On Writing on Writing
My good friend Elaine was visiting from San Francisco this past weekend, and she asked me how my book was coming along. I found myself incredibly excited to describe this new writing experience. I’ve never tried to make something so ambitious and, to say it plainly, long. Unlike writing I’ve done in the past, this feels different in a thrilling way. I was uncertain what it would be like to sit down with such a large task on my plate, and so far it’s been wild!
Until the past six months, I’ve never been especially interested in reading people write about writing. I’ve always joked that the movie that’s the most likely to win the Oscar is whichever one is the most about Hollywood (case in point, Ben Affleck’s stinker, Argo, about how Hollywood saved America.) News media loves media about news. The same seems to hold true for writers. The familiar symbol is the ouroboros. I’ve noticed many writers have an insatiable appetite for reading other people write about writing: many of the newsletters I receive are chock-a-block in stories of inspiration and block, process and unraveling. I have mostly ignored these stories—and books and interviews—that is, until I started this book project. Now, I am among the hungry, curious to hear about other people’s writing processes, eager to talk about my own.
For the last 10 years, I haven’t been able to make very much time for personal writing. I’ve had to squeeze it into the margins of my life, and until a few years ago, I mostly didn’t manage to succeed. I often wrote for work, and occasionally for magazines, but even then, my time felt so constrained that there was little room for play. I’ve marveled at friends who recommend writing prompts, morning writing exercises, journals. How do they make the time, and once they start, how do they pull themselves away? Writing can feel like a necessity. It can also feel like a luxury. For a long time, all that I could do, it seemed to me, was find a minute here, a minute there, to rapidly squeeze my thoughts onto a page like toothpaste overshooting a toothbrush—a hygiene exercise that still left me with cavities and puffy gums.
Last year, in the first ten months of COVID, I spent a lot of my energy trying to find an apartment for my dad, helping him with downsizing, and then physically making the move. I hired a dear friend full-time to help me run my noodle business, Umi. Once my dad was moved, even though I still had a full-time job, I had made space in my life for other things. And so I allowed myself to begin writing. I think all this bottled-up energy is a major reason why this newsletter came on so fast and heavy.
But your book, you might ask? Haven’t you been pondering that and working on it for a few years? It’s true—I have! But I honestly wasn’t sure what form it would take. It lived inside of me, a desire I couldn’t ignore, but it’s only been through time, conversation, encouragement, and experiment that it started to take a coherent shape. I had to work at odd hours and sacrifice other projects to build towards something I couldn’t totally put my finger on. And even now, even with a book proposal and an annotated outline and several draft chapters under my belt, there’s a lot of mystery in this process. At age 36, I am finally confident enough in my own voice to share it with others without longing for a pseudonym (I did write under a pseudonym as a younger person.) But honestly, my practice still feels very young and inexperienced, and I marvel at the shape it’s taking. Strangely, I feel more like a passenger than a driver, although if I’m not driving, who is?! Perhaps a better (and grosser) metaphor is my own intestines. Even I am amazed at how long and meandering they are! I did feed myself, so am I the one who is helping move the food along? It certainly doesn’t seem like it! But if it’s not me, then who is it? And how long will it take?
Please forgive me for the navel gazing. I thought I would start by describing my process with a little bit of granularity. If this is your thing, you know who you are! I set the rest of you free! I am fast-forwarding past the book idea, the book proposal, determining the chapters, and jumping right into writing the chapters. This is how this has gone for me so far.
I use an app called Scrivener. I love it. It allows me to organize pieces of writing, nest them into each other, search things, compare things. It’s how I wish I could organize my whole life. Now that I like hearing writers talk about writing, I listened to an interview with Elif Batuman (who I love) on the Longform Podcast, and she recommended it.
One chapter at a time, I make a lot of notes and conduct a lot of interviews and write everything out in sloppy (ie poor spelling, no grammar) but very detailed ways. I put each of these things—notes, interviews, scraps—in their own document within a file.
I write an outline based on my notes.
