Part 2- The Shoulders of Giants
So now that you know writing is a process, what IS the process? I’m not just going to regurgitate the Flower/Hayes cognitive model at you, although I do think prewriting, drafting, peer review, revising, and editing are important. The problem is this is designed mostly for teaching undergraduate academic composition. But just to be clear about it, if you were a student in one of my 98 classes I would be swinging from the overhead projectors like a rabid monkey and jamming sparklers up my ass if I thought it would help you get your attention long enough to learn those five terms, so you don’t sit down and write a paper from start to finish in the three hours before class...so I wouldn’t say it’s useless either.
The trouble with codifying this process so discretely is that it’s mostly designed to help college students write a paper—an expository essay that probably has a thesis and some topic sentences and stuff and so if you’re doing that you might say to yourself, “Okay, self. I am now done with my pre-writing. What is the next step in the writing process.” It’s also probably designed to help people who haven’t written before not to end up having an “episode” with their hands wrapped around their dorm-mate’s ADD medication and blithering something about “Youth in Asia.” For most writers this would be—in the words of Jeffery Rush—“more like GUIDELINES.” While writers will do these things, they almost always express themselves as individually as the the writers themselves.
A creative writer might seem to do almost no prewriting, but then if you look more closely, you will find that they just wrote a short story based on another piece they did five years ago and that it’s about this topic they’ve been thinking about for five years. So really, they DID do some prewriting. They’re just a long way from idea wheels, T graphs, and “Okay class, let’s free write for TEN minutes about abortion! YAY!!”
Another example would be revision. Someone under deadline like a journalist learns to revise as their writing. When they finish, their “revision” usually consists of running their eyes down the pagew while they say: “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmyeahlooksgood.” That doesn’t mean they didn’t turn in good copy. It means they have learned their craft well enough to do that aspect of writing almost instantly--often so quickly that it happens within their head as the words are forming. Their reflexes with writing are SO fast they boarder on precognition--they are the Spidermen (and Spiderwomen) of the writing world. "My journalist sense is tingling--oh, I was about to write an adverb!" By contrast a creative writer has different demands and may need to completely rewrite something multiple times.
Also as a writer develops personally, these steps become more organic; they bleed together and mix into a recursive goulash. Some writers (like me) like to sit down and do some revision to get them in the mood of writing before they generate new content. Some pour out new drafts when they’re in emotional phases in their lives and go back and revise them when they’re in intellectual phases. Kurt Vonnegut would rewrite every single page over and over again, until that ONE page was exactly what he wanted, and then go on to the next page.
So it’s not like that model isn't useful...we just need to be sure we give a lot of latitude for different kinds of writing, and understand that Writing About Writing is a blog that focuses on creative writing and specifically fiction. I don’t want all my tech writer friends to hire a prostitute to lure me out into the alley for a a quickie, only to find that what is really going to happen is the “Tech Writers Represent” smack down. (If any of you would like to chime in on what the process looks like to you, that would be awesome.) I also think that as metacognition, it’s specifically limiting in a few key ways—used primarily in high school and college, this model assumes a certain amount of process has already gone on, and I’ll be damned if that part doesn’t need to be spelled out explicitly. It also seems to be designed mostly to get you to the end of writing an essay with a grade that doesn’t suck. That’s not really the goal of real writers.
So here is my somewhat altered writing process for the real writer with emphasis on the creative fiction writer:
“Hey so what do you like writing?” I ask my next-seat-neighbor.
“Mostly sci-fi and fantasy,” Willbehuge answers. “I totally have three sci-fi books already written. And I'm writing this fantasy epic that I think will be six books--or maybe eight if I milk it. I just need to finish this degree, go clean them up a little, and then I’m good to go to find an agent.”
“Oh cool,” I say. “Me too. Well, not with the practically ready manuscripts. Mine need major revisions, but I like sci-fi and fantasy. Well, I kind of like the classics more than contemporary stuff, but any time there’s a really GOOD sci-fi or fantasy book I am in heaven. Have you read any Murakame?”
“Who?” Willbehuge asks.
“Sputnik Sweetheart, 1Q84, Wind Up Bird…”
“Never heard of him,”
I blink. “Oh…well, I guess he can be a little esoteric sometimes. How about Le Guin?”
This time, when I blink, my eyes have to shift for a moment into anime so that they can be in one of those strange letterboxes with JUST my eyes and make that WK-CHK WK-CHK noise as it happens. “Ursala Le Guin. Probably the best science fiction writer since Orwell. Disposessed. Lathe of Heaven. Left Hand of Darkness.”
“I think I saw Lathe of Heaven as a movie,” Willbehuge says. “It had that dude from Willard in it.”
“Okay," I say starting to feel like I'm in the cheese shop skit. "How about George Martin?
“Song of Ice and Fire? Probably the best fantasy series since Lord of the Rings? ”
“I don’t really read much, to tell you the truth. I’m not that into it.”
You think I’m kidding. Or maybe you’ve actually been in a Creative Writing program, and you know the horrifying truth that I’m not. Half to 75 percent of my class didn’t like reading. These are people who think they are writers, want to be writers, dream of being writers and admit quite openly that they don’t like reading. Most just flat out say it, and even though I heard it over and over again, it always just stunned me. The conversation I just showed you happened—with little variation—no less than six times in the three years I was there.
