Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Relationship with My Writing

Sarah S. G. Frantz
Apparently I have an adversarial relationship with my writing, a concept that I find fascinating.

I'm desperately trying to write (two articles and a conference presentation!) and when I talk about it, I say that "its kicking my ass" or "the article is winning." When I finally think I've got something (a paragraph, a point, an analysis) done well, I think "I've beat it into submission." These are my words, my ideas, an extension of my thoughts. How that translates into an antagonistic relationship, I'm not sure.

I can understand this mindset when I edit another's writing (as I am also doing). Then the ideas are not mine and I'm trying to make them and the writing fit a certain framework, word count, or readability.

But when dealing with my own words, my own thoughts? I'm trying to make myself understood, trying to make my points in the best way possible, trying to take what's in my head and put it on the page. Except, what's in my head changes as I put it on the page (well, the computer screen). As I write, I realize how to make points more clearly, I understand some contradictions, I see more areas that need to be clarified or explained, I complicate (in the good way) my theories/analyses. As a result, my thoughts are not complete inside me--it's not like I have a vision that I can't transcribe onto the page. The process of transcription changes the vision, for the better. So I see the whole process is outside me.

I'm also one of those people who obsessively rewrites. It's how I get started, it's how I overcome a problem, it's how I end the day. I can't just write everything and go back and revise at the end, because the process of rewriting changes the paper in such drastic fundamental ways, that I couldn't write the whole thing without having the part before it almost finished.

I don't have a Muse, per se, either, so I can't blame anything on him/her/it. This is just between me and the words in front of me.

I'm now fascinated with how I see this (it's as good a way to procrastinate as any, after all) and I'm wondering about how other people view their own writing. Do you write fiction or non-fiction? Or both? If both, how does the process change for the change in genre? Is the vision inside you and you have to "birth" it and get it perfect? Or is it outside you and you have to wrestle it into shape? Something else?

Picture is Vermeer's "A Lady Writing."


  1. I write non-fiction, and I think writers of non-fiction can have muses. After all, Clio is the muse of history, and Urania is the muse of astronomy.

    Sometimes writing can feel routine and uninspired, for example when wrestling with an over-long sentence which needs to be re-written in a more elegant manner. It involves thought, but there isn't quite that spark, that feeling of excitement at having discovered something new. I suppose it's a bit like doing colouring in with a crayon or pencil, and trying not to go over the lines or leave any bits uncoloured.

    Then there are those times when you have an idea, or when a new piece of evidence fits neatly with the theory, and those times feel like drawing the lines of a picture. That's when it can feel as though there's a muse involved because I have the impression that the ideas are outside me (after all, I'm working with other people's writing, whether primary or secondary texts), but the ideas take concrete form through me.

    Perhaps it's a bit like being given some jigsaw puzzle pieces, and then trying to fit them together without knowing in advance what the picture is, or the size of the puzzle, or even whether you've been handed pieces which will fit together. When I finish a piece of work, I know that what I've written is only a tiny section of a vast jigsaw puzzle that's still incomplete.

  2. I love that last image there, Laura. Very inspired! ;) I'm finding it so much more exciting to be part of creating the much larger puzzle of romance than of Austen or 18thC studies, because their puzzles, while by no means done, are much more complete than the romance puzzle.

  3. Oh, this is fascinating stuff, Sarah! And I love your image of kicking ass. I'm going to think of that now whenever I'm wrestling with my own writing!

    I write fiction in the sense that my "real" writing consists of one published novel and one to be published next year. But of course I write some non-fiction. Even a blog post requires (for me, at least) the same kind of attention as any writing, perhaps not to the same degree.

    I used to think of myself as a great first-draft writer. I could spit out an A-grade essay test, the kind you had to write in the classroom; I would stay up all night writing a 10-page term paper directly onto the typewriter; and I wrote my 90-page senior thesis as a first draft over two weeks the same way and handed it in...

    This was before the days of personal computers. The computer has turned me into an obsessive editor/rewriter. And re- re- re- writer. Just like you, I see that the act of editing changes the ideas. It's like some law of physics (?) which states that the act of observing a phenomenon necessarily changes the phenomenon itself.

    Now when I write, I still sometimes have those great first-draft moments where ideas spill out of me and everything seems to flow. But that's just the beginning. Now, because the computer allows me the ease and freedom the typewriter did not, I go over my work again and again until I'm satisfied (or until the deadline comes).

