Friday, December 05, 2008

On Writing

When I was taking my victory lap at Bradley and enjoying my super senior semester, I took a graduate-level rhetoric class in the English department, which was my first brush with masters students and with composition studies. Much of the course investigated the writing process, organized, as it was, around the notion that writing is a reflexive practice.

Unlike the creative writing students, who were mostly undergrads and liked to gather on the steps of Bradley Hall and smoke a bowl before class, the composition studies students were getting their masters degrees and worked at the campus writing center. I was blown away by their genteel poverty and the way they used words like "praxis" and "postmodern" in regular conversation. Cute, huh? Just a short year later, ensconced in my own maters program, I would be disgusted by my 3-figure monthly paycheck and railing against the classism and sexism of academic jargon.

The composition studies class, however, would stay with me for-- well, forever. It made me really reflect on my own writing process, which, in my professional opinion, is a crazy piece of whacko. The course argued that the writing process can be broken down into 3 parts: prewriting, writing, and revising. In college, my prewriting phase took a lot of cigarettes, alcohol and other elixirs, and I would always pre-write in front of my computer with a giant, smoldering ash tray next to me. I could smoke in my dorm room freshman and (much to the chagrin of my roommate) sophomore year. Junior year, I lived in my sorority house, which was vehemently nonsmoking, leading me to write angrily at the library, taking frequent breaks away from my computer to sit on the cement planter outside, glaring into space.

The first few cigarettes were delicious, invigorating, exciting. When I inhaled them, I was brilliant; my exhales were the natural byproduct of the genius leaking out of my ears. The next several were just plain smokey and tinged yellow with desperation, as I puffed and sucked in an attempt to regain my enthusiasm. The end of a prewriting pack made me choke on my own ignorance, but they left me shaky enough to pound out my paper/short story/poem/speech as fast as I possibly could.

Other writers droned on and on about the writing phase of their process, and I couldn't understand why. I waited until a cloud of rage or sardonic humor or, rarely, purpose settled over me, sat in front of my machine, and typed fast and loud with two fingers. Other writers talked about making notecards to help them keep track of their primary and secondary documents or about using photographs or talismen to remind them of their fictional or poetic inspiration. Not me. I kept a ragged stack of papers by my side, read through them all once, and shuffled trough the stack when I needed a quotation for support. When I hunted and pecked the last word, I would pound control "S" with all my might, send my document to the printer with a forceful control "P," and smoke a celebratory cigarette that I usually had to bum from someone else. Then I'd go get drunk, possibly for a couple of days, guilt free and full of accomplishment and usually nachos.

No revising process to speak of. Do you think I spent any time at all editing the novel I penned my senior summer of high school, The Skandalous Khronicles of Kiki's Kancer Kastle, a series of vignettes from tanning booths that culminated in the murderous rage of a housewife? No way, Jose. If I had any faith in the power of revision, I would have gotten rid of all those "K"s. Do you think I revised the story of my life I scribbled for my college autobiography class that told of my burning desire to be a famous actress? Absolutely not. If I had spent any time rereading those embarrassing utterances, I would have noticed that the book's conclusion-- the crushing realization that I was not special enough, not pretty enough, and simply too fat-- was obvious from the first chapter's first word.

How about my chapbook Grim Tales and a Fairy that I slaved over for a super-senior grad-level creative writing course? Any revision there? Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Poetry, you see, was the beginning of the end of my sanity, I think. Because I had to focus so carefully at the level of the word, I began to lose my ability to make thesis sentences, follow a simple data-warrant-claim structure, and produce paragraphs that flowed logically from one to the next. And I never could figure out good line breaks.

Before I thought about things like trangressing boundaries, fluidity, Foucauldian fearless speech, I knew that something wasn't right about the 3-part writing process. Mine was just one big hazy mess, from invention to execution. As I made my way through grad school, my prewriting phase claimed more and more of my headspace. When I read the description of each course's final paper on the first day of each semester, the seeds of writerly discontent would take root in my head. I'd spend a few weeks in denial, move quickly into unrest and anxiousness, transition smoothly into manic research, and barely notice when rage and hysteria took center stage until I was screaming my desire to quit school and my heartfelt conviction that I was a big stupid fraudulent fraduy pants. Then a couple minutes/hours/days later, I would sit down in front of my computer, a skyscraping pile of books and journal articles next to me, and pound out 30-40 pages of dry, mind numbing, soul crushing essay for each class. So, abut 120 pages a semester, usually produced in about 3 days. 3 horrible days. 3 dark days spent fantasizing about poetry and the problems of a word.

This process? IT'S NOT WORKING FOR ME RIGHT NOW! I have thousands of dollars worth of archival documents crammed in a cardboard box in my closet underneath last season's boots with neon Post-It notes on them and penciled-in margin notes. I have a stack of overdue library books on my desk, and I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach ALL THE TIME. I waste more time on the internet than most people spend at the office, and I hate myself every second, but I CAN'T STOP.

Maybe I am just in the really bad phase (I know I am, actually. I worked myself into quite a state in my office yesterday, then sat down and produced 4 pages in 20 minutes. Unfortunately only 2 paragraphs were part of the chapter proper, and the rest were just fucking endnotes). Maybe I just need to remember that I have a 250-page draft of the whole project and I will certainly finish these revisions by May, at which time I won't have to write anything ever again (except, you know, a book manuscript based on my dissertation, but now is not a good time to think about that). Maybe my prewriting phase is a monster because I am so consumed with this project ALL THE TIME that I am always writing it in my head. Changing Jack's diaper, building bricks with Harry, watching the news with Ben, scrubbing the kitchen floor for fun-- all week I have been thinking about fathers' places in the birth control movement, which is what I raged/wrote about yesterday.

I just wish my process was a little less angry, a little more tidy. I wish it fit in boxes labeled pre-writing, writing, and revising. I wish I still smoked.


  1. Um. Is it wrong that I think I just fell completely in love with you? That's wrong, right?

  2. YES!!! You are me. I just came out of the "I hate myself because I'm a big fraudey fraud" downward spiral of shame. And I am now in the delusions of grandeur stage. Manic-depressive grad student much? Maybe those kids who smoked weed before class had it figured out.

    Awesome post, btw.

  3. Anonymous5:50 PM

    your writing makes me feel as though we are talking face to face...I think ylour dissertation will be great...Bomma

  4. Anonymous8:49 PM

    You are such a good writer. I have felt like that (to a much lesser extent, of course)! Guess what? The stuff I write that I think is great at the time, and the stuff I feel like is crap, in retrospect is all about the same! (Unfortunately, in my case, it's all crap. But your work is brilliant

  5. Anonymous12:12 AM

    You are truly THE MOST TALENTED WRITER I'VE MET! And NOT because I'm a total loser and haven't met anyone else. Plus, I thought Kiki's was pretty awesome back in the day... Also, I HATE that you said you weren't good enough to be an actor. I think you're a great actor. (So does Harry)

    AND, by the way, we're sophomores, not second graders. And I'm still not cool.

  6. You truly are an amazing writer. Your posts are so honest and inspiring. And I think your house-full of trophies speaks volumes about the quality of both your writing & your acting talent.

    Ahhh...I miss the days of being rewarded with cigarettes, alcohol and trophies for a job well done. Now, every time I finish a major writing project my only reward is having to start on another. Ugh!