The Not-Writing Process

November 10, 2014 § 14 Comments

waiting_in_grand_central_station-690x492I am a terrible, terrible writer. Look at me: I have all the blessings of time, a reasonable income, an agent–and still it has taken me months to revise the last draft of my memoir and get it to the agent who has already expressed that she would like to sell it.

They aren’t big revisions.

The memoir has, at this point, taken eleven years. Two years to live it and nine to write it. Isn’t it supposed to be faster than this? Don’t good ideas come out, get whipped through a few drafts, sweat sweat write write and out the door?

Evidently not.

As it turns out, I needed five years of distance before organizing the journals into a book. Two years of drafts. A year of waiting. Another year of polishing and querying. In that timeline, why not take another three months to determine how, exactly, I am going to add the less-than-ten-paragraphs needed to clarify an important relationship, with someone whom in real life I prefer not to hurt?

Over at Medium, Quinn Norton writes:

There is more than one kind of thought. There are thoughts you cannot complete within a month, or a fiscal quarter, just as there are thoughts that can occupy less than a vacation period, a weekend, or a smoke break. Like the spectrum of photonic behavior, thoughts come in a nearly infinite range of lengths and frequencies, and always move at the exact pace of human life, wherever they are in the universe. Some thoughts are long, they can take years to think, or a lifetime. Some thoughts take many lifetimes, and we hand them off to the next generation like the batons in a relay race. Some of these are the best of thoughts, even if they can be the least productive. Lifetimes along, they shift the whole world, like a secret lever built and placed by the loving imaginations of thousands of unproductive stargazers.

It’s OK to take the time your writing needs. Meanwhile, check out Ms. Norton’s “Against Productivity: This Essay Took Four Years to Write.” And then put down your pen and go take a walk. Or a vacation. Or a year to think your long thoughts.

That’s OK.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

§ 14 Responses to The Not-Writing Process

  • Ohhh…thank you, thank you, thank you. I will take off the hair shirt now and go enjoy my breakfast.

  • Mom says:

    Me too Rebecca ^^ But first I will print this off and squirrel it away to be used as a discernment tool when I feel I’ve “simmered” too long. Chronic procrastination is my inner demon beast. I swear I won’t allow this fab peice to become my “reason” to wait…inactive…on an on…:)

  • Janice Gary says:

    This essay knocked me out! Thanks for introducing me to a wonderful writer.

  • I agree. It’s okay to take time. There’s been a lot of emphasis on keeping publishing schedules the last few years, but the writing often suffers.

  • I didn’t do this so much, per se, for my first two memoirs. But I’m rolling around this new idea for a piece about a five-day road trip linked to aging and it needs more time to simmer, ferment, age like wine or olive oil. This one just needs more space. I’m gathering notes, joking down thoughts, taking walks, reading, looking long at the night sky, drinking lots of coffee, tea, wine, and talking to others. This one needs to breath. Thanks for reminding me that this process is okay, even necessary.

  • Dana says:

    Your timing is perfect for me as I struggle to revise my memoir and wonder why I am taking so darn long. Thank you!

  • You had me at the title. Here’s to all not-writing writers!

  • pinklightsabre says:

    Lawrence Block writes about why procrastination is OK sometimes and I get that. But I do admit, I love when it comes fast and fresh. That doesn’t happen enough, but it’s oh so sweet when it does.

  • altamisal says:

    This article goes into the subject in some depth:

    pinklightsabre, I think the point of procrastination is that it’s not yet time for it to come fast and fresh. Or in other words, you’re still gearing up for that.

  • Thank you for sharing. I just read the essay. It made me cry, not because it made me sad but because it brought me relief. This is a must read not only for writers but for all of us who are too hard on ourselves.

  • […] An interesting article on one writer’s non-writing process can be found here. […]

  • John says:

    It’s a great point. I think if there is an event you wish to write about it is important to write the facts down as they happen (keeping in mind, of course, the old adage that there are three versions of the truth: yours, mine, and the actual truth). Notes, memories, impressions — all important to get down right away.

    Then put it away.

    As writers we need time. Time to process what has happened. And, more importantly, we need time to make connections to life. What I mean is: writing about XYZ that happened to me is fine, but there needs to be a sense of connection to something outside of “Me”. People like to read memoir, but the most successful ones make connections to the rest of the word, not just to the world of “Me”. I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well. But, hopefully you know what I am trying to say. Time gives us the chance to give context and meaning to XYZ. Trying to write it all out immediately, especially if XYZ is an intensely emotional event can give some power to the writing — but it can also turn into angry or bitter writing.

    Time is necessary to make sense of XYZ. Time comes with no limit, like a parking meter. Time will take as much time as it needs.

    Your writing will be better for it.

    I wouldn’t call you a “terrible, terrible writer.” I’d call you a thoughtful writer who wants to be sure her words say exactly what her soul and mind want them to say.

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