Process of Elimination

My wonderful, and wonderfully talented friend Alejna invited me to join in this “writing process blog tour” meme that’s getting passed around just now. She posted her entry last Monday on her blog, Collecting Tokens, and this week it’s my turn.

The meme offers up four questions and then gets passed on to a few additional bloggers who will post the following Monday. The four questions:

1) What are you working on?
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
3) Why do you write what you do?
4) How does your writing process work?

I’ve invited three friends to take up the meme for next week. First there is Lisa, who is both a writer and a painter and may surprise us with process writing about both.  I love Lisa’s artwork, her kind spirit, her openness, and her generosity as a writer (and as a person!). Then there is Sonia, a writer I’ve known almost half my life, who will add her spice to the mix.  I love how Sonia has incorporated her journalism skills into her fiction, her attention to details, and the feminist lens she brings to the page.  And finally, there is Glendaliz, who is currently at a writing retreat in Wyoming and may add some wild west flavor to complement her innate flair.  Glendaliz writes fiction the way I dream of writing fiction: beautiful, fluid, powerful stories that grab me and hold tight, and her blog writing has a similar pull.  I’m not sure if she’ll be joining the meme, but I really hope she’ll be able to.

Warning: this post is unconscionably long.
(Not apologizing, just notifying.)

And so. Let’s get started.

__________

What are you working on?

The simple answer to this question is “too many things and not enough all at once.”  But that’s too easy.

For starters, I have been writing poems all month … because it’s April and because I like writing challenges. Each year, starting in 2009, I’ve chosen one form and written that each day for the whole month: tanka, rhyme royal, nove otto, zeno, arun. The arun appeared last year, and seems to be a new form that I’ve created. I had surgey mid-month last April, which kept me from finishing my month of aruns, so I took the form on again for this year. (You can see today’s very sparkly arun below, but I think the best ones this month were written when I had the surprise of making some family tree discoveries.  This is the first. This is another. And this is one of the hardest.)

The poetry has been hard for me. I have a bad history with being “good enough,” with being “allowed” to write poetry. This April is the first time I’ve given myself a break and just written what I wanted to write. And, not at all surprising, this April has been the easiest poetry month for me. Even 2009, when the tanka seemed to fall out of me, wasn’t as pain-free as this year. It’s a good lesson for me, seeing just how hard I make it for myself.

I’ve also been writing for my comic … or trying to.  I have a soon-coming deadline to submit work for VONA, so that’s spurring me on right now. It’s also true that I think Adventures could go somewhere if I could get it finished, so working on it now feels urgent and important.

It also feels very loaded. There are people who are supportive of me and of my writing, friends and co-workers who will be surprised to recognize themselves in the stories. Creating the comic without having actively challenged their comments or behaviors feels underhanded and passive-aggressive. At the same time, biting my tongue in the moment has often felt safer, and sometimes I need to worry more about my own well being over other people’s feelings.

I’m also writing stories. I had an idea for a fiction-only blog, and I want to finally get that up and running.  I lamented last week that I haven’t been able to find/steal enough mental time to focus on a longer-form story, that all the fiction I’m writing lately is flash.  I’m still feeling the frustration of that, but even without working on a long story, I am certainly still working on stories, and I need to acknowledge and honor that and not be so hard on myself.  Do I believe I’ll never write a long story again?  No.  So I should calm down a bit and just do what I have the ability to do right now.

The one area of writing that I neglect most and most often is this blog.  I can go months without a word.  Happily, every March there is the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, started in 2008 by the lovely ladies over at Two Writing Teachers.  That challenge started just as I entered the world of blogging, and really helped me work on my online voice.  In the years since, it has brought me back to my blog, no matter how many months this space has lain fallow.  This year, I was away for 3 months when the March challenge rolled around.  Way too long, but the lure of the daily slices got me back here.  And then, of course, March is followed by National Poetry Month, and my personal poem-a-day challenge, so I’m always guaranteed at least two solid months of blogging.  I want to be a little truer to my online self, however, and post more consistently, at least once a week during the rest of the year.  We’ll see how I do with that.

Most of the creative non-fiction I’ve written lately has been for this blog, but I’ve also written a couple of longer pieces that have been published in anthologies about women’s literacy.  I like essays, and taught essay writing for years.  I was driven almost crazy by the formula 5-paragraph essay that students would enter my class with, having been taught that the formula was the way to go for everything.  It’s really pretty awful to so stunt a student’s writing by teaching them that kind of crap.

So, as I said: too many things and not enough all at once.

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

So, I write in a few genres — non fiction, fiction, poetry, and now comics — and I honestly have no idea how my work is different from others writing in the same genres.  Oh dear.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about this one in the almost-a-week that I’ve been jotting down notes for this post … and still nothing.

Why do you write what you do?

I write for a few reasons.  First, I’ve always liked writing, liked playing with language.  I really like English.  It’s a beautiful language if its given half a chance.  And yes, a lot of our words are borrowed from other places, but they’re here now, and they work.  You can say things such as, “Here I sit, ready to deliquesce at the sound of your voice” (something I wrote in a love note to an ex years ago).    What’s not to love about that?

