this more loosey-goosey routine.) These are days where I wake up early, but certainly not before seven a.m. If my wife wakes up before me (which she usually does), I’ll pour out a cup of coffee. If I’m up first, I’ll make a pot. We are not fussy about much in our household, certainly not about our coffee. I’ll then put on my best headphones so as to drown out the episode of Project Runway or Househunters International that she watches as part of her weekend morning routine, and I’ll start tippity-tapping away on my laptop. This is usually when I write a blog post here or fiddle around on a silly short script. These are the best mornings.

Before I get to my second weekend routine, I want to discuss my weeknight one. When I’m hot and heavy in a project, facing a coming deadline (usually self-imposed because, again, nobody pays me to write these days), or just really have the itch, I’ll spend an entire day thinking about writing. If I can, I’ll be able to sneak out of work 15 or even 30 minutes early so I can start writing sooner. I’ll think about what I’m going to work on for my entire commute. Once home, I’ll do my usual just-got-home routine — say hi to my cat, take off my shoes and socks, put on my slippers, pee, scratch the cat, then feed the cat — and then flip open my computer and get to it. After that, the order of operations is variable: maybe I’ll prep dinner before writing, maybe I’ll take a break from writing to cook, maybe I’ll continue writing after dinner or maybe we’ll watch an episode of Blackish or New Girl instead. My favorite weeknights are when we eat dinner together and then each set about our own creative projects together at the table. She sketches, I type, we both create.

Now, my second weekend routine. This is the afternoon-writing routine, the one that ends up feeling more like work regardless of whether or not it’s genuinely more productive than my other routines. On these days, when I know I have a specific goal I want to accomplish like, say, tightening up Act III or re-writing a sequence in the meaty part of Act II, my wife and I will have our mornings, then do our grocery shopping and get our weekend sandwiches. We’ll eat lunch, maybe do some laundry, and then sometime between two and four, I’ll start to write. A variation on this is the solo Sunday, when I’m alone: I’ll run in the morning, grocery shop in the afternoon, and start writing sometime between two and four. Then, I’ll write and write and write, usually hitting my stride in my second hour of writing.

Through all of these routines, though, the process itself stays largely the same. Some key points:

  • Music is vitally important. When I work on my feminist story based in turn-of-the-last-century Louisiana, I listen to Chopin or any of my jazz records. When I was working recently on a short film about musicians from Mississippi, I listened to the Drive-By Truckers and Uncle Tupelo. When I wrote my post-colonial short set on the coast of Morocco, I listened to MC Solaar and anti-colonial French rappers. Music is a vital part of the mindset.
  • Coffee is better than alcohol. Once upon a time, I loved the image of the whiskey-swilling writer, the Faulkners and Hemingways and Fitzgeralds. I’ve come to learn that those dead white guys, while successful writers and excellent storytellers, are bad models for actual productivity. Inspired by them, I used to drink wine or rum while writing, though this certainly limited my productivity. When well-caffeinated instead, my productivity grows until hour three, when I usually need to take a break. Lately, though, if I’m writing in the evening, herbal tea does the trick just as well as coffee.
  • The longer the better. When writing in the evenings, after a day of actual, paid work, there’s no question that I’ll be able to write for at least an hour. Depending on dinner, and whether or not my wife and I want to have one of our regular, excellent dinner table chats, I can write up to three hours on a weeknight. On the weekends, it’s not uncommon for me to write for four or five hours at a time, and these are always the most productive sessions. My first hour writing usually sees me settling into the project, tinkering, tweaking, editing. In the second and third hours, I start to really develop ideas, solve story-related problems, and do multiple pages at a clip. By hour four, I’ve decided upon a goal — for example revising through page 30 or finishing through a particular scene. In the last few minutes of writing, I may not be doing the best work (so the next session usually begins with revising whatever I wrote last), but it’s still getting done.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like I don’t have any particularly remarkable talents, skills, or knowledges. There’s nothing I’m an expert at, nothing that would make me indispensable to an employer. The only thing that I’m good at, really, is writing. My ideas are rarely exceptionable, sometimes they’re even terrible, but I sure can put a sentence together without much effort. I don’t have to exert myself too much to put 1000 words together on pretty much any topic.

Does this help me? Not really: Many, many people have this same talent, combined with better ideas, better connections, and more enthusiasm for selling those ideas. That’s why I do it just for fun, even if in my process I treat it much like work.

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