Making It Look Easy: The Writing Process

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My partner’s mom read The Boy in the Well the other day and, to my relief, really enjoyed it. As she praised it, she mentioned how the writing just “flows out of you.” I had no choice but to laugh, because, as anyone who has been a writer for any amount of time can tell you, it almost never just flows out easily.

Those six stories that just “flowed out of me” took three years to finish. They went through maybe half a dozen different drafts each. For some of them, not much changed between the first and final drafts; “The Ambulance Driver,” at a terse 190 words long, has only altered by a few words here and there to add precision and clarity. Others, like “The Boy in the Well,” have had sections put in and taken out, multiple endings attached, and witnessed me on the verge of madness trying to decide not just what a character would say but how they should say it. It really isn’t a pretty process, and it’s little wonder that so many creative writers have turned to addiction and/or often end up divorced.

None of that comes through in polished writing, though. I often tell my writing students that writing is the opposite of math; math teachers want to see all of your work, but English teachers (and readers in general) want to see all the seams welded closed, no untidy strands anywhere. So much of my own writing takes place in the editing stage, when I go through ruthlessly and look for any scene, sentence, or even individual word that does not belong.

One of the great writing advice clichés is “kill your darlings,” and nothing sticks out as fast as a line that a writer left because they liked it, even if it brought the rest of the story to a screeching halt. Short stories are especially susceptible to this, and the shorter they are, the more certain you have to be about every single word. Even a longer story (anything over ten pages or so) has to emphasize this kind of careful grooming. All of this is an incredibly painful and time-consuming process, which is why it is sometimes much easier to write something new than to go back to something and spend several months working out all of the kinks.

Lots of people have this idea that a writers just sits down at a laptop or in front of a notebook and bullshits whatever random crap enters their mind, and that word vomit magically becomes some best-selling novel. (And given some of the “hit” books in recent history, perhaps on some level that is true.) But a real writer—someone who cares much more about craft than the possibility of a royalty check—has to wrestle with his/her own work to accomplish anything.

Take Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, for example. Both writers have a style that could be described as “easy reading” because, as writers, they’ve done almost all the work for you; all you have to do is enjoy the ride. Reading Cat’s Cradle, one could think that Vonnegut wrote it in an afternoon since we can read it that quickly. However, his writing process was pain-staking: he refused to move on to another page until the page he was writing was perfect.

Brautigan had a similar need to revise and edit constantly; his friend and biographer Keith Abbott once told me at Naropa that Trout Fishing in America went through seventeen separate drafts before it was finally published as the quick, easy read we now think of as a classic novel from the 1960s.

This is not to say that those divine moments of inspiration don’t appear from time to time. There are moments when you’re writing something that you know is gold, and the thing almost seems to write itself. If you’re exceptionally lucky, it doesn’t even need all that much revision afterward. But those moments are rare, and a real writer knows to appreciate them when they come, because between those bouts of inspired genius are long, long stretches of doubt, bad writing, and endless revision.