Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Writer with a Capital W?

There's this website I read sometimes called HTMLGiant. It's about writing and reading and such. Today, there's a post about a project some people have put together to investigate "process-based questions about writing habits." The questions they ask are, no doubt, intended for more well-known writers. Writers whose work you read and think to yourself: how the eff do they do that? But because I have been questioning my own identity as a writer lately, and because I am in post-workshop mode (thinking about writing; slightly too tipsy to be good at it right now), I thought I'd answer some of the questions these people have put to other writers. Let's see what happens.

Q: How do you write? That is, do you write in shorthand, longhand, or do you use a typewriter or a computer?

Computer. Since college, I cannot write longhand, although my ideas come out longhand because I'm usually away from my computer when I get them. I love the computer because it's fast enough to keep up with thought processes almost in real time. Also, I almost need a visual when writing, to get a quick sense of what I've already written and since my handwriting is awful, there is much less translating that needs to occur.

Q: Are materials important to you, or can you use practically anything?

I am not a writer-artist. Not a poet. Only a visual thinker in a diagrammatic sense. So no, materials are not important at this point in the sense that the only materials I have any deftness with are language materials.

Q: Has your approach to writing changed as new technologies have become available?

It's hard for me to think of myself as a writer, even now. I'm not sure I ever felt myself a "writer" in college or shortly thereafter when computers and laptops specifically were becoming more common. I guess having a blog has helped me plug into a writing sense of a sort, but I don't mine my blog for fiction ideas, though perhaps I should. Blogging has, I suppose, in some ways, changed my writing to feel less formal and private. For some reason, trying to write a journal or diary always felt like more of a put-on than writing a blog does. I suppose that might speak to the idea of the consumption of writing. I don't know how to write when there's no sense of consumption involved. I always assume (mostly wrongly) that there is an audience involved and when the audience is myself or an unknowable future "I" or descendent (as in private writing), I feel too self-conscious to write. It's only when there is a perceived audience, or even just the possibility of an audience that I feel freed to write. And I don't think that stems from a narcissistic place, I think it just stems from a place of wanting to communicate. Writing to communicate, but not necessarily with myself, who often bores me. I'd rather bore you with myself.

Q: And in regard to methods that change: are these structural methods? Or the ways in which you begin a project, or research it?

Oh the internet. I often write with a Google screen open. It's so easy now to access very quickly an idea or sensation or fact that might fit nicely into a story but which I have no prior knowledge of or experience with. That this information is out there, for everyone, strikes me as a pretty amazing thing. I'm writing something for a Comp Lit class now, and it involves some creative non-fiction work. Last night I was trying to remember the details of the murder of the criminology student Imette St. Guillen (but did not have her name or the name of the bar where she met her murderer) so I Googled something along the lines of "manhattan student bar murder" and very quickly found the relevant reports. I also found out that she was murdered by a bouncer after leaving the bar The Falls which was owned by the Dorrian family, also the owners of Dorrian's Red Hand, the bar where Robert Chambers and Jennifer (and just now, I had to Google the victim's last name) Levin met. Levin was later murdered in Central Park, by Chambers, after they left Dorrian's.

The fact that this is all right there when we want it still just blows my fucking mind. And I think it helps explain why a lot of contemporary writing embraces fragment and collage. There is so much information out there. We are flooded by it, constantly. Writing is a selection process that involves privileging certain aspects of that information. Which is cool.

Q: What do these first drafts look like? How detailed are they? It sounds as though they help you to find the work’s character, so that you can then “saturate” yourself with it — is that a fair way of putting it?

My drafts are slow and methodical. I can't just bust something out and go back later and revise it. Because I don't map out what I'm going to write before I write it, what follows, in my writing, from something else, usually feels more or less integral to me to the rest of the story. Like a Jenga piece. You might be able to take one out without the whole thing crashing to the ground, but you it's just as likely that the structure of the whole thing will be compromised if you do. That's on a conceptual level. On a sentence level I'm usually a mess for the first couple of drafts.

Q: Do you have a set schedule?

Going to graduate school to write has given me less general writing time than I've ever had. This works for me, in some ways, because I have to squeeze it in where I can. It almost feels like I'm doing something illicit when I write (because, really, I should be class planning or grading or reading Kant or whatever) which makes it kind of exciting. I also work well under deadlines. I worked on a piece all last summer but it didn't turn into anything until I realized I had to turn something in to my workshop in a week and a half. Writing under deadline and writing when I have no time to write (even if antithetical to my whole raison d'etre for being in grad school) helps me produce pieces that have a certain pressure or drive to them. If I'm really being honest, I probably write 0-3 hours per week, except weeks when I have writings due, and then I write 10-15 hours. But a lot of the "writing" I do is in my head, too, so if I were being all lawyerly about it, I could be billing far more hours than I spend actually typing. In fact--and I think this is true of a lot of writers--I'm never really not writing. But I'm often not typing.

Q: What kind of environment do you prefer to work in?

I thought for a long time that the kind of chair or desk I wrote in or on (or specifics like how tall the desk was) mattered. Or that a space had to have a certain balance between charming mess and pristine organization for me to be productive in it. But in grad school shit comes due and you just have to write and there's not really a lot of luxury of space or time to be hemming and hawing over what setting puts one in the mood. Especially since I moved this summer, I've had to sort of abandon the romantic idea of a perfect setting. I've even been trying to write in coffee shops and been marginally successful with that. I can write to classical music or free jazz (math and anti-math) but not to, say, indie rock, unless it's Modest Mouse, which for some reason works for me.

Q: What do you find to be the discomforts of writing? Are there aspects of writing that are unplanned or uncomfortable?

Everything about writing is uncomfortable. It is almost always the last thing I want to do but the first thing I should be doing. The trick is to get into a space that is so focused and obsessive that the idea of doing anything else, for a little while, does not even cross the mind. It's like the opposite of meditation, but within the same sort of nothing-space.

And now that I've answered these questions, which presuppose the existence of an identification as a Writer, am I any closer to being a Writer? Dunno. But I just might be tired enough to finally go to bed.


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