Monday, February 22, 2010

The Process Of Writing ...

Who am I to disobey?

I was just sitting in my office, my feet propped up on my desk, reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird – yes, still; I'm almost finished with it – when a vague idea popped into my head for a blog post about the process of writing.

I continued reading, but the idea kept expanding, so I grabbed a sticky note to jot down a few words about what I might want to write about later, and the idea became very insistent, so I stopped reading, grabbed my laptop, plopped down on my loveseat which is where most of my writing takes place these days, and here we are.

I've been writing for forever. When I was three, my mom taught me to print my name, and while I wasn't writing any great masterpieces in crayon, I do have rather early memories of folding a few pieces of paper in half to make a little book and then setting about the business of writing and illustrating.

Writing has always been very easy for me, so much so that it took me most of my life to understand that there was any real value in what I was doing. Nobody makes a big deal out of breathing. Most people can do it. It's unremarkable. And that's how I think about writing. I just do it. When I write for myself, that is. I open up a blank post on my screen and start clacking away and I hit "Publish." Unfiltered. I just write. Sometimes it makes more sense than others.

But every so often, when I have to write something for someone else, writing suddenly seems much more difficult. Not the writing, exactly; once I hit my stride, I'm off to the races. But there are those moments, staring at a blank piece of virtual paper, when the lede won't come. I tell myself to type whatever I want to type, that no one will see it, that it can be the worst sentence ever constructed and it won't matter because I'll write something else.

But very often, I'll sit there, stymied, trying to compose in my brain before I commit anything to the screen. Eventually, something comes. But often, it doesn't feel right. It doesn't hang together. It doesn't ring true.

At which point, what's called for is to start over. Which is when my writerly brain really implodes.

It feels so wasteful to throw out a lede. So much effort went into cobbling those words together. How could I possibly ignore them in favor of something completely different?

And yet, I do. I have. And it's always a little sad.

Years and years ago, when I worked at the Chicago Tribune, I had an assignment. I do believe it was my first assignment, which was notable because I was not a writer for the Trib. I was an Editorial employee, but my legitimacy in the newsroom was one notch higher than the Polish ladies who vacuumed, loudly and always on deadline.

I remember sitting in front of my computer, stuck. I'd type a few words and then backspace them out of their brief existence. And then I'd type a few more.

Gary Dretzka, who was some high-level features department type and whose office was very near my desk, noticed my lack of clacking. I do believe I made a comment about being unsure of how to start. And he told me to write past the lede, to write a throwaway sentence and get into the story, that I could come back later and write the right lede, the lede that fit, the lede the piece deserved.

Eventually, I started writing. I remember filing to my editor and hearing a lot of ensuing clacking as she reworked my piece. But that is another story for another time.

Some days or weeks or months later, a call was transferred to me from the switchboard. The person on the phone was wondering what had happened to G. Gordon Liddy's radio show. I had no idea. I wasn't aware that he had gone off the air. But it was decided by people who made far more money than me that the answer to the caller's question might make for an interesting story, and so it was assigned to me and Rick Kogan.

Rick is one of my all-time favorite writers. His words flow with an ease I've always admired. One day, near Christmas, we went out for a holiday lunch, and walking back to the paper, I read a piece of his about holiday decorations that ran on A1. I vividly remember reading the phrase "seasonal Cezanne" and literally stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Say it out loud: seasonal Cezanne. It's almost another language, the most exquisite alliteration. I have read millions of words since that day, I'm sure. But those two stay with me, like a small treasure I keep tucked away.

I had never worked on a story with Rick. And even though we were friends, I was a bit awe-struck at the notion of sharing a byline with him. But once we'd received our assignment, he plunked down at a terminal on the rim of the features copy desk and told me to pull up a chair so we could get started.

"We don't know anything yet," I said.

Oh, I was so young. Rick didn't need to report anything first. Rick started writing. He had a lede in mind, so he wrote it. And then he kept writing. And when he came to a detail we lacked, he typed in "xxxxx" and kept writing. We'd go back and fill in details later.

It was fascinating to watch. It never dawned on me to start writing first.

I was, and am, a very linear writer. It's my process. For assignments, I do research, I do interviews, I transcribe interviews (though I'd rather have my gums scraped), and then I write.

Well, I stare at my blank screen. And then I write, eventually.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott writes of putting "down one damn word after another, which is, let's face it, what writing finally boils down to."

Just one word after another, but oh, what mysticism lies therein, what power. Each word, itself, stands alone and may or may not excite or inspire. But words, combined, just so, paint pictures and transport, evoke and entertain and inform.

And now my brain has stopped churning. On this topic, it's had its say. For now, anyway.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hence the title "Bird by Bird." When Annie Lamott's brother struggled writing a report about birds, her father told him to write the report "bird by bird." And writing "past" the lead is an old trick to beat writer's block. And it works.

6:16 PM  

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