Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Four Stages of Writing Practice--Where We Are Strong and Where We Can Fall Down


I was asked to teach a workshop on the stages of creative practice.  I spent weeks thinking about my own writing practice, and what I've witnessed in students, clients, and colleagues over twenty some years of teaching.  Are there stages of anyone's practice, and what did this mean?  Scouring the internet didn't help.  Many writers discussed their practice--how they approach their writing each day--but few had distinct steps.  Some had rituals.  Some knew how to begin or end.  But what about the murky middle, when you're in the midst of writing and things aren't going well?  

I took it as a laboratory experiment.  I began making notes about what happened when I sat down to write.  Where did I move from one kind of activity, internal or external, into another?  

This helped.  I saw that there were definite moments where I changed types of activities within a writing session.  The transition between them was VERY important--if I missed it, I'd soon flounder.  

I came up with four stages.  I saw my own strengths within these, places I sailed along, comfortable, skilled.  And predictable places where I fell down, stalled out, often confused as to why.  

A couple of months passed.  I kept testing.  Then came my weeklong retreat last month on Madeline Island, and I decided to try out these four stages on the group of fifteen writers gathered there.  I asked them to use the week to study their own writing practice, see how they did with these stages.  We talked about assists we could use when the inevitable stumble came.  How to be more conscious of where we were going to fall and how to prepare for it.

First stage:  Preparing to write.  This seems like a no-brainer, but it's all about setting up your space, privacy, noise level, air quality, food or drink, technology or notebook so they support your writing.  So many writers get stuck here--I have one friend who sharpens all the pencils in the house, truly!  Preparing to write isn't writing, but it's terribly important.  If my computer isn't working, if the pen is funky, if the noises are too loud, if people interrupt, I can't get past this stage.  You may have a ritual, too--light a candle, make a cup of tea or coffee, meditate, take a short walk, whatever.  Not paying attention to this stage will possibly short-circuit your efforts.  Too much attention will also do that.

Second stage:  First action.  How do you start the actual writing?  Some writers begin with a freewrite, setting a timer for 10 minutes to warm up.  Some read what they wrote the day before.  Others read a poem or a short excerpt from a favorite author.  Some look at their writing notebook and write down some questions.  Some have a scene in progress.  What starts you out?  This is another crucial step--and it does require thought and planning for most of us.  Rare is the writer who can just launch into writing; the engine has to be running first.  I spend time the day before to prepare myself for how to start (see stage four for more of that).  Also, be aware that first action is different from preparing to write.  Very different.  First action is actually writing, not setting it up.

Third stage:  What happens next.  How do you keep going?  After you start, what keeps the engine running?  Truthfully, this is where many stall out.  They can prepare to write, they can do that first action, but then what?  Is there a moment when you get scared, bored, tired, frustrated--and the refrigerator suddenly needs cleaning?  What do you do to allow yourself to surrender to the writing process, catch that amazing flow?  Have you ever experienced it, even?  I find it's only possible, at least for me, with a modicum of surrender.  I have to trust the direction my writing is taking me, even if my inner critic is going wild with protests that we're wasting time, writing stupid stuff, dabbling with dangerous memories, etc.  Preparing for this third stage can mean a renegotiation with the inner critic.  With your overwhelming emotions about what you're writing.  With your fear of what might happen.  

Fourth stage:  Preparing for the next session.  Winding down doesn't mean wrapping up.  It took me years to learn this.  If I leave a door open, or even a tiny window, into the next writing session, it'll be easier to enter it.  Some creative artists stop when the session is going well (painters do this, writers too).  Some writers even stop in the middle of a sentence.  Alexander Chee, a wonderful novelist, talks about his habit of writing in a journal after each session and listing questions he's pondering.  When he comes back to his writing the next time, he reads the questions first.  How do you prepare?     

Your weekly writing exercise is to consider these four stages, think about which ones you already do effortlessly, and where you fall down.  Freewrite about that stage and practice it more consciously this week.  See if your writing benefits.