Process Stories

There are many reasons why I'm not being read by millions. First, I've got a lot to learn before I reach that kind of an audience. I need to learn how to write better (I always need to learn that), how to serve an audience, and how to get the word out. I read a great short piece by Damon Krukowski and was struck by what a fine writer he is, how he does things that I almost understand but can't yet make happen in my writing. I've been reading Dani Shapiro and there's an art and grace to her work that is clearly the result of having put in the work. I need to put in a lot more work before I reach millions.

There are other reasons why I'm not yet a household name (outside my household and that of my mom), but the one I'm thinking of today is how interested I am in process stories. I'm loath to look back and count, but my guess is that I've published at least fifty stories about how I work, tools I use, and even times of day when I'm most productive. It's not that I'm so full of myself (though I am too full of myself more often than not) as much as I love these kinds of stories from other creators and want to tell my own. Austin Kleon often talks about his processes and shares what he has learned of other people's work. Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Natalie Goldberg have written books about process and I've read each of them multiple times. In the words of the great philosophers Depeche Mode, I just can't get enough.

Were I to meet any of these writers I so admire, I would ask them to tell me about their days. When did you get up? Did you make coffee? Do you stay in the house or go out? Do you need to write first thing or does it wait? I'd want to see their writing spaces, ask what word processor they each use, and know what they do about their phones and other distractions. I'd want to know every detail.

There's an entire network on cable (probably more than one) devoted to watching people cook. There should be one on which we watch people write. I want to just see them at work. Ohhhhh, so they keep their back to the window. Interesting.

It's a wonder I'm not a television exec.

Today I'm happy to have heard Chris McDougall, author of Born To Run, Natural Born Heroes, and the forthcoming Running With Sherman describe his process on The Consummate Athlete podcast. McDougall can't write first thing in the morning. Instead, he screws around all day — feeding the chickens, goats, sheep, and donkeys, riding his bike, walking and running with friends, answering email, and calling in for podcasts. Then, at night, having gotten all hyperactivity out of his system, he sits and cranks out work until one in the morning.

This is great!

What excites me is that I could never work that way. I'm a morning person. After dinner my brain turns to sludge even without bourbon. There's just nothing there. (It has been argued that there isn't much there to begin with, but I'll leave that for another time.) In the morning I'm ready to go, can't wait to start. I'm just that way.

As I push on this writing thing, I get nervous that successful writers work so differently than I do. I find myself thinking, maybe I should... There's something to be said for learning from other people's methods — I don't have everything worked out — but the point is to craft my own methods. I'm not going to spend the morning feeding animals (it's not that involved a process to feed two cats and a dog) because I need to start the day with the pen in my hand, the keyboard beneath my fingers, ideas appearing on page and screen as if by magic.

I'm working on the reasons why a million people aren't reading this post. One thing to work on is refining my process. Every time I read or hear of another writer's methods, it inspires but also relieves me of the worry that I'm doing this thing all wrong and should give it up. That's good because because I don't have any kind of future in developing television networks. None whatsoever.

Positive Reinforcement

My writing group meets about once a month. D is busy with teaching and family. L is busy schedule with children, jobs, and other gigs. I have my family and the writing I'm doing. The three of us make time for our writing group for one simple reason: it is good.

We meet at D's empty church at eight on Saturday mornings. Public spaces with any people in them aren't good because I'm too easily distracted. We gab for the first few minutes catching up on our adventures, then one of us reads.

We each come with a piece to share. L is working on historical fiction. D is deep into a literary memoir. I bring an essay or story. Today D told us his concerns about his piece and read it. We talked back about what we liked. He read a second piece I told him would be perfect for The Sun Magazine. L and I loved both pieces.

Then L shared a piece about visiting the New York Public Library. I told her all I could think was how much I wanted to be in the space she described. She had made it real for me. Her pieces are all journeys, kinds of travelogues, and they take us places.

I read a rough draft in which I'm combining five things into one essay. They talked back to me about what they heard and told me things they loved.

There are a lot of ways writing groups can work. Some write together. Others exchange and read drafts before the meeting. We meet and read aloud then talk about what's good, what we liked, what worked. We almost never say what's wrong or how we would change it. We might suggest some idea to pull the piece further along, but we don't tell anyone how to write their piece.

This may like everyone gets a participation trophy, but it's more interesting than that.

We come together as a writing group because we want to learn the craft. None of us learn well by hearing what we do wrong. We aren't trying to avoid mistakes. We are learning by creating and sharing. And though we stick to the positives, there is real pressure.

D's work is exquisitely crafted and lyrical, poetic really. L's is passionate and meticulously researched. Mine has a clipped style that might be better read aloud than on the page. There's pressure to impress one another that comes from so respecting the work each of us brings to the table. I'm not alone in wanting to give them their money's worth.

I don't need them to tell me what's wrong. They tell me what's right and then I know what's wrong. We are positive and supportive, but it isn't a free ride in which anything goes. L and D are too smart, thoughtful, and talented for me to read any old tripe. It's not that they would ever say my stuff sucked, but I can't stand to even imagine bringing less than my best.

I brought a draft about which I was unsure. It worked in my head but it has to work for others. L and D told me what they liked, what they loved, and what they remembered. I heard gaps that confirmed my suspicions about some holes in the piece. I'll work on them tomorrow as I move into another draft.

Note that last bit: "I'll work on them tomorrow as I move into another draft." L and D encouraged me. That's enough for me to know it is good enough to continue. They gave me positive reactions and now I'm ready to write and already a better writer.

Find your group. You don't have to meet often. Once a month will do as long as you have the right people. Make sure they are kind and want to build you up. But don't come asking for L or D. They're mind, damn it. Get your own people and get writing.