Writing While Not Writing

Though the theme of our gathering at Glen Brook was ‘Grounds for Optimism,’ as sometimes happens in a group of independent thinkers, our Sunday morning discussion meandered off-theme to a wide-ranging discussion of our own writing processes.  A number of us spoke to our challenges, our ‘fallow’ times, our quirky tricks of our trade.  A breakthrough for a number of us was the realization that our times of not writing can sometimes be an integral part of our writing. 

For me, this often takes the form of what I call "hidden drafts" that may lead to a gradually revealed piece of finished work.  I joke that 95% of my editing happen before I start to write, but that estimate may not really be that far off the mark.  The words I firmly set to posterity have often been imagined, mulled over and reworked 5 or 6 times before my hands ever hit the keyboard. 

Since a good bit of my writing is spurred by my explorations of a distant place, my first draft is often one of anticipation; imagining an adventure, poring over maps, reading guide books, plant keys, packing my gear (including my trusty black-bound sketch journal). My thoughts about the trip to come as I board the airplane, tool down the highway, or repack at the trailhead inform the experience, and in turn will help shape the narrative.  Call this draft zero or minus one.

I feel strongly that experience itself is the fundamental first draft.  Moving through place with my senses wide open, attending to each landscape, organism and person I meet as if they had a fascinating story to tell me. The phenomenologist/writer David Abram's says that the human body is the most sensitive recording device ever invented.  Go do something exciting, relaxing, rejuvenating, enlivening to you.  Reflect on anything done passionately and try to remember the totality of the experience - all we need in a great story is right there, writ in skin and senses.  To re-member is to link the various parts of a body's knowing into a whole cloth reflection. 

My aforementioned journal is oft the repository for another edition of that experience.  I have an inveterate inner narrator; phrases and images continually jump into my consciousness as I walk, dictated from one part of my sensory/cognitive apparatus to another.  As there are times when memory may not be enough to record the experience, it is important to bring along tools that I'm extremely comfortable with, which feel almost ritualized and sacred when I pick them up.  I've used the same style of blank-paged journal for 20 years; each new white page beckons me as an uncarved block full of limitless potential.  Into that journal, as I move through an experience, go phrases, fleeting lines of poetry, ideas for an essay, sketches for a painting.  Journal entries, both of words and images, serve as mnemonics to provoke thoughtful explorations later on and as such encompass draft 2 (or perhaps 1b).

The next two drafts weave in and out of each other: the stories I tell of what I've done, what I felt while I was doing it, what I think the significance of it all may be.  This is the story I tell to others close to me (or sometimes to the perfectly placed-stranger).  I tell and retell them to myself as well as I take my daily walks.  For me, talking/walking help to weave the facts, the themes, and the reflections that constitute a good part of what will eventually reach the page.

As for the act of writing itself, my email could almost be considered a separate draft.  Spontaneous electronic expositions to good friends and ingenious comrades constitute a robust electronic record of an experience: if a story is worth telling, it is worth saving.  Many of my essays have grown from the roots of such messages.  While I strive for 'mindful' experience, I hope that the writing itself will be pretty mindless.  Not that I don't edit as I compose, but because I have often thought or said aloud a good bit of my piece before I launch into the actual writing, I can usually tell as the words are coming out when something doesn't ring true. 

But what about those times when I’m struggling to capture the words on paper or screen?  When I have writer's block I invariably seek some new, vivid experience or a well formed distraction (sometimes an evocative movie or great music will do).  Even if what I do seemingly has no bearing on what I'm trying to write, being in my body - out of my mind - allows me to access something, often exactly what I need to shake the writing loose from that vast wilderness of imagination stored within.  Worst case, I have done something fully enlivening, and perhaps found new stories to tell some other day.  When stuck, I lean on what got me to start - new experiences, meaningful conversations, walking meditations, well-timed distractions - to get my muse pumped up again.  Learn what turns your muse on and be willing to indulge as needed.  When working, mine happens to prefer strong coffee in the morning and red wine in the evening.

There's an entire industry devoted to writing and selling books about how to liberate the "writer within."  Some swear by these.  To be honest, I'm not overly fond of 'how to' books.  Though directed exercises work very well for some people, my rebellious resistance comes up quite strongly (I really don’t cotton to guided imagery either).  I do, however, turn to biographies and auto-biographies of writers (and painters, photographers, filmmakers) whose works I admire for useful ideas about writing and for much needed inspiration.  And, no matter how stodgy it seems, I am absolutely GA-GA over the big ol' New Century Dictionary that I inherited from my mom.  Sometimes taking an etymological journey through a single word can spark an entire essay.

From this drafty perspective, I can’t clearly demarcate what is not-writing from the words streaming onto the page.  There is a vast continuum (multi-directional), from imagination, through experience, reflection and into and out of the writing itself.  So fear not, intrepid fellow scribes.  When it seems like you are most stuck, on some level you may be doing some of your best writing.