Friday, January 30, 2015

Writing in "Islands"--How I Wrote My First Memoir in Forty-Five Days

A novel in a month?  A memoir in six?  I never believed those promises, tooted by many writing books.  Not until I came across the concept of writing in "islands."

I'd already published five books, with the help of great editors, when I first heard of  "islands."  A writing friend knew I was struggling--a publisher was interested in my memoir and I had to deliver in three months.  I'd honed my skills in nonfiction, even won some awards, but memoir is a whole different animal. 

I was moaning to this writing friend about how to even get started, with such a deadline looming.  She suggested I check out a book by writing teacher Ken Atchity.  Called A Writer's Time, rereleased many years later as Write Time,  the book was not at all about time management but about the two-part process of book writing.  Atchity had noticed over the years of working with new authors that those who actually finished their books allowed random-access writing before any organizing happened.

In other words, nobody used an outline.

For my nonfiction-writer self this was heresy.  All good writing comes from thoughtful organization first, right?  But Atchity was proposing, with years of evidence to back him up, that our creative brains need to explore before they organize.  Right brain holistic before left brain linear. 

Atchity called the process writing "islands" before forming them into "continents."  Write random islands, he suggested.  Let yourself go anywhere.  Start with an idea for chapter 5, instead of trying to figure out chapter 1 first. 

I was stuck, so I had nothing to lose.  I decided to try it. 

I knew my memoir would be roughly twelve chapters.  So I got twelve file folders and on the cover of each, brainstormed islands (scenes, ideas, descriptions, events, people) that might be in each.  I was able to loosely group the islands I came up with.  Since I wanted my memoir to also give good information about handling change, I made copies of research and added it to different folders.  When I began writing, I would scan the island ideas, pick one, and write.

My deadline imposed a quick timeline.  I wanted to write two chapters a week, which turned out to be about twenty islands.  But I promised myself I could write islands from any chapter (file folder) on any day--I didn't have to stick with one chapter until it was done.  Just accumulate the three hundred pages of islands that would form my manuscript.

It was the most amazing writing process ever, for me.  I finished the draft, all three hundred pages, in forty-five days.

There's nothing quite so joyous for a book writer as seeing that stack of printed pages on the desk.  Yes, it was a shitty first draft (as writer Anne Lamott calls our first efforts), but it was a draft.  Much more than I had in hand when I began.

I've gone on to write and publish seven more books using Atchity's island method.  Since then, I've seen parallels with Natalie Goldberg's freewriting logic, and other writing systems, but I am so glad I discovered Atchity.  His book is available used, and it's worth picking up, if you'd like to try the method.   Or check out how I used it for other books--and how the editing process (next step after islands) takes the book to the finish line--in my own writing book, Your Book Starts Here.

I firmly believe in this method, although I have changed it over the years and books, taking what I learned from Atchity and adapting it to better fit all genres of writers.  If you can, check out Write Time and see what you think!  Maybe it'll help you write your draft in much less time than you imagined.

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