Today I attended the first session of the graduate assistant workshop at Portland State. The orientation didn’t particularly apply to me as my graduate assistantship won’t involve teaching (I’ll work in development), but I found some of the discussions about how students write to be insightful (the free breakfast and lunch didn’t hurt either). The instructor introduced us to many familiar concepts that different writers employ: the brainstorm, the cluster, and the tree. I immediately recognized that brainstorm (write down your topic and list any words/ideas you associate with it) from elementary school. The cluster is the same concept, except that you group similar ideas together. The tree (picture a family tree) is a way to further organize ideas by honing in on specific ideas as you “branch off” from your initial ideas.
I raised my hand and asked the instructor if she meant for these idea generating processes to apply only to academic writing or if it could be applied to creative writing. She said both. I didn’t agree. I can’t imagine Raymond Carver thinking, “I want to write about a husband and a wife,” then writing that in a notebook with lines coming off it connecting to words like “marital strife,” “alcoholism,” “working-class,” and so forth. Then again, maybe that is what he (or other great writers) did. Everyone has their own method for jump-starting the story, and I certainly can’t fault someone for using a technique if it works for them. But, I can’t help but wonder if applying a rigid structure (“these are the five themes I want to incorporate…”) to your creative writing stifles the discovery process that happens naturally as you write.
As my fellow graduate assistants and I discussed the writing process, our instructor assigned us to write about our own writing process. Here is mine:
- It hits me when I least expect it
- Anything from characters to setting to dialogue to themes start to form
- Sit on the idea until it forms into something concrete
- “Pressure cooker”: I can’t keep the story in any longer
- Get it all out
- Edit as I go
- Appreciate the journey as new ideas/plots/etc. reveal themselves to me (I recently started writing a fairy tale and by the end of it discovered it was a ghost story; I found this to be terribly fun)
- Leave the story alone for at least a week
- Move on to other ideas
- Gain perspective by distancing myself (from “this story is brilliant” to “this character doesn’t work”)
- Ask what is missing
- Read it out loud to hear any problems (especially with dialogue)
This method has worked well for me when I write short stories. Sometimes it takes me months, others a matter of weeks (or miraculously, days). Now that I’m in the planning process for a longer work of fiction, I have to reconsider this process. It’s one thing to jump head first into a five-page story (those have a way of working themselves out), but I can’t move blindly into a novel-length story. If I don’t have some kind of notes to act as life-preservers, I’ll drown in the sheer volume of writing (or my fear that I won’t be able to write that much). As I prepare for my attempt to write a book, I am forcing myself to write lengthy notes about characters and settings and to create a comprehensive outline for the plot of the story. I can lose myself quickly in 150+ pages, so the outline will help keep me on track by keeping me organized. The idea of writing an outline still feels unbearably academic and boring to me, but it is a necessary step that I must accept in the writing process.
I recommend taking the time to consider your own creative process. If forced to write/think about it, then you will evaluate its effectiveness as a result. What works or doesn’t work in your process? Could some steps be combined for efficiency (if you’re writing under a deadline, for example) or expanded to give your writing a more in-depth exploration? Any writers out there, please share your tips or experiences in the comments field. I would love to hear how others go about writing a story (or poem or song or essay, etc.) and what works for you.