Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stuff My (Writing) Students Say, Part I

Will it always take me this long?

For someone who didn’t think she would ever teach writing, I am continually amazed how much I actually love doing so. Sometimes I am stopped in my tracks by something a writer in a class asks or observes. I thought I’d share some of these gems with my blog readers, along with my take on the issue.

One writer, commenting on the draft-revision-rewrite project she just completed, asked:
“Will it always take me this long?”

Yes. And, no.

Yes, because even though the more you write and consciously work on your craft, the better a writer you will become, the flip side is that the more demanding you will become of yourself as a writer. So completing a well-crafted piece will take you longer, but maybe not in actual time at the keyboard (although I doubt it). You will be aware of the need and value of pre-writing, and spend more time doing it. Before you actually put the first word on paper or screen, you will know that you probably need to spend time, both consciously and purposely, and unconsciously and randomly, with the idea “marinating”.

Once you begin writing, you will then also understand a lot more about the power and importance of successive drafts, revision and rewriting; so you will spend more time than before on those parts of the writing process. You will build in time for letting a piece rest between drafts or rewrites. You will come to expect more of yourself and be less easily satisfied with the words you put together. You will think about things which perhaps before you didn't consider, perhaps characterization, dialogue, structure, tone, rhythm. Which means you will agonize and sometimes second guess yourself (and perhaps “waste” some time that way).

You will know that reading is critical and you will build time in, to read the books or shorter pieces you believe are essential to your current piece of work. You will know that excellent pieces of writing don’t simply happen, are never first drafts (and might be 4th, 14th or 40th drafts), and even when you are tempted to rush something through, you will not allow yourself to do so any longer (except in extreme cases of unreasonable deadlines and/or cash flow crises; and then you will be upset with yourself afterward).

All of that takes time. Sometimes a long time.

But then again, no, it won’t always take you so long.

The more you write and consciously work on your craft, the better a writer you will become, and so you will develop a far more nuanced understanding of your own particular creative process. You’ll know, for example, if you tend to be more successful (and less stressed) when you allot more time for say, pre-writing, or at the first draft edit stage, or in deciding on structure. When necessary, you’ll know at which points in the process you can move faster (and maybe that the speed energizes your work).

You will know a lot more about what you are doing, based on feedback from instructors and/or editors, an agent, publisher or readers. You will have taken the time to educate yourself, read more widely, perhaps taken the submission plunge (and emerged unscathed, or maybe only a little bit scarred) and so now you probably know what category of writers you wish to emulate and what you need to do to get there, and you no longer waste (as much) time wandering off in unsatisfying literary directions.

As you move along as a writer, you also do learn a few shortcuts, or perhaps I should say, you figure out what works for you consistently, on the page, and see how those skills, techniques and craft methods can play out to your advantage across various pieces, genres, or forms. You will develop an understanding of what kinds of material you are personally capable of “churning out” when need by, and what you simply must slow down about, no matter what.

Finally, writing will have become so habitualized that you will be able to increase your “inventory” at a steadier pace. If you are very lucky, instead of one day agonizing over how long something took to write, you will instead lament that it was such a great experience writing it, you wish it hadn’t ended so soon.

Except of course on days when you type “the end” or hit send and think, “Thank goodness! I never, ever want to work on that piece ever again.” Until you reread it later, or an editor sends it back with “suggestions,” and you find yourself – yes – spending even more time on it.


Anonymous said...

I totally could have asked that question! And what an honest answer; thanks for not sugar-coating it, and for explaining it so thoroughly, too.


Jenni said...

I think this every single day. Thank you for addressing this question and for being, as usual, honest and encouraging at the same time.