I also write because it’s the best way I know to figure out what I think and feel about things.  Sonia used to have a signature on her emails: “Writing is thinking, not thinking written down.”  That has always made so much sense to me.  The thought process in my head is often unmanageable — too many swirling, crazy clouds of everything careering around in there, running into and over one another.  Writing gives me the power to harness the crazy and see what’s really going on.  Sometimes I get it horribly wrong — sending off letters before I’ve had a chance to think them through completely (revise), sitting on an idea so long trying to get it right that someone else has already gotten there by the time I think I’m ready to speak.  Still, writing is the channel through with my brain can make sense.

How does your writing process work?

And this is the hard one.  It requires me to either create and claim a process or be totally honest and say that I don’t really have one.  In truth, the processes are different depending on what I’m writing.

Poetry: Usually written quickly, on the fly, rarely taking even a full day.  This month, they’ve almost all been written between 10pm and midnight so I could get them posted before the end of the day.  A few were given a little more time.  A few, at the beginning of the month, were written while I was at a conference and should have been paying attention to presenters at a workshop.  With poems that had rhyme schemes, I tried to give myself more time because rhyming takes more time, but still no more than a few hours.  (Please do not think I’m bragging!  I fully acknowledge that any of my poems could have benefited from more time and attention.)

Comics: My process for the comics is still a little backward, but there is definitely a process. The mini-comic class I took last year was with Dane Lachiusa. It was a great class for me, but I wasn’t a great student. Dane would tell us things about process that of course made sense because he a) knew what he was talking about and b) was actually a comics artist and c) had lots of experience.  I would listen to him and immediately dismiss whatever he said because a) I am a lousy student, b) I can be exceedingly arrogant, and c) I figured I already knew how to tell a story, that I didn’t really need to rethink my storytelling “just” to convert my stories to comics.  Right. In each case, I would run off in my own direction, only to realize (of course!) that Dane had been absolutely right and that I needed to start over his way if I was going to make any kind of progress.

So, process is still messy for me with comics.  I have ideas for each story first (I’ve generated a dauntingly-long list of stories for Adventures, one I have a hard time imagining how I’ll tackle, one that makes it that much more clear to me why I need to get to VONA this summer and get some more learning under my belt!).  The next step is supposed to be mapping out the images for the story, and I’ve started to be that person who will actually go to the mapping out first and not start writing text.  I’m not a full convert, but I’m on the way.  I’ll do a very messy, barely-even-stick-figured sketch to give myself an idea of what I want to draw and how I’ll draw it.  next I make a much more careful sketch of the panels in which I start writing the story (or start revising the story I have stubbornly already gone ahead and written before I started the sketches).  And finally, I draw each panel carefully and use a ruler to keep my text lines neat.  The final drawings are done over-sized, at 150% of their normal size — the big size makes it easier to include details and to keep text neat and clear.  If I could do things like make shade and add color, the larger size would make that easier, too.  Maybe one day.  And all of that is a description of the process of making a comic, but it’s also part of the creation of the story for me because I’m still organizing and tweaking and finding a better way to show or tell something in each step.  Once I have all the panels drawn, I scan them individually, and then assemble them in a word document and start printing my little booklets.  There are probably shorter ways to get the job done, but this is the way Dane taught me, and I like it.

Fiction: There is little in the way of process connected to my story-writing.  In 2012 I took a wonderful online class with the amazing Minal Hajratwala. Minal is a great, great teacher — generous in her instruction and critique and full of wonderful exercises that get you thinking and writing.  In my case, her exercises also led me to a few serious revelations about my seeming disdain for process when it comes to my fiction.  I have begun, in small ways, to incorporate some of her lessons into my work, but I am still a long way off from having a real process.  As most of the fiction I’ve been writing lately has been super-short, I’ve gotten a bit lazy about using Minal’s lessons, writing my stories as quickly as I write my April poems.  So, process?  Not so much, but it’s something I’m working on.

Non-Fiction: I think my process for non-fiction is cleaner than my fiction process … or, at least it exists.  If I’m not writing memoir, I am usually inspired by something that has either pissed me off or terrified me or roused some other emotion to such a level that I am compelled to write. What that means is I’m known to write more than my share of angry, angry screeds.  I’m actually okay with that.  At first, I thought I should censor myself a little — especially after I lost a handful of readers early on when I posted my first angry piece about race.  Losing readers surprised me, but I pretty quickly realized a) I can’t let that govern what or how I write, and b) I’m probably never going to have a big audience, so I may as well please myself.  So I write my angry screeds when I need to, and I stand by them.  When I was teaching, I wrote a lot about my teaching and about my students.  I also write a lot of memoir — mostly travel stories, but a few others as well.  With non-fiction, I’m much more able to throw all my ideas on the page quickly.  When I need to do research, I can do it fairly easily and get back to the work … and then I’m done and can settle into the revision — my favorite part.

