Writing Out of Order

I spent yesterday afternoon with beloved poet, mentor, and friend Mendy Knott. She blogs at Hillpoet and if you’re looking for powerful, practical advice on creativity, her site is a great resource. Mendy guided me most especially during the year I transitioned between being a full time teacher to applying to graduate school in writing. She left North Carolina for some years after that, but ’round about the time I came off the road and back into the valley, she returned. Now, we’re just a few miles apart!

What I love most about deep conversations with artists of any medium, are the parallels we can find in our creative processes and challenges. Our conversation wound around through topics such as ritual, putting work in the drawer, exhaustion, and having fun. When I told Mendy that I knew my re-approach to the novel this coming September would be difficult–that I’d probably begin with hours and hours at the desk and not a single word to show for it–we started talking about how hard it can be to return to a project after you’ve pushed it too far or too hard. For my part, I know I’ve put too much pressure on myself to make the novel not only something I feel good about, but that can boost my career and earn me an advance from a larger publishing house. That pressure has proven to work against my creative drive and isn’t in the true spirit of writing anyway. I’ve always done my best work when I’m “just exploring.” When there’s nothing at stake. When I’m unattached to the outcome.

I told Mendy that when I think about the novel in general, I’m not excited about getting back into it. Of course, I’m excited to have my writing mornings back again, no matter how hard they feel at first. But the novel itself–meh. However, there are scenes, I told her, that I really believe in. There are moments I’m excited to go back to and rip apart or expand or lift entirely out of the timeline and put them someplace else. As I spoke the words, I could almost feel that little pulse of the buzz-drunk writer in me; you know–that feeling you have when you get an idea and even if you’re in the middle of showering or talking to someone in the grocery store, you can’t concentrate on anything else until you get that idea down on paper.

“Write those first,” Mendy said. And of course, as soon as she said it I knew she was absolutely right. Wasn’t she the same writer, mentor, and friend who told me to “go where your heart feels lightest” a few years back when I had to make a big decision? Yes, yes she was. And here was that same advice coming at me on a more specific, practical level that may well be the re-entry point to my novel.

To do this–to write the scenes that excite me the most and that contain the most wonder for me–I’ll have to write out of order. I have never been able to write out of order. Not in fiction, not in nonfiction, and not in poetry. I get on a track and I stick to it. Even if I rapidly change desires or obstacles or even point of view, I’m never apt to stop what I’m doing and skip tracks entirely to explore a scene or a moment that isn’t grounded in what came before. Many writers write out of order, though, and swear by it. Some can’t do anything in order for that matter, and the bulk of their revision time is spend ordering, re-shaping, re-ordering, and tying up loose or un-clarified ends.

So I’ve got an entry point. I’m going to start with the scenes that excite me the most; the scenes that I wonder about more than any others. The scenes that have unanswered questions for me or that feel like very rich territory. They’ll be drafted out of order and I may not even use what I write. I’m going to write around the novel, in a way, and just see what I stumble upon. If it works out, it works out; but even if I trash every word that I write, those words will still work in a background chorus to inform the eventual words that do stick and make it through a final draft. The final draft? The final draft. Phew. Now that’s a thought…

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