I start a new document, copy the outline into it, and then cut and paste all my notes into the outline.
I read it from end to end. (Am I like a cow with four stomaches, digesting, digesting, digesting?)
I close it and begin writing.
I write like a fire hose. It’s not coherent, well considered, thoughtful, structured. There is a lot of it. I am reminded of one of my cousins who went through a period of mania and would send me these unbelievably long Facebook messages full of his impressions about the day. I sometimes feel a little unhinged; my writing reads breathlessly. For a while afterwards, I cannot quite calm down.
I must always be reading a few things that inform my writing. Right now those two books are The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde from 1983 (recommend! recommend! recommend!) and a collection of essays that span 30 year by Portland writer Sallie Tisdale called Violation, published in 2016. Whenever I don’t want to write but want to be inside the space of my book, I read.
I take long breaks from the writing (because I do still have a job!) and new unexpected things come to mind at the weirdest moments. I add them into the draft highlighted in yellow—a note to return to later.
Now, at some point, I have something written, from beginning to end, and it’s bizarre. I read it and highlight in yellow all the parts that seem especially unformed.
I send it to my closest people and ask them to read it. They give really different feedback. I have to prod them a bit because sometimes what I have doesn’t seem whole. They help me look with new eyes.
I wait and wait and wait. I don’t look at what I wrote. I don’t write anything. I play basketball. I do my job. This part takes at least a week, usually more like a month. I think about what my friends said. I think about what still feels good and what feels sketchy. Then I try not to think about it at all.
After some length of time, determined by the rhythm of my life, I come back and things start to make sense. I begin editing. I have a document called “scraps” for every chapter, and I don’t throw anything away; I just tuck the pieces I am cutting into this other place for safe keeping. The blob starts to take a shape. But it’s a chapter in a book, so it doesn’t have all its input points yet, and I have to move on, repeat this process, leave something behind still gooey and loose. It feels strange and sort of magical. I decide when to move on based on whether I can carve out a big chunk of time (3 days to a week) for that first process for a new chapter: the outline, the cutting and pasting, the writing.
This entire process, including the waiting and basketball playing, is all consuming, and I can’t seem to work on other writing, only wildly different things like contacting schools to buy noodles, trying to learn how to skateboard, cooking dinner. For this reason, these past months, this newsletter has suffered. It may yet suffer for several months to come. I wonder if this is another reason why writers write about writing?! Because it isn’t removed from the work they are doing. I can write about writing right now, even though I’d rather do something like finish my series on Jackie Chan! I swear, I have a lot left to share! But I have to be patient.
One of the most beautiful and new experiences for me in all this is that I don’t have someone else screaming out the definite destination nor such a short deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) that the journey is cut short. It’s okay for me to get lost. I will have help finding my way back. I keep surprising myself. There are things along the way that turn out to be the most interesting parts, things I didn’t see coming. I’ve also learned that I have fixations that crop up over and over that I would never have predicted (ie: aroma, nuclear annihilation, which months certain flowers bloom, sci-fi.) What an incredible gift that Joey and Milkweed (and my community) have given me of time, space, encouragement, and collaboration. It’s still really moving to me, even when I feel waves of insecurity.
One day, lost in a meandering and ponderous chapter about my uncle Doug, I took a moment to read a few paragraphs to Corey about my thoughts on Port Townsend. I didn’t realize I wanted to write down my thoughts about Port Townsend. I didn’t expect it would go into my book on Group Living. And in fact, it may not make the cut. But after I finished reading, he said, “you are making art,” and he didn’t mean it as a compliment about my sentences or my wit, but just that I was lost in something and he recognized that experience as what making art can feel like. I didn’t know until he said it how much I wanted to believe that. And I am still not certain I do. But I’m knee deep, all the same!
This is my current process. It will probably change. There are phases in the future unlike anything I’ve ever done. I am fascinated to experience it. I am curious how the book will gel once I’ve finished digesting the contents. I am also struck by how much mystery there is in this process. There are so many surprises ahead! I hope to keep sharing as I go.