Writing Process: A System of Compulsion

When I develop or am given a topic or writing problem to solve, I generally start with reading and a broad, fundamental hypothesis. After this point, I make voluminous notes from texts or my own thinking and start “writing from the hip.” This is kind of like freewriting, but tends to be a little more focused and thesis-driven than true expressivist freewriting; I think of it as writing with a rough but practiced instinctual aim, thus the metaphor. In general, this stage happens at my desk in my office, as I have a two-monitor setup that facilitates having multiple documents on screen at the same time. Notes go into OneNote or, increasingly, a Google Doc (which allows me to be a portable writer). If I’m at home or in the library, I’ll use a combination of my laptop and good old-fashioned composition books and Uni-ball gel grips. Most of the time, my “writing from the hip” gets posted to my blog, where I can share it with some of my distant grad-school friends and colleagues easily. Also, I’ll generally talk it out to one or two colleagues here in my department, one who I can generally count on to agree but be confused by some point that I’ve taken for granted, the other who I can count on to fundamentally disagree with my thesis but still be willing to be convinced.

At this point, I’ve begun tugging on some important threads and have usually worked myself into a more solid development of my thesis. If I’m working on a class paper, the emails to professors demanding asking for feedback will begin at this point. I then begin thinking structurally and spatially. I’ll make a series of descriptive outlines (what certain sections will do, what points will go where, what theories/authorities will be drawn on where, that sort of thing). On paper, I’ll start making flowcharts and idea diagrams, with lots of arrows and scribbles, which I’ll use to test my ideas against themselves a couple of different ways as well as to further organize my thoughts. For the last paper I wrote, I had at least five different outlines and four or so idea diagrams by the end. All of this will give me a really good idea of introductory and concluding sections for the paper. Then the drafting process becomes mostly filling in the blanks and fleshing out the outline. It’s at this point that I formally copy my last outline(s) to a word processor and begin the intense but visually systematic process of filling it up with prose. Main points/metadiscourse gets highlighted in yellow. Tricky spots get highlighted blue. Comments from outside readers are highlighted green. Stuff that I’ve gone back and added in to preexisting sections is entered in red text. Then, it’s simply a matter of an intense cycle of write/revise/write/revise until it’s as done as it’s going to be; I generally don’t back up and read what I’ve already written at the beginning of each session unless I feel like I need a refresher on direction or need to reconstruct an idea that came apart while I was writing another section of the piece. Usually, I have a specific starting and ending point in mind for that day’s writing, an agenda or even to-do list for that project that I use to assess the day’s progress.

When I’m in the intense, active drafting stage of my projects, I’ll write in 2 or 3 sessions per day, for 3-4 hours at a time. In general, I can’t write at home unless it’s early in the morning or late at night—mostly because there’s not a good place for me to hole up, and I’m easily distracted by the television. (Late in his life, John Steinbeck built a private writing workroom separate from his house, which called “Joyous Garde”—I dream of such a place someday.) Most of my writing goes on either in my university’s library (second floor, round tables, by the windows where the light’s best, the students quiet, and the rhetoric stacks are close) or in my office, which has no windows, but it’s on the 3rd floor, so I can write almost completely undisturbed if I close my door. I always take Saturday off from writing (unless there’s a deadline problem), and in general get the most writing done on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. I try to write on Monday-Wednesday, but it doesn’t always happen. (This summer, I’ve been really good about that.

Music has always been tied to my writing process. I’m sure I’m not alone in the group on this mark. When I read for writing, if I’m not doing so in silence, I generally play alternative or experimental music (Radiohead, for example)—something nonintrusive that can fade into the background of my consciousness. On the other hand, when I write, I listen to metalcore (Lamb of God especially, but anything fast, driving)—which behaves as a metronome that gets my blood and fingers thundering, listened to at a volume where I’m not so much concentrating on musicality or lyrics but rather on the rhythms pushing me forward. I literally wore out a copy of Metallica’s One during my master’s program; it was my official writing album (thank goodness for the iPod). Over the years, I suppose this has translated into writing being a very exciting, aggressive, physical act for me. I pound on my keyboards (yes, I’ve broken keys), hurl texts and printouts into piles on the floor, get up and rapidly pace whatever room I’m in at stuckpoints, and (in private) shout at my computer when things are going particularly badly—or especially well. I have a large dent (and probably am working on a bone spur) on my right middle finger from where I hold pens, as if I’m trying to squeeze the ink out faster.

I don’t see this as a particular reaction to the difficulty of writing so much as it is an expression of how totally I throw myself into writing projects. My wife hates when I’m in the intense drafting stages of any writing project, because I’m so fully engrossed in it that I forget to do most anything else. That being said, I’m not an angry writer, but rather I get off on the rush of ideas and words. I enjoy the play and pressure of the cursor blinking at me at the end of a phrase, a generative force for the next word that I haven’t quite thought of yet but have to. Indeed, when I’m fully committed to a task or an idea that I’m interested in, I’m compulsive, nearly obsessive about doing writing. I come up for air at the end of a session sweaty but exhilarated; I always feel good after I’ve written up an idea or completed a section or made an argument or move that I’m particularly proud of.

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