Last week a writer in a nonfiction class asked a really good question about how to move the writing from her head onto the page. In the course of that discussion, I asked others if they noticed themselves "pre-writing" -- did ideas, personal essay themes, or memoir passages tend to bounce around in their brains for a while, percolating, marinating?
As for me, the more I write, the more I discover that the amount of time a piece of writing spends "marinating" – which I define as hanging out in my head before a word goes on the page – is almost totally out of my control. The rough material seems to have a mind of its own and will migrate to the page when ready. I'm talking here about substantial long essays or memoir pieces, or even book reviews and shorter pieces with some depth to them.
I've learned to trust my gut more when it comes to this stage. Certainly that doesn't mean I don't get frustrated, though lately I also notice that when I move too quickly from idea to first draft, I get just as frustrated, but for different reasons. And yet I'm not the type of writer who believes I must know precisely what I plan to write or where I stand on every facet before writing; very often I've discovered interesting nuances in my own thinking as I write.
I don't always have the luxury to let an idea marinate till the desired state of doneness, nor can I always trust that my thinking/composing/pre-writing process is working in my best interest. Whenever a deadline is involved, or when I think that the marinating process is morphing into procrastination, or when one of my *accountability* writing friends reminds me that it's been a bit too long since I've made any tangible progress on an idea, then I sit my big butt down and get words on the page.
I may not necessarily write the first draft, but I'll make notes, write bits of dialogue, record key phrases, images or details, make lists of important things to include, and even, very occasionally, make a rough outline (shh – I wouldn't want that last bit to get around). Or I'll do what I call a "mind dump" (or the pre-first-draft) – randomly pouring out everything I think I may ever want to say on the issue, but without any regard to how it reads (an activity more like typing or transcribing than writing).
Lately I kind of like the phase when a piece is bouncing around my head but not yet on the page. Used to be, it drove me a little bit insane, because it was usually accompanied by a finger-waving Greek chorus chanting: You're so lazy!...or…It's not going to write itself!...and my personal favorite line of self-recrimination: Anyone can write in their head!
These days, however, I holler back to that chorus: Shut up already!* And, by the way: A. Lazy people don't think about what they are going to write; they sit around thinking they could write. B. Actually yes, if I do think about it carefully and for just the right amount of time, the first draft will more or less write itself. and C. No, in reality everyone CAN'T write in their heads.
Now, the right length of time to marinate? Oh what say you, gods of prose?
*(And, yes, that just about uses up my quota of exclamation marks for the balance of 2009.)