    Maybe because I started my fiction writing late (my 40s) and only because of the computer, I think of fiction writing as fun and nonfiction as misery. But it's really the same process for both, much as you describe. So I think it's the fact that I couldn't do easy editing (easy in the technical, computer sense) during my formative high school and college years that left me with this sense of the horror of nonfiction. And because I only started writing fiction "because I can"--that is, I chose to try it because the computer made it seem possible--I see fiction as fun.

    Not really sure if I have a muse. But I love the seventeenth-century, and that Vermeer you chose looks a lot like what I imagine any muse of mine should look like.

    Thanks for a really thought-provoking post.

  4. I don't write long pieces as often as I used to, but I remember writing scholarly work and thinking of it as "having an affair" with my subject. The process of getting so intimately involved with a text or a biographical subject seemed akin to the process of getting to know someone with the goal of a romantic relationship.

  5. As a former journalist, then later the owner of a public relations firm, I did a great deal of my-first-draft-is-pretty-much-my-final-draft non-fiction writing due mainly to constraints of time, space and the vicissitudes of clients. It was never quite perfect, but either it got better or I got faster or both because I did it for a long time and people actually paid for it.

    My serious fiction writing began late in life (as opposed to my only-serious-to-me fiction writing, which began at age 8). And, now, when I begin, a strange thing happens. I can whip out 8000 words in a long day, but I can’t go on to the next 8000 or even the next 100 words until I’ve edited the first increment.

    The first edit shortens it, so I lose a grand…I mean a 1000 words. The second edit lengthens it again because, I tell myself, clarity is my friend. So I gain a few hundred. Words.

    My third edit (mind you---I’ve not moved on from that first 8000 word bundle of woe by this point), my third edit is very sad. I read what I’ve written, and I hate the story, myself and quite possibly you. The words “oh right, yeah, like that would happen to a real person,” is followed by two word critiques that rip my confidence to shreds, or what’s left of it. The usual double whammy castigations go like this: “Completely improbable,” “irretrievably predictable,” and, my favorite, “401k withdrawal,” an older person’s version of “good G-d, do not quit your day job!”

    I also have a day job, so, the only time I can get back to writing is after about three or four days on the job when I easily determine that my absolute worst writing is a hundred times better than the inarticulate babble and incomprehensible murdering of the mother tongue I have to put up with at work. Then, and only then, do I ease up on myself sufficiently to sit down and write, again.
    Having learned from the pain of the first 8000-word dump, give or take a grand, I then tend to write in smaller, more carefully constructed, clarity-heavy, description-laden bits of about 1500-2000 words, most or all of which completely lacks passion, receives terrific compliments from my dogs and causes me to re-think the efficacy of that day job.

    Then, and only then, after another few days at the day job, I return to my writing. I belt out another large increment of raw emotion, intricate plotting, mesmerizing characterizations and dialog that is both memorable and, I think, forgettable, all at the same time. It’s a miracle of mysteries, solved and unsolved, this writing thing. I never do it right, but for reasons that I can no longer articulate in anything remotely resembling credibility, I continue to do it, week in and week out. Adversarial--oh yeah.

    But to answer your question: “Is the vision inside you and you have to "birth" it and get it perfect? Or is it outside you and you have to wrestle it into shape?”

    Hmmm. It’s inside of me, it’s never perfect and while I can’t quite conjure up the metaphor of birth, it does feel alarmingly like good sex, which, as you know, is often called le petit mort. Great topic and post Dr. Sarah!

  6. Thanks, T.T. Thomas! And that last comment was something I decided NOT to share, but what the hell. When writing's going well--flowing well, or making sense, or even better: both--yes, it feels like good sex. I get energized and...other things.

    Anyway, right now, I'm not there yet. Hoping I can be soon. Still duking it out, though, me and my writing.

  7. At the moment my non-fiction writing (aka the PhD thesis aka the dratted diss) feels a bit like a vampire, sucking my brains out and leaving me utterly exhausted each evening. Under normal circumstances, though, I regard academic writing as weaving a text: I usually have a very detailed plan of what I want to say before I ever sit down and switch on the computer. Bringing the text on paper (or rather, on the screen of my notebook) is just a matter of pulling all strands tight. Nevertheless, academic writing is always hard work for me.

