At the TMCC Writers’ Conference in April, 2012, Jennifer Lauck brought up the point that writing helps us understand ourselves better. This has always been an outcome of my writing, even if it wasn’t always the goal. So I decided to post an essay that I wrote during Bill McCauley’s Tutoring Student Writers course at UNR. The idea was that we can’t teach others to write until we know ourselves and how we write. So here they are, my discoveries of my own personal writing process:
My apartment is cold the night before my big paper is due. I like it that way. When my apartment is too warm it feels like summer, when I should be out enjoying the weather rather than doing schoolwork. Schoolwork during the summer feels unnatural to me now. Of course, part of this desire for cold might be in its familiarity. For my first few years out of my parents’ house, heat was a luxury my roommates and I could not afford. Writing in the cold feels right. So I intentionally leave the air conditioning on, or the heat off. And I sit at my desk, fingers frozen on the keyboard.
Before I can get started, I counteract the cold. I put on my fuzzy bathrobe and slippers, both so soft that I feel like I’m wrapping myself up in a cloud. I make myself coffee, warming my hands against one of my favorite mugs – the blue one with a white flower which folds over the rim, or the one with a painting which could be a scene from one of my favorite books. The coffee has to be sweet, with plenty of caramel-flavored creamer. Finally, I can sit down and get to work.
The softness of my robe and slippers, the sweetness and warmth of my coffee, even the familiarity of a favorite mug could not bring me the same comfort if my apartment were not cold to begin with. But once I have everything I need to warm myself, I feel cozy enough to write.
Gathering the necessary materials also has the added bonus of procrastination. It is nearly impossible for me to do my assignments earlier than when they are due. Sometimes I will tell myself I need to get the paper done the week beforehand, so I can have the weekend to have fun. But false deadlines don’t fool me. It’s like setting my alarm clock half an hour earlier than I need to wake up. Rather than waking up early and being able to take my time getting ready, I hit snooze, enjoying the fact that I still have another thirty minutes before I really need to wake up. And so it’s not until the night before my paper is due that I sit down to write it, and even then I have my routine to put off writing even further.
If this is a paper I have been looking forward to writing, I will already have plenty ideas for it. Usually, if I was able to choose the topic, I will start getting excited about the paper as soon as it is assigned. I begin researching early, and I may even jot down my ideas as they come to me. So when I sit down to do the bulk of the work, the ideas fall out through the keyboard and onto the screen, where I can organize them later. When I write short stories, or work on my novel, I tend to play entire scenes in my head before I ever sit down at a computer to get them out. It usually feels more like I am describing something I’ve seen, rather than creating it.
The beginning is usually the toughest part. I know what I want to say and the images I want to show, but I don’t know how to introduce them. This is why I procrastinate. All the ideas, images, and scenes are jumbling around in my head and I am impatient to get to them, but the act of getting to them feels overwhelming. Instead I continue doing the easy part – thinking it all up. And when I have no time left to come up with ideas, I freeze at my desk, staring at a blank Word document, get my robe, my slippers, make coffee, sit down again, stare at the screen some more.
Finally I decide that if I don’t start typing, I will be up all night with nothing to show for it. I start with the idea that seems to occur first in my thought process. Sometimes I’ll reorganize, deciding after I’ve written a few paragraphs that the first idea actually needed some introduction itself. But after the first two or three paragraphs are written, the thesis solidifies in my mind and I can go back and write the opening paragraph. When I wrote my novel, I was a hundred pages in before I knew how I wanted to start.
I’ve never managed to learn that sometimes I need to have everything written before I really know what I want to say. And it’s not until I know what I want to say that I can introduce it in an opening paragraph.