As a working writer, I’ve become obsessed with process.
A couple years ago, I saw Dana Haynes speak as a guest author for Willamette Writers. That night he mostly spoke about his Crasher series, in which an ensemble cast investigates plane crashes—not my favorite topic (I’m terrified of flying). When it came time for Q&A, a girl raised her hand, and, on behalf of her friend (also in attendance), asked what Dana thought about ‘process.’ She explained that while she could write every weekend, her friend (the shy one sinking down in her seat) could only manage a few hours every month.
I was interested in hearing Dana’s thoughts on this. I think the girl’s question really spoke to a deeper struggle that every writer must confront at some point: when can you—when are you allowed to—call yourself a writer?
When you publish your first book? When you land an agent? The first time you write a sentence?
Dana’s answer was great. He spoke to the embarrassed girl directly, explaining that the art of writing was not unlike baseball. Some people churn out three pages a day. But there’s nothing wrong with holding out for the grand slam. If you can only write for 3 hours a month, then that’s your process, and you shouldn’t consider it any better or worse than [your] friend, who writes every weekend. Recalling it now, the metaphor seems a little muddled, but the point is generally understood.
Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about my own process. When I wrote my first novel, The Midnight Club and New London, I had none. It was the wild west in those pages. I wrote whenever the mood struck me, and I had no procedure or discipline. I attribute my struggle to finish this book to my lack of process.
With my second novel, A Wall for Teeth and Stingers, I finally managed to put a process in place. I wrote three hours a morning every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I was working full-time at a web company, and I remember how frustrated I felt because I wasn’t working quickly enough. I’d been humoring the idea of committing myself to a routine, and finally, one weekend, when I was supposed to leave for a camping trip, I called my friend and told him I had to bail. I needed to be home the next morning to get my three hours in. And I’ve been doing that ever since.
Now I’m working on my third novel, tentatively titled Little Fires. I got a new job and lost my ability to write on Friday mornings, which meant I was down to two days a week. Again, I felt that frustration mounting. I wasn’t working fast enough. I didn’t have enough time. I’d been experimenting with writing before work. But I had to wake up at 5am if I was going to take care of the dog, get ready for my day, and have time to write. I failed time and time again. I was losing sleep. I couldn’t focus at work. And my writing was junk. But I kept at it.
It wasn’t until two months later that something finally clicked into place. I started waking up five minutes before my alarm went off. I’d laid out my clothes the night before. The baristas had my coffee order memorized. I was getting a solid 60 minutes in before I had to catch my bus. And the most shocking part of all: my writing was growing more and more coherent. At times it was even good!
My process has evolved over the past ten years. I’m finally at a place where I can write every day, but it’s been a long, long road. A lot of coffee, and a lot of terribly written sentences. I made the video above as a kind of experiment. Writing is an exercise in isolation. It’s not as flashy or exciting as some other forms of art. And it can be years before you have anything to show for it. But writers, regardless of their process, are some of the hardest working people out there. Anyone who can spend hours reworking a single sentence is OK in my book.