    As to fiction writing -- oooh! *happy sigh* I think it was Michael Ende who compared writing to drawing or painting: the trick is to capture what you "see" on paper and make it come alive. I see my novels as films before and while I'm writing them. At the beginning of each story, the writing is pure joy, the story flows, and I feel utterly elated, almost as if I were high. But then inevitably, the mid-book-blues hits (usually after Chapter 3), and the self-doubts raise their ugly heads, and things start getting difficult. If I have to write under pressure, this state considerably worsens until I believe that I'm writing the most horrible story in all the history of humankind. Worse than anything that a dinosaur would have produced if it had been able to write. By the time I have to hand in the book, I'm usually convinced that reading the dratted thing will prove to be fatal for my poor editor. So, end of book = no elation, but utter despair. *g*

    I chronicled the last few weeks of writing "Castle of the Wolf" and "Bewitched" on my blog, and I guess there is something rather comical about my gradual descent into despair. Not to mention the repeated hitting of unexpected road blocks like the realisation that I completely forgot that I needed to get rid of the villain and her followers.

    So all in all, I'd say that there is a difference between my academic writing and my fiction writing. The academic text is something that develops inside me, while the fictional text is something outside me that often takes on a sort of life of its own. (Not in a creepy-my-Muse-dictates-what-I'm-going-to-write way, but more in a let-the-subconscious-take-over way.)

  8. “Is the vision inside you and you have to "birth" it and get it perfect? Or is it outside you and you have to wrestle it into shape?”

    Well, the vision on the inside -- but I use the words to pry it out [yeah, as painful as it sounds, sometimes].

    Words = forceps.

  9. Sorry, but I can't resist seconding T. T. Thomas's statement that writing is like good sex. So often I've had the feeling while working on a difficult section that I can't quite reach orgasm and have to clench my muscles...

    I don't mean to get too graphic here. But it's a very similar feeling. On some level, the idea is inside me, too, because I think just about any fiction writer sees her works as her children, and has all those same motherly, protective instincts.

    But during the writing, it is a struggle; less like giving birth than the wrestling match you mentioned. Sex can be described as a "wrestling match," of course, and I suppose whether we see the struggle as friendly and fun (sex) or more like combat (kicking ass) depends on how happy we are with the way the project is developing, or how "into" it we are (a novel written by choice vs. a work or school assignment).

  10. I am so envious of you who can get the words out of you by whatever method you use - forceps, wrestling, etc.

    Mine are stuck inside and do not want to come out at all - I guess I have writer's block before I ever get started! So I am a "wannabe" writer! LOL So I thought I would start by writing book reviews, which will soon be appearing on Shelfari and Facebook. From there I will work my way up to something more substantial.

    My biggest thing is fear - what if what I write is no good, no one will want to read it - blah blah blah - yes I would like some cheese with that fine whine! LOL

  11. What a totally fascinating question. I write fiction as well as non-fiction (if you want to call websites and brochures for corporate america nonfiction, which, we won't get into that) but for fiction, and a lesser degree, my freelance work, the act of writing is kind of journey of discovery, where things clarify as I put them down. But I also find it profitable to daydream about it beforehand.

    My husband, who is also a writer (essays) is very interested in this process, too, and he bought this really fascinating book called "How Writers journey to comfort and fluency" by Robert Boice. This book is expensive (like $80 bucks), dry and full of research - it seems to come from some sort of project, possibly a doctoral project. But to him, it's worth every penny, as he's torn in many directions with his time. You should see it - it's full of post-its and underlines. One thing that made me think of it for this post is that according to Boice, the most successful writers do a lot of what he calls prewriting. Shaping the vision before approaching the page. (which made me feel good for my daydreaming) But anyway, there are lots of other parts. If you want a really specific answer, that's your book.

  12. It's good to see you over here, Carolyn!

    One thing that made me think of it for this post is that according to Boice, the most successful writers do a lot of what he calls prewriting. Shaping the vision before approaching the page. (which made me feel good for my daydreaming)

    In my dreams I sometimes write the most amazing books and essays, with the greatest of ease. Sadly, when I wake up, there's still all the work to do and I usually can't even remember what the great work was going to be about. Luckily I also do some "prewriting" when I'm awake. Usually, though, it leads to me scampering around the house, desperately looking for a pencil and paper so that I don't forget the outline of the new idea. Keeps life interesting, I suppose, and I'm sure this kind of thinking does pay off when I sit in front of the computer and start work.