These people are completely baffling to me. People going into film don’t NOT watch movies. Actors don’t avoid seeing plays. Musicians don’t express that they’re not really that into music. And no one would take someone so narcissistic as to only produce this art, without absorbing it, seriously for a moment. What the in the name of Zues’s BUTTHOLE makes so many writers that don’t like reading like they somehow don't have anything to do with each other.
Actually I think there IS an answer. This is my personal, anecdotal, not-supported-by-my-local-sociology-department theory. Writing is the one art form almost everyone knows how to do with a fair degree of proficiency. It’s the one art form that pretty much every high school graduate has trained in for about twelve years. Think about it--you have to go to a special school to get that much training in any other art form. In a world where everyone wants to do the talk show circuit and be rich and famous, suddenly the DREAMS of being a famous something bubble up. No garage band? Too shy to act? Never were much of a painter? How about writing? You can do that! So it becomes this...magnet. Like all the miscellaneous delusions of grandeur file themselves under "writer." And when you realize how many people have a book idea in their head or a couple of chapters tucked away or really think someday they’re going to scribble out a bestseller, you can feel very cold and lonely also having the same delusions. But believe me when I tell you that if you are actually writing, and reading, you have it all on these guys. These people know how to write like most people know how to sing along with the radio. It doesn't make them Andrea Bocelli. It means they’re literate and they like the IDEA of being a writer. Don’t worry about them. You do what you love, and let them have their garage band that is “totally gonna make it!” Check back with them when they're thirty-five, have two kids and a career and ask them how it's going. You'll feel much better. No REALLY.
Because here’s the insane thing. Most of them don’t even like to WRITE. Seriously I sat next to these people in every class I took. “Yeah, I don’t really do much writing except for class." "I haven't really written for fun since high school." They’re in a goddamned creative writing degree talking about how they don’t like to write very much. What. The. HELL???!!!!
The insane, but ubiquitous proclivity of writers who don't fricken read is why reading is on this list. Now you may be thinking to yourself that reading and writing are different skills. They’re different classes. You do them at different times. What’s wrong with this guy? He’s got to be stopped! Grab the pitchforks and torches. TONIGHT, WE DINE IN OAKLAND!!!
Slow down there, turbo. I can defend this argument. Besides, I think if we rethought the connection between reading and writing, we’d have fewer yahoos that think they’re going to be big, famous sci-fi writers without knowing who Le Guin is.
Now I know if you asked people if reading and writing are the same thing, you’ll get some funny looks, but guess what happens if you ask a writer how to be a good writer? Any writer? Anywhere? At any time? Ever? They will mention two things without fail. Oh sure, they will give you some advice. If you ask another writer, they’ll give you some different advice. Write in the morning. Write at night. Get up and dress for work before you write so you feel like it’s a real job. Write in the nude so you feel free. Write upside down with one of those astronaut pens so you're as uncomfortable as possible. Write in the most ergonomically perfect position so you can do it for hours. Write from the heart. Write from an outline. Write only when you have something to say. Write to figure out what is in your heart. Write in black ink. Never write in black ink. Never write about kids. Kids make great fodder. Never write about alcoholics. Alcoholism is a rich topic. Never write about ethics. Dude are you actually TRYING to completely dismiss Russian lit?
Well, you get the idea.
But here’s what you’re going to notice after you’re done giggling at the process of ritual/fetish focused writers who think they aren’t really good writers but their special pen is doing all the work because Edgar Allen Poe touched it once, and Gary Gygax used it to sign a fan’s t-shirt. As you look down your list, all these writers will not have agreed on anything. Not that water is wet or the color of the sky, and especially not about what it takes to be a good writer.
With two exceptions.
Suddenly, these writers who agree on almost nothing, agree on these two things. Every single one of them will have mentioned these two things. Write a lot. Read a lot.
All writers read. Every one of them. I’m not just talking about creative fiction writers. Tech writers. Academic writers. Professional writers. Journalists. All of them read like mad crazy. They all have 1337 reading skills that you wouldn’t believe. And now I’m going to tell you one of the worst kept secrets of all of writerdom that somehow continues to need to be screamed from a megaphone into the ears of every young writer: those that read the most...write the best. Almost without fail or question. And while some writers read far less than others, almost any successful writer reads a lot. A tech writer might not read a lot of fiction, and a journalist might not read much beyond other journalists, but it is impossible to become sensitive to what is good writing without reading, and reading a lot. You have to have that practice seeing the difference between good and bad writing, and it’s not something you can sit down and do in an afternoon. It takes developing an ear. It takes reading great writing. It takes reading horrible writing. It takes reading enough that the difference between great and horrible is something you can intuit within your own words.
Joe and Jane Averagehead can pick up a writing instrument and write without reading a lot. They can write a competent piece of prose. But anyone who wants to be a serious writer, certainly anyone who wants to move others with their writing or scratch out a living with creative forms, must read. They must read like words are water, sipping and drinking deeply throughout every single day.
Reading is as much a part of the writing process as learning the alphabet. Writers read so much that a casual observer wouldn’t be able to tell if books or oxygen were more important to them. Maybe people want to say that it is an extremely open ended way to look at prewriting or something, but it desperately, desperately needs to be said over and over and over again. Reading is part of the writing process. And skipping this part of the process makes for some extremely mediocre writing.