Brain – Mental Ass Kickings = More Productive Writer

For my last post, I babbled about where I write. When pondering what topic to tackle next, one of my fellow Sirens suggested I could continue the sequence and address the question of how I write. That’s an easy one: I just start typing.

Well, ok, maybe not that easy. I get an idea first, and then I start typing.

But seriously, there’s more nuance to it than that. I could get into how I approach theme and plot and character and structure and blah blah blah. Those things are important, and I recommend giving them some thought, but I only just finished a masters degree program like a week ago, so the last thing I feel like doing right now is engaging in an intellectual analysis of, well, anything. My brain is tired. And that got me thinking, which totally doesn’t help with the brain tiredness, but did lead to a realization:

I got my masters degree to help me write.

No, it wasn’t a writing program. My shiny new degree is a masters in library and information science (MLIS). So how the hell does that help me as a writer? Well, it goes like this:

Once upon a time, I worked in development (aka fundraising) for non-profits, primarily as a grant writer. While I liked many of the people and the organizations I worked for, the work itself made me miserable. Fundraising and my personality type were not a good fit. And writing grant proposals all day often left me too mentally exhausted for fiction writing, and that just made me more miserable.

Also once upon a time, I briefly escaped from fundraising for two years to work on a cataloging project for a music library—a temporarily funded project, alas, or else I would have loved to have stayed there. I enjoyed the job, and it didn’t sap all of my writing energy. I cranked out my first-ever novel draft on my lunch breaks. But trying to find another library job after that usually resulted in one of three problems: 1) the job required an MLIS, which I didn’t have; 2) if the job didn’t require an MLIS, I was deemed overqualified (“Don’t you think you’ll be bored?” was an actual question at one interview); or 3) they looked at my resume and went, “Ooo, you have grant writing experience! We could use a grant writer!”

So after wavering about it for several years, I finally dove in and got my MLIS. On the down side, working toward the degree meant three years of more mental exhaustion and getting even less fiction writing done. But now that I’m done, I think the upside is going to prove worth it: I work in an orchestra library now. I enjoy my job, I work with interesting people, and every day I get to listen to amazing musicians. But most importantly, the type of work I’m doing doesn’t drain my fiction writing energy the way grant writing did. Many days I come home energized instead.

So my takeaway from all this babbling is this: how you write isn’t always about getting words down. Sometimes it’s about looking at other aspects of your life and figuring out if there are changes you can make that will improve your ability to get those words down. For me, that involved a short-term sacrifice of writing time so that, later down the road, I could dive back into fiction without regularly beating the crap out of my mental well being. I’ve only been done with grad school all of a week at this point, granted, but if my summer breaks were any indication, my brain is going to be a lot more cooperative during my writing time now that it isn’t getting its ass kicked on a daily basis.

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Due Process, or How Do You Write?

Naima and I were having a conversation the other day while painting pottery at a local studio (so much fun, and I totally recommend it as a way to recharge your creative batteries!) about art. You see, Naima trained as an artist, and has recently started honing her abilities again. I used to draw until I quit in high school, believing I wasn’t good enough, so why bother?. But I recently realized how much I miss art and decided to start taking drawing classes, because I really wanted to be able to do it well. Not for anyone else, just for me.

So Naima observed me at work, first painting my plate and then sketching a still life. She remarked that she thinks artists (and this includes writers) fit into one of two categories. Either they’re messy artists, who let loose with their charcoal or words or ideas at the beginning and have to go back and prune/erase mercilessly in revisions, or they’re clean artists. Clean artists are meticulous, the ones who have to do things just so and get a section right before they can move onto the next one. Naima falls into the first, and I fall into the second.

But both have their advantages and disadvantages. With being messy, there’s more freedom for entire volumes of incredible ideas to tumble into being—but a lot more to whip into shape later. With being clean, there’s more order and planning involved, but less opportunity for wild brainstorming and amazing schemes to fall into your lap. Either way, with hard work, you’ll get to where you’re going. In the end, Naima and I both finished our plates, even if mine took longer. (And I still need to go back and add a little detail. Meticulously, of course.)

The same goes for our writing. Naima can conjure the arc of an entire doorstopper trilogy out of one scene, while I really have to go bit by bit (“the three feet in the headlights the whole way” method). Which way is better? Neither. It’s what works for us as individuals. I’ve noticed there’s often a tendency for people to figure out what works for them and then try to say it’s the one correct way to do things. Considering how different we are as people and how varied our life experiences, I think there are as many ways to do things as there are humans on the planet. Not to mention process can change through time. My first novel started life as a NaNoWriMo draft, and then I rewrote it five more times. With my second novel, I’m doing my best to get each chapter as good as I can before moving on.

Maybe you’re a writer who can churn out ten thousand words in one sitting and have them be amazing. Maybe you need five years and a room of your own to produce an elegant manuscript. Maybe you need to write seven drafts before you’re even ready to show your work to anyone else. But your process is yours.

It took me a long, long time to accept that. I would compare myself to other writers and get so frustrated that glorious, profound literature—with magic, of course—wasn’t just pouring forth effortlessly from my fingers. Or that I couldn’t imagine the entire final version of the story in one go, only tiny slivers that often turn out not to be right, anyway. And it’s not like I don’t get envious sometimes of other people’s processes. But I can’t change my brain, so instead, I think about what I can do. Write a little at a time, maybe a thousand words, maybe two, and polish along the way as I discover what my story really is.

Anyway, the important thing is to get to know your brain and how it functions for you. Clean, messy, fast, slow . . . your brain is the only one that can make your particular art, and that’s the point.

So how would you classify your process, or are you still figuring it out?