It’s All in My Head

My writing process, should I ever become noteworthy, will be the despair of Literature students everywhere. I know people who live and die by the outline, but outlines are the arch nemesis to my creative process—no good has ever come of my attempting one, either for class or on my own.

And character sketches? My characters and I came to an agreement long ago that I would give them names, and descriptions, and send them out into the worlds I create to make their fortunes. As long as they do roughly what I instruct them to, and stay more-or-less on the side I need them to (the last thing I need is my main protagonist becoming my main antagonist three-quarters of the way through a story with no backup plan in place), I mostly sit on their shoulders and let them run the show. This came about because whenever I try to force my characters too strongly in a particular direction or down a particular plotline, it invariably ends in full-blown disaster and prodigious use of my delete key.

Frankly, the Delete key is too small and out-of-the-way on my laptop to be bothered with.

So, about 85% of my writing process, such as it is, takes place in my head—long before I sit down anywhere near a computer. First, I am struck with a story idea. I’ve had ideas hit me in the form of a single quote, a flash of what the main character looks like, a plotline, an entire scene, even something as nebulous as a theme I’d like to convey. Whatever it is, I grab on to it and mull it over, in my mind, for weeks. I’ll contemplate things while I’m driving to work, eating lunch, falling asleep in bed, brushing my teeth, in line at the grocery store—whatever people normally put down on paper to flesh out a story idea, I lay out in my head. Eventually my seed of an idea stretches out in my brain like a vast landscape, and only when I feel like I have something to work with—enough pages of notes, so to speak—do I finally fire up the computer and get to the business of bringing my creation to life.

My mental organization carries me throughout the entirety of my writing. Plotline stressing me out? I worry it like a dog with a bone, but only in my head. Need to refine a scene? I’ll run dialogue with my characters, but no one will ever find any written evidence of my drafts. The only partial drafts of my work are in the wrinkles of my brain, and the only times I take actual, physical notes are when something comes to me at so inopportune a time that I worry I’ll forget what I’ve come up with.

I wonder, sometimes, if there are other people who have such a heavily mental process to their writing. I suppose I find physical outlining cumbersome; it only slows me down and I was always resentful when a professor insisted upon it in class. At the same time, I’ve never met two people with the same writing process, and I’m always fascinated by what fellow writers need to wrangle their creativity. Maybe one day I’ll regret not having notes to go with my work. Maybe my process will change. Maybe my brain will burst, a shower of characters and plotlines raining down all around me in gleeful freedom. Until such a time, however, I’m perfectly content to let it remain all in my head.

On writing, and the choice I never made

I was a storyteller long before I understood the power inherent in pulling words together to create a world, to manipulate characters, to bring plots and arcs and drama to life on pages. I have been writing since the concept was introduced to me in the first grade by my teacher Mrs. Valerie Frederick, and for better or worse, she encouraged my fumbling six-year-old attempts. I can’t remember now what I wrote about — I shudder to think of the Herculean task that woman took on reading what must have been the barely coherent ramblings of her students— but she awoke my Muse with a vengeance that has yet to be satisfied more than two decades later.

(An aside, and a lesson to all you teachers out there, wondering if you’re making a difference: As a Navy brat, I attended eight different schools from Kindergarten through high school graduation, so for me to remember the full name of my first-grade teacher is no small thing. If I ever manage to come across Mrs. Frederick, who I can picture in my mind with startling clarity (she was a teacher at Birdneck Elementary School, Virginia Beach, VA, in the early ’90s) I plan to thank her for helping to plant the seeds of what became an enduring love of my life.)

But back to my Muse, who gripped me at age six, before I even knew what a Muse was, much less what to do with her. She has always been a presence in my mind, urging me to revel in words and the joys they can bring. Even when I’m not writing myself, I’m enjoying the creations others have woven, and the things I enjoy the most now are the things I’ve enjoyed my entire life: books, music, movies, plays; the worlds others pull from nothingness and bring to life are the worlds I want to be a part of, and the feelings they invoke are the feelings I want to share. But beyond that, I want to grasp at my own universes, invoke my own feelings and throw them out there for other people to experience. That’s what being a writer is for me.

This is who I am, and who I’ve always been. I just didn’t always understand that it wasn’t a choice I was making. Back when I wanted to be a marine biologist, or an environmental lawyer. When I was suffering through biology labs in college (honestly, a vegetarian trying to dissect a sheep’s eye is worth a story all its own; do you have any idea how bouncy — but I digress) or finally coming to my senses and settling on Philosophy and Classical Civilizations as the wholly impractical but completely enthralling double major I would eventually graduate with. Still, it took careers in marketing, graphic design, and editing before I finally smacked myself mentally and gave myself permission to say out loud that I wanted to start being a writer — the thing I’ve always been anyway, whether I meant to be or not.

Because whether I was six and writing about my cat (Tigger; he was a good cat) sixteen and writing angst-filled poetry (you did it, too, don’t pretend you didn’t), or just chasing sheep eyes around a college biology lab (seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve — but I digress again), my Muse has always been on my shoulder, looking around, taking notes, waiting for me to get done with my so-called “choices,” so we can get down to what we’ve both really known all along. I’m sure she’s quite relieved that I’ve finally started listening.

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” —Ernest Hemingway
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