AK 2010, Days 16 & 17: Processing Process
It’s been two weeks at the cabin and it’s finally starting to feel like community. The neighbor Amrit’s dog comes to play regularly. The lady moose comes to sip and slosh in our pond nightly. The male has yet to show himself again. Up the path, across the tracks, across the road, over the bike path, and up the driveway are Adam and Cameron. They’re the ones who let us park in their driveway, plug in our laptops, and use free wi-fi. Today, Adam gave me a Moulin rouge sunflower, hand-clipped from the experimental gardens at University of Alaska Fairbanks. I got to tell him about personification, and how sunflowers have been muses for many-a-writer because of their human-like heads that turn toward the light.
Out on a run the other day, I ran into the carpenter who most recently did work on this cabin. The next day I ran into Sue along the bike path. She’s the woman who loaned us the extra mattress so that KB could have the sleeping loft and I could have the downstairs futon. These folks all know about our project and have asked about our work, offered copious veggies from their gardens, and done their best to help us with resources since the very moment we arrived.
With any luck, they’ll also come to our public reading sponsored by the literacy council this Monday night.
But I set out to write about process and here I have written about nesting. As it turns out, the two are quite related. It’s important for me to create a space in which to carry out the disciplined habits of a professional writer. I’m on the road for two years. The only thing that’s steady is what fits in my car and in my head, then what I make of those two resources. Settling in with the small items of home and the small routines of writing are what enable me to access my best creative writing process most swiftly.
I’ve already talked about how the “steeping” quality of my process really came together for me here—I immersed in informal but steady war research for about four months. I didn’t write very much about war at that time, but I took copious notes and decorated my walls with posters for my thoughts on the subject. Having the time to let that research steep in my psyche before trying to immediately produce fiction from it allowed the facts to settle and the mysteries—the things I still wondered about—to emerge. In the end, I felt I had enough facts to write realistic fiction and enough questions to evoke a sense of wonder. And it’s wonder, of course, that leads to discovery. One path between wonder and discovery is story, and that’s the muscle I’ve been exercising continuously for two weeks.
But another insight has emerged from this time as well, and that has to do with generating new work. I finally felt grounded enough in my process to push myself a little further and see where I got. Rather than complete one piece at a time (as I’ve always done), I forced myself to write as many new short-shorts as I could. That worked out to be 15 new war short shorts plus the completion of an already-started full-length war story, for a total of 5o new pages of fiction in 14 days. And these are keep-able pages. Strong pages. Pages I feel inspired to revise and that I feel confident will fit into the collection.
The greatest challenges during this generative time had to do with not going back and obsessing over drafts I had just finished. Also, I had to fend off imagined arguments in my mind every single day about the validity of the project. Not to mention the other pestering editor voices in my mind that constantly ask me where I can submit my work, who will publish it, and what am I going to do with it now that it’s on the page. All of these thoughts in my mind fought for my attention, and daily I was able to fend them off. When I’m at my desk and those questions pop up, I mentally move them from my brain and mouth (where they “feel” like they originate) and place them behind me—out of sight, just over the back of my shoulders. I tell them they can wait for later. I tell them it’s not their turn right now. I tell them that I’m busy writing a story and they’ll just have to wait until another time.
So far, that works.
The other thing that works is being in a shared space with another writer. It has its challenges, for sure, and KB and I don’t even know each other that well. (We met last year in McCarthy, AK at a writing residency. We hung out for one week. Now we’re engaged in this great adventure…it’s a lot!) From the very first day here, KB and I established some cooking and dishes routines that worked well, along with a pretty much functional silence throughout the daytime to allow each other uninterrupted work time. Most meaningful, we shared new writing with each other every single night and gave each other immediate feedback and critique. KB is a former journalist making her first attempts at creative nonfiction and I was able to give her lots of guidance with regard to craft. I’ve never been to the Middle East or even spoken to Iraqis or Afghanis, but KB has spent extended amounts of time in every single country bordering Iraq and interviewed hundreds of refugees. She’s been an incredible resource. Through our daily discpline, even in silence, we held each other accountable to make the most of our time. We’re both proud of how much we accomplished.
I meet with a publisher in mid-October. He wants me to bring what I have of this collection. I’m thrilled and I’m scared. I don’t consider these stories to be political, despite their subject matter. But I’m nervous about being pigeonholed. That’s the big monster clawing over my shoulders right now. I’m also nervous about putting this in someone else’s hands—I’ve been in such another world these past few weeks…what will these stories look like in the light of day? What will they feel like in someone else’s hands, on someone else’s lips? Will I still feel as proud of the work then as I do now? Will I worry later that I’ve handed off the work too soon?
I have one more month in Alaska and as each day passes, I feel these questions growing. How to live with those questions (or better yet, ignore them) will probably be the next learning phase in my process.