This is the story of my by-the-seat-of-my-pants journey as a priest and a writer. I’ve been meaning to write it for a while, but it took a fabulous post called Where I Write on Wonkomance and a lovely chat afterwards about not comparing ourselves to others on Twitter to finally urge me to do it.
When I graduated from seminary and went to work in my first parish, I was excited about wearing a clerical collar (which has ceased to hold appeal) and about a vision of myself I truly hoped would come to pass—the new, contemplative me who practiced centering prayer in silence in the side chapel every morning before work.
I tried, just like I have my entire adult life, to beat my monkey brain into quiet submission, or to pet it gently, promise God loves it, and then tell it to calm the fuck down in a hissing whisper.
In spiritual direction, I confessed my longing for silence and stillness. My director nodded sagely and gave me good advice. But slowly, over many months together we began to notice something about my spiritual life. All my energy and my sense of intimacy with God came through talking with friends, studying and thinking, or writing sermons.
Years worth of self-flagellation (is that redundant?) began to heal. I wasn’t called to be a contemplative. I had an extraordinarily extroverted spirituality. I did not have to learn to be quiet to be close to God; I only had to be myself. I don’t think anyone had explicitly told me otherwise—it wasn’t an institutional expectation or a formative mentor that had told me to squeeze my square self into the round hole. I think it came from a grass-is-greener type fantasy that being someone else would be easier. And when I let go of it and began to work with the realities of my personality, I felt very free.
With a little hindsight, I can see I’ve lived this journey with my writing process too.
Around this time last year I was gearing up to write my third novel in a NaNoWriMo boot camp. I received the adamant advice that I must have an outline before the month began. Newbie me didn’t rebel. In my previous writing—academic, fiction of all lengths, and in my sermons–I often began with the bones of an outline, just a few plot points to help me anchor the forward movement of my story.
But the person facilitating the boot camp said a few plot points weren’t enough. My outline needed to spell out goal, motivation, and conflict for every scene. She wasn’t trying to hammer me into the wrong hole, but simply help me be prepared for the marathon of writing in a way that she herself found helpful. And I trusted that this must be the right way to write. So I agonized to draft the outline. Two days into the frenzy of writing sprints that is NaNoWriMo, none of my vast and intricate document applied anymore. My characters weren’t who I’d imagined them to be at all.
Twice more, I tried to outline a novel. I read Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation and Conflict and tried writing out a scene by scene synopsis. Again, I found I had to throw it all out. I don’t really know if all this trashed planning was wasted, but I now know it’s not necessary for me.
Over and over again, I’ve found I can’t plan out my fiction writing, or my characters. The only planning that works is to write backstory that won’t go into the actual novel. I can only think about the story in terms of story—not lists or spreadsheets. I think it’s the extroverted part of me—I really need to encounter a fully fleshed out character before I can figure out what he or she will do with the shitty situation and the perfectly imperfect mate I’ve designed.
Here is my process as I have finally accepted it. I offer it because I so needed to hear from other writers how their processes worked and didn’t, defied common wisdom, and caused them the same kind of agonies and ecstasies mine causes me. I also hope others will share the stages of their writing process.
- Wildest Dreams: It usually happens in the middle of church, or in the shower, that I come up with a premise that excites me. Afterwards, I try to explain and get puzzled looks.
- Distracted Driving: I think about it this new idea at all the wrong times and in all the wrong places. I almost drive into parked cars.
- Sadistic stylings: I imagine some characters with extremely dark pasts and weird hang-ups. Ideally these will clash in some delightful way and I cackle aloud in line at the grocery store.
- Character Cocktail Party: I MUST write in each of their points of view to get to know them. (Only once I know their voice can I understand their goals, motivations, and conflicts.) I come to love them as one does a quirky, flawed old friend.
- Butt on couch, words on page: After I write approximately two chapters in each character’s voice, I know in my gut how the whole romantic story arc will unfold, but even then, I cannot write an actual outline or really even explain it to a writing buddy. At this point, if I sketch a few plot points, they might hold. But I don’t even need to. The words will flow as long as I can find time to write. *Knocks on wood*
- I type “The End” and I DO NOT WAIT: I know everyone says you should sit on a draft for a week and come back with fresh eyes. Alone, my eyes will never be fresh. I need people with whom to talk it through. So after a very quick revision for internal consistency (like when I change a character’s name half-way through), I send it off for developmental betas.
- I ask for help: I used to feel really ashamed by how much help I needed from my beta readers because I couldn’t spot the problems myself. Just like I thought I should be able to tame my monkey brain. But the truth is I am an extrovert and my hyper little monkey is the source of great ideas and the energy to write, a lot, while I am also a mom of toddler twins and a full-time priest. It’s like I have a monkey-driven engine in my brain, and all that vine swinging generates power that I can convert into words on the page. (BTW:
I promiseI will never actually write a monkey-punk story)
- I trust myself: This when I get loads of contradictory advice back, because I let people read something rough, and they don’t quite know what’s wrong. I don’t take their advice, but I use it as a diagnostic tool. Criticism removes the scales from my eyes and I do the hard work of revising again. I often do another round of betas before submitting.
When I finally accepted that I am at heart a pantser who writes character driven stories from the gut, I began to trust my process so much more. There are moments, like today, when I have all the notes back from the first round of betas, and I’m daunted to begin the surgery that has to happen now. But I know I will, once I post this.
I would really love to hear about other people’s writing process. And also if it has changed over time. Please share!
Okay, now…*Presses Publish*