Process Revisited, or How the hell did we get here?

I’ve been thinking a lot about process lately, one, because I am working on novel revisions, and two, because as a composition teacher process is a habit I teach students is significant because of its impact on the depth of their discussion, and on the organization and effectiveness of their arguments. But as a creative writer, who has come to develop an understanding of my own writing and revision process, I am left wondering, how much “formal” process goes into your own writing?

Let’s start with the classroom. From conversations with colleagues, teacher’s editions of textbooks, and my own experiences on both sides of the desk, process is taught in much the same way, and usually in this order: brainstorming, mapping, outlining, drafting, revising, drafting, editing, pau; add evaluation and gathering of sources to the recipe for the common element of all comp classrooms, the research paper. First of all, the process works. It’s about teaching students how to prepare and engage with a topic, taking a moment to stop playing Candy Crush and consider what the hell their going to write about. Part of every final draft a student turns in to me requires evidence of these steps, otherwise, well, it’s not usually a point deduction students should be worried about, but rather the lack of development their essays suffer from for not taking the appropriate steps.

Those who take the time to plan and prepare always turn out a better piece of writing, and in my short time teaching, I have yet to see an anomaly in the correlation. But creative writing is different, right?

I can’t speak to how I wrote in ENG 100, I would probably prefer not to see those drafts, but I know that I do things a bit differently when it comes to writing a story versus writing an essay. There are points of similarity, I always begin with an idea that I cannot shake, and I always have a direction I at least think I want to go in, but perhaps the major difference, is that rather than plotting that direction carefully with charts and bullet points, I let the words carry me forward. Often, I begin with a sentence and try to get as much of the story out as I can before retiring to the bathroom, the bedroom, or the shower, to obsessively mull over the words that have been and have yet to be written.

Don’t get me wrong, I will sometimes draft an essay this way, but the result is often more a blog than a research effort. I also take meticulous notes when I’m writing a story; my wife setting up whiteboards at my desk, even converting an old picture frame into a canvas for me to tag with dry-erase markers, and it is a common sight to see my forearms covered in scrawling ink. I use paper too, usually unlined computer sheets, a habit I acquired at one of my old jobs when I needed to write while maintaining the appearance that it was store goals I was working on and not story scraps and slivers of dialogue.

I also “reverse engineer” or trace the trajectory of my story drafts. I’m not sure if this is commonplace, but I was never formally taught what I consider a very important writing technique. First of all, when I’m stuck or trying to make sense of the story’s movement, I always read what I’ve written over again, usually twice, and usually out loud. This is important for me, especially when I’m working with dialogue but also with exposition, because, once again, I’m a firm believer in the idea that it’s the story that carries you forward as it does the reader, and thus I feel you can hear when the story has come undone or off track.

Usually upon the second reading, I begin to outline the draft as I’ve written it, taking note of significant events, sections of text, characterizations I am attempting to shape, particular threads I wish to carry over, and so on. What I am left with is a good idea of the path I’ve taken, and an even better idea of where the story has gone astray. For me, this is also important because it allows me to digest and process what I’ve already written, hopefully resulting in a deeper contemplation of what I am putting on the page. This usually leads to me revising in layers, working on the foundations of the story before doing away with the scaffolding and bringing what needs to be made more explicit to the surface, while letting the details speak for themselves in their implicit tones.

The writing process and writing itself is inseparable, yet the point still remains, for me, process follows the procession of the idea, and in my short time writing, I have always found my creativity impeded when going about writing a story the other way around. Of course, this may change with time, and I remain open to the idea that perhaps I may find myself charting my draft before putting my fingers to the keys, but for now, I will let story carry me forward and craft it accordingly.

But what about you, what’s your process, formal or otherwise? Do you chart the details first or let them run wild and make sense of them after they’ve made their mark? Share your mana`o in the comments section below.

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