I try not to envy people who can write quickly, creative juices flowing as they spend hours “in the zone.” But it’s tough; after conducting an interview I can spend two days just kicking little rocks and trying to decide where to start the story. After much deep thought, however, I think I’ve figured out why! (C’mon, you knew I would.)
It’s the KIND of work I’ve been doing. I write assigned magazine features, working from my own interview notes and the voice recordings which I often make as backup. The whole time I’m trying to refrain from putting every interesting detail in the first sentence, and to string the loose parts of the story into some sort of logical, coherent order, my target word count is glaring at me, defying me to go 25 words over. Mind you, this is not a word limit but a tiny bulls-eye that I must strive to hit. 1,099 words is NOT okay; it must be 1100. I can go a bit over, but 1115 is pushing it.
Now, these limits are fine and dandy, all part of the job of writing and revising. My downfall comes in with just four little words. You probably didn’t even notice them lounging nonchalantly in the second paragraph, first sentence.
The words? “Interview notes” and “voice recordings.”
No kidding, I spend more time trying to find stuff in my notes than doing anything else, except perhaps for making and drinking coffee. And kicking rocks. And that’s just when I can read my own writing and remember my little abbreviations, which is not always.
B DL, for instance, probably translates “born in Dallas” … or I may have meant “big deal.”
It’s even worse when I know my subject said something funny about the subtopic at hand, but I didn’t write it down so I play back the voice recording. Now I have to listen to 20 minutes of myself laughing, the ceiling fan chain clinking, and somebody outside running a leaf blower while I follow the conversation and try to catch the remark.
So, that’s magazine feature writing. Academic writing was little better. When I was in school doing literary analysis papers, I often typed my notes directly into a document on my laptop. So then later, as I pulled my evidence together, I could find a half-remembered phrase by searching for a key word or two. Unless, of course, I had originally typed a quote from, say, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and then later when I needed the phrase I might absent-mindedly search for “Gilligan’s Island” (Usually my search terms were closer to reality, but just one letter off and you still get “no results.”)
The same problem of trying to narrow my focus cropped up in academic writing just as much as it does in feature writing. I remember walking the mile from my afternoon class to my car one day, deep in thought over what topic I would choose for my next World Lit paper. As usual, I wanted a unique approach, an unexpected angle. Suddenly several random bits of the story of Oedipus connected in my mind, so as to form an avenue of inquiry. I stopped in my tracks, sat down on the curb — right in front of the campus police station, I believe — fished a notebook out of my backpack and scribbled down the gist of the ideas before I could forget them. I’ve learned the hard way: once a focus hits me, I can’t afford to trust it to memory.
So yes, I waste lots of time trying to find information in my own interviews or research. But that’s when I am working with serious, factual stuff. What about fiction, or my
goofier more lighthearted blog posts? Well, in either case it’s a different story.
With fiction, so far I have worked from either a prompt (a scenario, such as I got in class for the twin scenes about Yvette and Martin) or from an idea or concept that I tried to illustrate in story form. For the goofy blog posts, I am armed with my own double propensity for (a) laughing at myself and (b) unintentionally providing myself with plenty of material.
I have found that when I am free to play with a story, I get just as much into “the zone” as those other writers I envy. For example, in my class, once I thought of a plausible cause for the confusion described in the prompt, “Yvette” and “Martin” were born. They rapidly matured into a single-minded preschool director and… well… an engineer. I snickered my way through the evening, each read-through suggesting ways to make Yvette more determined and Martin more clueless.
Maybe I’m not too outrageously slow, after all.
Thanks for reading!
Soli Deo Gloria sisters: I wanted you to know the smiles are not gone. Thanks for standing around me!
Jan — I really love it when you talk about your writing since you are a professional writer. It helps me to see things about writing through your eyes.
With me, I feel like I am a good writer only in certain venues. I am not a fiction-writer girl at all. I don’t know if this makes me limited or if God just likes keeping me on a short leash to focus my energies on writing what He wants me to write about. Fiction is just not my calling, but I love to read it!
Thanks, Jen. I think each writer has a distinct calling and they are all important, like the parts of the Body, the church.
Great description of a long and hard process. I can’t believe the times I go back to my journal to find something . . . and I can’t read my own writing. YIKES.
I could read my journal perfectly well … if only I didn’t keep going back to insert more and more additional thoughts between words in an already-full line. YIKES, indeed!
Very interesting and insightful post about the creative process. I recognize the need to get “it” on paper when the inspiration strikes. It’s fascinating, the feeling of an idea as it births and then the process of externalizing it through writing. Love it! Keep up the good, hard work!
The links below feature a video by Elizabeth Gilbert and articles about the writing process. I found some of them interesting.
Thank you for taking time to comment, Debbie. I will check out these resources when I get a chance.
The type of writing definitely makes a difference in my ability to write quickly and well… the more “pre-work” a piece requires the longer it takes me to get “in the zone.” Blogging, though, usually comes naturally as it is just my response to what God is teaching me right now.
Hey, Ashley, I was sure you could especially relate to the difference between academic writing and personal expression! Thanks for stopping by.
I can write for hours on a piece of fiction, or inspirational writing, but give me a sponsorship letter, resume, or business correspondence, and I freeze! It’s as if I’ve never written a word!
I used to be such a slow writer! I wanted the perfect word before I committed to typing it, and I felt that hindered me. It bogged me down. Now, when I write, I just cruise along. . .for me, I think I’m letting some of my perfectionist ways go.
What a fun read. I agree with Jen. I like the insight you gave in this post, thanks.
I can relate to comparing myself to how others write. I think it stems back to when a guy I knew in college would write a fairly pre-edited piece. He disdained my need to rewrite & rewrite. But I need to get down the idea, the inspiration before it slips away. Later I can go back and find the perfect word. But I still feel a certain pressure at times to write faster or not need to go back and correct so much. But I have to remember that my way is my way. When I read about other writers needing to rewrite and rewrite, that helps!
and I did smile. I think it is so cool you write for magazines! That would be writer’s block for me! I sooo related to your words … ceiling fan clanking, you laughing and the leaf blower. That drives me crazy when I am studying or writing and all the extra noise:) Glad all the smiles are not gone….cont. to pray
I agree with you so much. I interview for feature articles for our local newspaper. If I can find just the right first sentence, then I can usually roll but if not it takes me forever. Having a tight newspaper deadline helps but not always. One other trick I have learned is to tried to create the first line right away as I drive home too.
I’m here from SDG! So glad to read this glimpse into your writing life. I think it must be different for everyone, with the process being just as unique as the finished product. I laughed out loud at born in Dallas vs. big deal!
I have always thought the hardest part of writing is editing to word count. Who wants to cut their own perfectly crafted words? Ha! I love hearing how other writers work. It’s rare for me to write fiction but I can see how it requires a different approach.
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