The Writer’s Notebook

This week, I’m starting an online FicIMG_0718tion writing course through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  For seven weeks, I’ll be sharing ideas, responding to questions, submitting my work and critiquing the work of others.  Probably, most importantly, I’ll be reflecting on my own writing process.

A writing teacher I had many years ago stressed the importance of being archivists for our creative process.  That is, we need to be familiar with when, where and with which tools we write best.  When famous authors comment on their habits and processes, we see how familiar they are with their own inner workings.  Stephen Kings says he writes all morning every morning–even on holidays.  His desk is not pushed against a wall, but is smack in the middle of the room.  Twain, Wharton, and Capote wrote lying down, while Hemingway preferred standing.  Some writers like music in the background.  Others want  a lit candle, a glass of wine, or a cup of coffee nearby.

For the longest time, I included time of day and geographical location in my notebook entries. And I saw that my teacher was right.  A pattern began to emerge.  I discovered I write best in late morning or early afternoon, that sometimes I can write for whole days, forgetting to eat, and that when I don’t feel physically well, the writing can be dark and weird–and sometimes I like the results.

But today, reflecting on the workshop question, I realized that there was something I once took for granted that is absent from my writing:  my spiral notebook.  When I decided to write for publication, I began using the computer.  It’s quick and forgiving.  It allows me to move blocks of text or get rid of it so completely it looks like it never existed.  I can research distant libraries or reach people around the globe in an instant.

With these capabilities comes a price, however.  I have forgotten the value of what Natalie Goldberg calls “writing practice.”  I’m so focused on the goal that I don’t sit thoughtfully with a pen in my hand, noticing and recording.  Goldberg used writing as her buddhist practice.  She did it daily, before moving to her writing goal for the day.  Noticing and recording are two activities integral to the writing process.  And keeping pen to paper on a regular basis is certainly one way to move through writer’s block, especially if we follow Goldberg’s lead and “keep the hand moving.”

Another writing teacher urged my class to do writing practice long-hand because of the heart connection.  She said, “the brain thinks it, the thought travels through the heart and then along the arm to the hand, which writes it.  The eyes read it. It is processed through the brain, and the circle begins again.”  This is probably true of other arts as well.  Painting and potting, for example, and fiber arts like knitting and quilting.  And while a laptop is necessary eventually, it doesn’t facilitate this infinite, organic loop.

I still work full-time, and scramble to find writing time.  But the workshop has made me understand how important that daily, long-hand practice was to my creativity.  I remembered the intimate connection with my writing self and how it fed me.  Today, I decided I will go back to it, even if it’s a couple of times a week.  And I think I’ll start right now.

If you have a moment, please share what feeds your creativity.  What “things” do you need to get comfortable so the juices flow?


5 thoughts on “The Writer’s Notebook

  1. That’s a very interesting idea about your writing practice, noting time, place, how you feel, as an analytical tool. Good writing with the course you are taking!

  2. The closest I come to this sort of ‘work’ is my costume rendering. I’ve rarely considered what I need for a successful work session, because it usually is time-driven work for me so I can’t decide too much about when I’m ready to do it or not.

    But typically I’ll have to have spent a week or more on research, including considering color palettes.

    I’m more productive with ‘life’ and office stuff in the morning, so I need to get that out of the way first. Then, sometime after lunch usually, I can start drawing and keep at it until very late into the night.

    I hate, hate, hate to be disturbed by phone calls, and can be quite irritable if someone phones me once I do start drawing or painting. (I don’t like the phone much under any circumstances – I’m not a natural chat-er. So if I’m not waiting for a call back from someone or otherwise expecting their call, phone calls during my working period are an unwelcome interruption that I don’t cope well with.)

    I like some music – doesn’t have to be ‘soothing’ or background, but when I find something that suits my mood I can play it over and over for days. Otherwise, I prefer silence.

    If I get into a groove, I (too) can work for hours at a stretch and late into the night. However, if I work overnight or for too long without sleep or food, my work does not get interesting or surreal. It simply gets sloppy.

    I need to break from the drawing board or computer every 30 minutes or so to stretch, walk around, refocus my eyes on daylight and nature, etc. If I stay too long in one spot, I get a gigantic headache.

    And I absolutely despise fluorescent tube lights in my workspace. Not crazy about over-bright ‘daylight’ lights either. I prefer something that replicates incandescent. It’s easier on my eyes.

    1. Thanks for your response, Peg. I liked the sentence, “it usually is time-driven work for me so I can’t decide too much about when I’m ready to do it or not.” I understood it to mean, “So I have to get busy and do it in the time I have.” One advantage of time constraints is that we have to prioritize. I’m curious about your process, which in this case, is visual art. Is it okay if I ask you a couple of questions?

      Does urgency play a role? That is, if you don’t feel particularly creative about your project that day, do you still sit down to do it, knowing you may not have the time for awhile again?

      On days you feel less creative, is there a moment when you blast through the resistance and find yourself in the flow?

      Discipline, I think, is what I’m looking for with my notebook. And it’s what I’ve gotten away from. The daily practice keeps my hand to paper. So regardless of how I’m feeling, I want to show up and write.

      1. Urgency absolutely does play a role in the process for me. Sometimes I’ll have done as much research as I feel I have time for, but I still don’t have a picture of the whole show (entire set of costumes) in my head. I may have general information, and a good sense of ‘the big picture’, but there may be scenes or characters that I don’t have a real handle on at the beginning.

        Because I can’t just sit and wait for it all to come like a big flashbulb moment, I’ll start with what I consider an easy scene.

        Oh… and before that even happens, I count out the number of drawings that I need to do and determine my first deadline, then divide that into days or hours and how many drawings need to be completed in a day (or hour). That gives me a shoot-for goal, and I have a sense of when I’m falling behind or (better) when I’ve gained time to spend on the more challenging drawings.

        Anyway, starting with an easy scene, I’ll get that all sketched in. Then I’ll either continue with finishing those drawings or I’ll sketch in the next full scene. And if an idea hits me for a character that I’ve been struggling with, I’ll put the easier stuff aside and try to follow that new thread while I feel fresh and enthused about it.

        The process can be a little bit fluid, but it’s not at all romantic nor is it about phaffing around and being ‘creative’. The meetings and the research and the prep for the drawing is the closest to bad movies and stories about waiting for one’s muse.

        But once you start drawing it’s typically because you have a meeting with someone who is somehow involved with paying your fee and paying for the costumes. And if you keep them waiting, you are keeping dozens to hundreds of other people waiting, and as a result you are costing someone hundreds to thousands to many thousands of dollars per hour because you were being an ‘artiste’. That’s a really good way to be out of a gig very quickly.

        (Anthony Powell – the costume designer for Sunset Blvd. (on Broadway) and 101 Dalmatians (film) and so many more great productions was once locked into a room by his assistant, who would not allow him out until he’d finished his sketches. He’s a notorious procrastinator. If that’s your habit, then you might need a dominatrix for an assistant!)

        Hope this helps!

  3. Good insights into how you work, Peg, and I loved the Anthony Powell anecdote. Thank you. I’ve been thinking all day of a quote attributed to Leonard Bernstein. “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.”

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