Every writer has their own writing process, particular and quirky, characterized by aspects that feel normal to them but strange to others and aspects that they’re afraid are very weird but resonate with others. We’re endlessly fascinated with interviews on the writing process, particularly with famous or successful writers, hoping to see something of ourselves in them, hoping to pick up some trick that always works or strategy that will guarantee success.
I don’t believe there is a strategy that guarantees success, and the things we are so often told to do—because successful writers do them—may not be universal. That is, we think they’re successful strategies because successful writers engage in them, but what if they just work particularly well for those particular writers? What if our own individual writing processes must be designed specifically for us, an extension of who we are and also a creation of our own weird and wondrous imaginations? Whenever I teach, I encourage students to find and respect their own processes.
In any case, here’s mine. Or at least, here’s what mine looks like for the writing of a poem, on most days.
1. I’ve got time and maybe a little mental itch that could be a poem (and I’m all caught up on The Good Place), so I’ll sit down and try to write.
That means turning off the television and any music, and picking up my laptop. Yes, I write even first drafts on the computer, my typing fingers faster than my handwriting so I can attempt to catch the thoughts before they flit away. And no, I can’t listen to music or television because the music of language itself is part of the writing of the poem, and other music interferes with that. It would be like listening to two different songs at the same time.
As for the “mental itch”—it could be a phrase, a sentence, a half-formed image. It could be a restless feeling that’s not in the muscle, but in the mind. It could be dull sadness that feels like extra gravity, or a half-remembered dream. Sometimes I need the poem to make sense of the world, and sometimes I need to refocus myself so I can bring the partially formed poem to the surface.
2. I’m doing it! I’m writing a poem!
Oh, the first sentence or two. They’re like the beginning of a bike ride, when you’re still finding your balance. Then you find it and pick up speed, not caring where you’re going, just feeling that movement and balance. This usually happens fast for me, the first third or so of the poem going onto the screen quickly, because the inner critic hasn’t had time to stretch and yawn and wake up enough to start interfering.
3. Am I writing a poem, or is it going to fizzle and die?
Then the doldrums of the middle. This is where I slow down, hit some rough pavement. Suddenly I have to pay attention to where I’m going, because if I don’t I know I won’t get anywhere at all. I start to choose my metaphors with more care, re-read the beginning to see what strategies I haven’t done enough of. I begin to feel the form of the poem shaping itself—long or short lines, a lot of enjambment or a little. Tone has been established; riding that bike becomes like picking my way through a forest. The choices are narrowing what might happen next. That’s not a bad thing most of the time; it’s also gradually showing me a way out. I’m starting to feel where I might go, where that ending might lie, a light in the gloomy underbrush.
Here I often get the desire to start going back through the poem to start cutting things, but I resist. I don’t know what little extraneous string might need to be pulled later to make the ending work. But here, too, I begin to doubt. I could easily get bogged down. I could never find an ending. And if I don’t, then nine times out of ten I’ll never find it. The poem fragment will sit in a forgotten file, pulled out every few months and then dumped back in the “drafts and weaker poems” folder.
4. I got an ending! It’ll need revision, but I wrote a poem!
Eureka! The poem went somewhere! It’s satisfaction and euphoria, a bit of magic. I didn’t know, when I started the poem, that this was the ending I was looking for. I didn’t know where I was going. The ending just appeared before me, like the end of a tunnel: there’s the light! All the flaws of the poem that I knew were there as I was writing, all the little weaknesses and my usual writing tics, can be forgiven, can be changed later, are worth changing later, because I have an ending.
And then I can’t help myself: I start the revision, changing a line break here, cutting an “of course” there (one of my commonly overused phrases), smoothing awkward language. If I’m not sure of a change, I make a copy of the poem to save in case I want to go back to the original, let that copy hang out at the bottom of the document. That frees me up to try out changes. If I really can’t decide, I make a note and know I’ll come back to make that decision later. But oh, it’s done, a first draft, so I read through it a couple of times, testing to make sure the whole thing stands up. If that ending still gives a little ping of pleasure, then I’ve got a completed first draft.
5. Oh, f#%k. Now I have to title it so I can save it.
I suck at titles. I’m almost never happy about a title, and often change them after the individual poems are published. Partly that’s because when I do like a phrase, I may use it for more than one title and then have a book manuscript with several similar-sounding poem titles. But really it’s because I just find it so difficult to title a poem. Should the title be a one-word homage to the theme, directing readers to the heart of the poem? Should it be a sentence-long oblique reference to something outside the poem, so as to not give anything away? What if I use my favorite phrase from the poem, and it happens to be the last line, and that makes the ending flat for the reader? What if I use a bleeding title but that opening line just isn’t strong enough on its own?
6. *takes as long thinking about a title as writing*
Yup. I try several, typing them in and coming close to pressing “Save.” But then I decide no, they don’t work for this poem. They make the poem seem amateurish. They just don’t feel right. The ending, when I write it, usually feels right. I can tell; it’s like a struck bell inside my head. But titles? Eh. They’re when you put your hand on the bell to stop the sound.
7. “Untitled.” Save.
Eventually I’ll get a title. Maybe later today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Then I’ll change the file name. It’ll happen. Maybe it’ll happen when I decide the poem is good enough to send out, and I absolutely must have a title.
8. That was exhausting. I need a nap.
Mental work is tiring! It’s an emotional up and down as well. I’ve been riding bikes and ringing bells and listening to inner music. I’ve been creating the very road I travelled on. I’ll just pull the blanket over me on the couch and rest a while…