Feeding the White Elephant: Three Ways to Make the Writing Life Work

"Let me drive."

“Let me drive.”

My friend and sister Siren Susan Lilley tapped me for a blog tour on writing processes. Writing about writing is serious work for us, but whatever Susan instigates, you can bet it’ll feel like running off to play hooky. In fact, you can scamper away with her by picking up her collection of poems, Satellite Beach, and disappear on forbidden field trips of her devising. Time spent reading her work is impossible to regret.

1. What are you working on?

The simple answer is two books.

The first is a collection of narrative nonfiction essays called The Naked Australian and Other First Dates.

BorderlandThe second was a book called Borderland, which I wanted to be a kind of natural history of the Border Collie breed, but which ended up being about my own dog, Mick.

Writing two books at once is a little like learning two languages at once. The cognates should help, but they don’t. It takes a lot longer to say anything intelligible, but in the end, you’re supposed to be all the better for it.

2. How does your work differ from others of the genre?

The simple answer is that my narrative nonfiction differs in the way that I differ. I’m a tall, curly-haired chick from New Jersey. I admire humor immensely, therefore I’m almost never funny. To compensate, I offer reckless fascination for death, grief, and evil. I go there without blinking. Don’t follow me.

Whole branches of my family won’t speak of my novel, Body Sharers. I don’t know why.

The honest answer to how my work differs from other narrative nonfiction is that I work all day every day to make sure it doesn’t. My hours are wrung with exquisite pains to make my work live up to the prose around me. A fraction, an approximation, is the best I hope for.

If I parade a few familiar names here, perhaps you’ll understand my excruciation: E. B. White, Loren Eiseley, Virginia Woolf, Terry Tempest Williams, Michael Pollan, Rebecca Skloot, E. O. Wilson, Margaret Atwood, Diane Ackerman. Many more names, soon to be well known, keep me striving all the harder: Josh Swiller, Paul Lisicky, Marcia Aldrich, John Henry Fleming, Lia Purpura, Ira Sukrungruang, Lucia Perillo, and I could, should, go on. But I have some writing to do.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I don’t know. The answer to that question has been under hot investigation since I was a child. Asked to read some of my own “angsty adolescent prose” for a recent fundraiser, I broke out an old box of yellowed papers. To my horror, I discovered I haven’t changed in thirty years. On these scribbled pages I’m wringing my hands over three questions: why do I love my dog Patches so much, why do I dream I can fly, and why do I write about dogs, about flying, and about writing about dogs and flying? I even found a short story I’d written for a class. It’s about a woman who wakes up flying and loses her dog.

In red pen, my professor wrote, “Where to with this flying?”

I still don’t know.

4. How does your writing process work?

The best answer I know was given by John Cleese, and in trying to arrange my life to facilitate the practice my craft, I’ve listened to this lecture many times.

The honest answer to “How does your writing process work?” is that it doesn’t.

Lord_White_ElephantIf writing is a “gift,” then mine is a white elephant. Ask my poor husband, Alby. All my life I’ve been driven to wield language to create narratives. To me, a narrative, written or spoken, is a kind of virtual reality code. I write with the purpose that my narratives, whether fiction or nonfiction, might convey those experiences to others as vividly and enjoyably as possible. I do it so that my readers might more richly live, as I have more richly lived thanks to the narratives of others. I’m often plagued by a fear of narcissism (who do I think I am that I have a story worth reading?), but the truth is I write from much humbler place, a place of gratitude, the Golden Rule: as I would wish others to tell me a good story, so do I try to write one. I live with constant fear that I can’t, that I’m not up to the task. To be driven to participate in this particular virtual-reality give-and-take requires an expenditure of more time, effort, and money (money I paid and money I failed to earn) than I dare quantify. I don’t consider myself a gambler, yet I live the biggest gamble I know.

That said:

Three Ways to Make the Writing Life Work

525px-Airavata.svgThe simplest answer to “How does your writing process work?” is this: to feed my beautiful albino elephant takes three kinds of work: quantity, quality, and submission.

To function at their peak, these three types of work each require three- to ten-hour blocks of time, and preferably  you alternate them on five to seven consecutive days a week year-round. In other words, quit your day job, abandon your family, marry or inherit money, work part-time (half a day or half the year), or just shoot the elephant.

Time to play?

Time to play?

1. On a Quantity Workday, I sit down with a big block of time (at least three hours) and a word-count goal. I write. I don’t look back. I don’t question. If I need more information, I don’t go looking for it. I make a note in brackets to [go look this stuff up later]. I simply write without judgment until I hit or exceed my goal. A friend calls this the “crap-draft” because the entire thing smells terrible. If you have a Border Collie, you will have to shoot the tennis-ball cannon for him, periodically get up, stretch, and take him out for Frisbee.

2. On a Quality Workday, I sit down with whatever time I have, preferably three to ten hours. Ten hours is about my max before my eyes and neck and other body parts begin to creak, crack, crumble, and fall off. On a quality day, all I do is look back. It’s like visiting a neglected garden that went to seed and weed. I prune great branches, rip stuff out by the roots (even refined and effective stuff that took me months of quality revision), and stumble into cat poo. I toggle between and to dither over words, I visit books and articles and websites, scour my own emails, chats, notes, and calendars, and coddle whatever tender seedlings remain. I do that fully aware that in a few months, I may rip them out by the roots.

3. On a Day of Submission, which I schedule in my calendar, I spend at least ten hours exploring journals and contests, trying to match my work with their editorial needs, and crafting cover letters. They basically say, “Hello, sorry to clutter your in-box. May I please have a mindless rejection? Thank you.”

And now for a poem called I Long to Hold the Poetry Editor’s Penis in My Hand.”

A Day of Submission used to involve sitting on my living room floor with a printer, my submission record, reams of paper, stacks of envelopes, a bag of Oreos, and a five-o’clock deadline at the Post Office. Now most submissions get made online, and I can neglect dog and husband well into the night.

Often a Day of Submission means I fall into quality-work-day behaviors as I look over my stories and find infelicities. I sometimes end up boiling away over a thousand words from an essay, along with most of the day’s allotted submission hours.  These reduction-sauce essays are usually zestier for the time spent, there’s no question. However, the process not only reduces the length of my essays, but the number of my submissions. If you know of a way to become more promiscuous in my editorial penis-holding, I’m all ears.

What’s missing from my list of ways to make the writing life work is The Author Platform. For that, you’ll need to cobble a doppelganger. Or maybe get a good golem. Or invest in a monstrous draft animal. Mine works for peanuts.

What’s your process? How do you feed your white elephant? We want to know. Comment below.

Katie Riegel

Katie Riegel

Next up is poet and sister Siren Katherine (Katie) Riegel. She is one of the most loving and lovable people we are blessed to have in the Tampa Bay writing community. Her work is sumptuous, sexy, wise, and alive with the beasts you know, the beasts you want to know, and the beasts you are. The title alone of her latest collection, What the Mouth Was Made For, will melt you.

She knows how to handle rejection too.


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