It occurs to me that I haven’t written about writing in awhile.
Partly, this is because the whole writing-about-writing thing can be a bit too meta unless you’re sitting in a graduate writing workshop surrounded by people who do nothing but write, too.
But mostly, it’s because for awhile now I have been too busy with the writing I do for a living to do much else (except mothering, which comes first, of course). Case in point: it is almost 10 pm on a Friday night and I’m taking a quick break from The Book but expect another hour or two of work before it’s a night. It’s glamorous, the writing life, no?
(And with Le Plague circa May 2011 forging a vengeful comeback, it’s even more glamorous. But I digress…)
It’s been awhile since I’ve been wrapped up this intensely in one project, since I’ve had this much focus. It’s much harder fought than the last time around, or when I was in graduate school, when I wasn’t a full-time lecturer or mother to an infant, so each moment I do carve out for writing is that much more precious.
It’s been good for me to step beyond the role of writing instructor and really dig into the writing process myself in such an all-encompassing way. I’ve re-learned some important things:
1. Know when to walk away: Last summer, when I tried to get as much done as I could before my health imploded and my baby arrived, I was stuck in the “I must write X amount of words per day” rut. This might be good for discipline, but it’s terrible for creativity and for development of ideas. Sometimes, I am really “on” and I can write several thousand words in one chunk of time. Other days, it’s hard going to get more than a few paragraphs. When that happens, when I am forcing each sentence and not saying what I want to say, the best thing to do is step away—sometimes for an early lunch, sometimes for a short walk, sometimes for a few hours. See, ideas need to marinate a little bit, and I need time to figure out what I want to say about what I’ve just written. Usually, it’s when I am walking with the baby or driving the car or making dinner that I solve the problem or make the connection I couldn’t do earlier.
2. Remember the audience: For real, I teach a whole class on writing for different audiences (in the health sciences) and talk about audience so much during the semester I tire of hearing the word. But with a project as big as the one I am working on now, I need to drill that into my brain as much as my students need to hear it. Nowhere is audience more important than in terms of scope—I am doing a ton of research and I always need to stop and ask myself how much context and background I can reasonably expect my audience to have; in class, we call this audience analysis. This dictates how much detail and backstory I fill in, and it is a constant negotiation, probably one of the most difficult parts of writing for me. I have so much information, now how can I organize it? Figuring out what my readers need to know is a huge step.
3. Tell a good story: From novels and short stories to memoirs and serious nonfiction projects, each genre of writing needs to meet this very basic but oh-so-important criterion. The writer needs to engage the readers, to entertain them and make them want to keep reading. This does not change if the subject matter is serious and the research is intense—every writer still needs to make it a good story. I know when I am getting glassy-eyed with what I am writing that it is time to switch gears (or walk away). You can be informative and still be interesting. It is not always an easy thing to balance, but if you’re genuinely interested in the subject matter, that will come through. I always tell my students to think carefully before committing to a research topic—if after a few weeks, they are bored with it and bored with writing it, I will be able to tell that from reading it.
This is an incomplete list, for sure, but it’s a start. Writers and bloggers out there, what can you add?