And at last: REVISION!!  I wish I could decorate that with hearts and flowers.  It is truly my favorite part.  I love all the parts of writing, but this has always been the place where I’m happiest, where I get to stroke and stretch and test out words and sounds and see what makes the most sense in my piece.  The two main components of my revision process are 1) making recordings of the piece, 2) cutting as much as possible.  I like to record the story or essay and listen to it the next day (or a few hours later if I’m in a hurry).  Like most people, I don’t love the sound of my recorded voice, but I’ve learned to get around that.  I think of my work as written to be heard, so I have to listen to it to hear the places that don’t work, that don’t make sense.  When I don’t record, I still read out loud to listen for the missteps.  And — finally getting to the point of this post’s title — I like cutting.  You can’t tell it from the crazy-long length of this post, but you can tell it from some of the stories I’ve posted.  I like to cut and cut and cut until I get them down to something like the bare bones.  I don’t always leave them so bare, but I like to get them to that place. Think Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. That’s what I aspire to.

Talk about miles to go before I sleep!

_________

Wow.  Did that ever go on way longer than I’d imagined it would.  And yet there’s still more!  Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a “settled” poem.  This is another prompt that isn’t really speaking to me.  And maybe that’s because I rarely feel settled … or sometimes feel so settled I’m stuck.

I
like to
wear glitter —
gold dust sprinkled
over cheeks and eyes.
Gold
settling
in my hair,
wafting in my
wake. Gold and still more
gold.
My friends
laugh, dismiss.
But I know best,
give myself over.

natpoetrymonth1

Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer.  “Support” can be as simple and cost-free as sending the Indiegogo link out to your friends and telling them why they might want to help me get to VONA.  Any and all help is appreciated.  To date, I’ve received almost half my goal amount! I am encouraged and humbled by everyone’s generosity.  Thank you all!

__________

An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

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8 thoughts on “Process of Elimination

  1. This was really interesting to read! I think it’s cool to see how your creative process varies by what it is that you are working on.

    I am inspired by the way that revision (decorated with hearts and flowers) is your favorite part. I think I tend to neglect revision, in my impatience to put something out. And yet I know that revision, and especially cutting things down, always leads to a better final product. It’s been an important lesson with academic writing, where there are typically space constraints and/or word limits. I often find the reducing to be a struggle, but then the end result is always so much stronger. (Gah. I use too many words.)

    And your story about being a bad student in the comic class really made me laugh! I think that is how a lot of us learn. It reminds me of the various times when I have ignored someone’s good advice, out of stubbornness or what have you, only to really appreciate how good the advice had been after I make my mistake. At the same time, we learn the lesson more thoroughly once we have suffered from mistakes. This is something that I have to work on in parenting. I find myself wanting to help my kids avoid making mistakes, but I know that they need to work through things on their own to really learn. It’s probably related to those two different ways that the brain has to store memories (that I was rambling about in a comment to you on your post about discovering parts of your family history). We really hold onto things in our long-term memory when there has been a personal and emotional tie. I’m sure I’m dreadfully oversimplifying. (Also writing way too much. This is why I fail at Twitter.)

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  2. I love your meme concept. How do I join? And yes, your post is long and worthwhile reading and thinking about your work and then thinking about my own. So good that I know you here.
    Bonnie

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  3. I love this! You and Alejna have set the bar high for this meme — I don’t mean that in a nasty competitive way, but that you’ve both been so thoughtful and honest in your answers. A lot of what you said felt familiar, too, like being arrogant enough to think I don’t need what teachers know. ;b

    At the risk of making an incoherent and unhelpful fool of myself, I want to say I think your writing stands out because you bring a graceful, imaginative open-mindedness to topics that are difficult for many of us to even think about, but you do it without standing down or losing sight of what’s important. When I come to your blog I feel I’m going to learn something, enjoy myself, hear echoes of my own thoughts, and find kindness and support and inspiration. That’s no small thing… even if I’m unable to find an elegant way to say this that could translate itself nicely into an elevator-pitch-type situation. 😉 (Who am I kidding, anyway? All you have to do is look over my writing to know I could never sell an elevator pitch.)

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    1. And speaking of revision…
      That particular graceful sense of self informs not just your writing about difficult topics, but everything I’ve seen of your writing, or indeed, your person. Lest you think I meant that your writing is only valuable because you write about tough topics.

      And I don’t just hear echoes of my own thoughts on your blog, but my mind also gets taken to places it hasn’t been before, and that is always awesome.

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  4. Pingback: A whole lot of post about process | satsumabug.com

  5. Pingback: Musings of An African Woman

  6. Pingback: Desire + Need + Unpacking Power = #MyWritingProcess | Minal Hajratwala

  7. Thanks for your comments, ladies! I’m sorry to have neglected my blog so long that I’m only responded to spring’s comments now. It was interesting to be part of this meme, to actually write so deliberately about my writing process. It was interesting to see just how little process I have with certain genres. But it’s also true that that’s changing. I think VONA has given me a much more fine-tuned idea of process for comics-making, and that was so welcome! And right after I came home, I took an online writing class through One Story, and that introduced me to a structure for writing short stories that (of course) I rebelled against but which I am not (also of course?) seeing as potentially hugely helpful. I guess process, for me, is nothing if not evolving! 🙂

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