Research on Process

A friend of mine is conducting research on artist’s processes. I don’t reflect on my own writing process too often, so I enjoyed the opportunity to do so. Maybe others out there will feel inspired to answer this researcher’s questions as well.
What is your process?
For fiction, I always hear/feel a story first. A sentence comes to me with a particular cadence and a particular sense of insatiableness. That leaves a physical impression on me (like a dent, or a ripple if you will, in the mind’s consciousness) and I can’t get away from it until that insatiableness is realized on the page. Once I start writing, I keep that initial voice and cadence very close in my “mind’s ear.” At this stage I can usually start to see things, too. I can see a character or a room or a piece of clothing. I can see a landscape or the way that light falls. Details from what I see in my “mind’s eye” merge with the cadence of that voice in my “mind’s ear” and come out in the form of a story on the page. Occasionally, I can actually “see” the first line of a story scroll across my “mind’s eye” (typed or handwritten cursive) at the same moment that I get the physical impression from “hearing” the particular cadence of a voice. When this happens I get to the desk as quickly as I can or I repeat lines over and over to myself as I’m composing them in my head. Then as soon as I can get a computer or piece of paper, I have at it. If this happens while I’m in the middle of a conversation with someone, for instance, about 80% of my brain gets tied up with this beginning part of the process and only 20% actually remains present, in the room with that person, listening to what he/she is saying. Writers face a constant battle with the “fly on the wall” perspective and the various pros and cons of engaging in the world in that way.
How do you generate ideas?
Exploring a new ecosystem or learning specific details about a place that I already live is, hands down, the fastest way for me to generate new material–fiction or nonfiction. Coming across or even looking for obscure facts also inspires me. If something sticks with me, I usually find a way to work it into a story or build a story around it. For example, I recently started a story from the 1st person perspective of a 17-year-old girl whose brother is in Afghanistan for the US Army. At some point during my composition, I realized that this character was not going to be satisfied until she had done everything she could to try and join the Army herself and get as close as possible to the world that her brother now inhabited. This is WAY out of my comfort zone, as I’m a pacifist and know very little about the military. But this character’s desires couldn’t be ignored. So I went to a local US Army recruiting office, met with some Sergeants there, and asked lots of questions. I left an hour later with tons of new ideas for how to explore my character in the story. Too many facts can be crippling to a writer. But not enough can be crippling as well. I like to find that happy medium where I have enough facts to write with authority but enough left unknown so that my imagination is sparked and has to keep working to weave the tapestry of the story into a perceptible whole.
How do you work through a block?
Well, I don’t really believe in blocks. But I suppose I can say that it helps to have your hands in various different kinds of work in whatever your field is. If the fiction juices aren’t flowing for me, I can work on an art essay. If I’m too tired or unfocused to create new material, I can research and read. If I have no knew ideas at all whatsoever, I can look at old work and decide if there’s anything I’d like to revise.
How do you begin a new piece or new body of work?
Hmm. I think I tackled this with the first question. But I can add here that my composition process is very accordian style. I write a few new sentences, then go back and read. I write more, tinker a little, then go back and read again. Scenes unfold from other scenes and over time the story sort of opens up like a paper fan. It is a constant and joyful re-working and re-envisioning. It’s all already there, I just have to imagine deeply enough to get to it.
Describe an average day in your studio.
I try to break the day up into thirds. One third is for exercise or outdoor activities. One third is for freelance writing and editing work and/or reading books. One third is for my fiction or personal essays. This varies, of course, when I’m in the heat of creating a new piece (which I never interrupt for anything–workout, phone call, or otherwise) or if I’m up against a deadline for a magazine, etc.

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