2016, Archives, December 2016, The MFA Years

Writing Process as Writing Problem

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Earlier this week I sat in my professor’s office discussing the revision made to my second story submission. It had been somewhat substantial: I’d completely rewritten the beginning three times and composed several additional scenes I was 99% sure weren’t going to make it into the final story, all in order to better understand the main character. I asked my professor some questions about proceeding with another revision and if they were in line with the vision I had for the story. She asked what, exactly, was my vision for the story. After I elaborated, she told me something I simultaneously knew I needed to hear, but also totally did not want to hear.

She said she liked the idea, but the portrayal I’d been gunning for over the last few drafts still wasn’t anywhere in the story. As we talked through what was in the current draft and she offered strategies for writing towards my vision, it slowly dawned on me that I’d have to rewrite 70, 80, 90 percent of the story…again. I sighed loudly. My professor nodded sympathetically and said “sometimes it’s okay for a story get messy and unwieldy.” For some reason, I immediately thought of a softshell taco torn down the middle, with all the carnitas and salsa spilled everywhere.

Almost immediately in my head I began to resist: no way, no thanks, maybe I can rewrite another scene or two, tweak some exposition, maybe add a scene, but definitely not start from scratch. I had wanted to send the story out to lit mags before the end of the month. I had wanted to finish it towards the beginning of my break so that I could spend the rest of that free time on the unfinished first drafts of two new stories waiting on my hard drive. I had a plan for this story, and undertaking a total overhaul at this stage was not part of the plan.

Obviously, this was not actually a big deal. The story will be fine. All writing is rewriting. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process. But sitting in my professor’s office visualizing my story as a wasted taco I realized that I had developed an overdependency on my writing process that hadn’t occurred to me until that moment.

Thing is, I’m a planner. Every night I write down a list of things I need to do the next day. I like to create routines and I don’t like breaking them. I thoroughly enjoy scheduling classes and meetings. Because the writing process can be daunting at times, I’ve settled into predictable patterns of revision over the past two years. I’ll write a draft, submit it to workshop, and from those comments (along with my own concerns), put together a list of specific aspects of the story to revise, like rewriting a scene, deleting certain aspects, rewriting dialogue to better fit my intended characterization, etc. These rarely involve massive overhauls to a draft. Once those revisions have been made, rinse and repeat. It’s a process that builds moderate transformation through a long string of smaller changes. Usually, after slogging through five or six drafts like this I have something decent/at least coherent to show for it. That’s how I wound up with the story that got me into MFA programs, along with my stories that have been accepted for publication.

It’s a process I’ve come to depend on, and when it was clear that process wasn’t going to work for this specific piece, the one I’d spent months revising, I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I guess I thought the process simply had to work; I even said to my professor that maybe there were better alternatives to writing entirely new material. She shook her head politely and said that every story may require a completely different writing process than the last. In that moment it was a truth I wanted to unknow.

Being back in grad school probably encouraged this dependency on a static writing routine. Writing in academic contexts, while not necessarily easy, lends itself better to outlines and writing plans. I needed to revise very little for my two non-creative writing classes this semester, and when I did revise, there was less mess to slog through. Most of this is the nature of writing fiction vs. writing essays on Chicana literature or new media composition or rhetorical inquiry.

Even still, my time studying writing has indicated that any genre at any time can upend a writer’s sense of stability in their writing process. What worked for papers in my composition studies class this semester might not work for papers in future composition studies classes. As I settled back into churning out clean-cut, easily digestible papers, I began to imagine the writing process as a straight line on a flat plane moving from point A to point Z, rather than something multidimensional. My writing perspective narrowed and my predictable writing process became more of a than a tool. This realization seems important to me, because while we often talk about getting over common obstacles like writer’s block or writing fatigue, we don’t usually discuss what to do when our writing processes turn sour.

It was helpful to remember that I’ve worked on other successful stories for far longer than I’ve been working on the one giving me all these problems. Three years ago I wrote the first draft of a story that seemed to have a lot of potential, but one year of steady revisions didn’t push it in a positive direction. With multiple drafts that just didn’t feel quite right, I abandoned it for several months. Once my frustrations started to simmer, I returned to it and began slowly experimenting with what became my current writing pattern. Over the course of almost two years, these experimentations led to a series of key revisions that eventually made the story my first accepted publication.

This retrospective reminds me that there are no easy solutions. I may not be able to come up with a magical write-revise-write formula for this story, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t push on ahead into the quagmire. I’ll turn in my final project of the semester tomorrow. I’ll probably take the next week off from writing; there’s lots of books I want to read and games I want to play over break, and I’m ready to dig in. I’m excited for the sort of buffer space this temporary time away from writing will provide. Maybe the day after Christmas, I’ll sit back down in front of my computer, pull out that woefully inadequate draft, and dive back into the mess, starting again with only writerly instinct, rather than formulaic process, as my guide.

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