Staying Out Of The Headlights: On Finding My Own Writing Process
March 26, 2018 § 136 Comments
By Kara Daly
I’ve always hated writing prompts. They shine headlights on me and I freeze. On-the-spot writing exercises fill with me with fear, creating a barrier between myself and what I need to say. The pressure does the opposite for me what it does for others. I require inspiration and an open field in order to write, whether it’s poetry, prose, or music. But I don’t have to resign myself to a life of being a helpless “vessel.” I can comb my life for patterns, name them, and learn to create the conditions for inspiration to occur, and my field opens.
I had a teacher once, who I love and respect, and whose passion for writing inspires me to this day. But I remember something she said at the beginning of the course that, at the time, struck me deeply, but which seems contrary to how I operate as a writer. She said, “When people tell me they’re a writer, I don’t ask them what they write. I ask them when they write.”
She was getting at the importance of writing everyday. Writers write. Right? I took that to heart and for a few years I wrote everyday; during that time I started publishing for the first time.
But several years later, I realize there’s more than one way to be a writer. Discipline is essential, I think, but the degree depends on the individual. I need a good dose of inspiration in order to write, as well, and writing everyday eventually starts to feel robotic and kills my inspiration. My path to success looks like naming how I operate as a creative, and then setting out to create the conditions for optimal function.
I’m more of a binge writer. I have to pull way back and let my creative pulse breathe. Then, at some point, I go in and I write and write and write. For so much of my life I’ve known this about myself, but I’ve resisted it because I didn’t see this trait in serious writers. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to respect the cyclic nature of my creative life. To know what stage I’m in and act in ways that are supportive.
When I’m in the writing stage, then I can push. I can cancel plans and stay home to produce. After the writing stage, I’m revising and reflecting and finding homes for my work. After that, I need to be out in the world, being social. I also need to be studying and reading regularly. That’s where I collect my material and eventually become inspired, and the process begins again.
Discipline, for me looks like reading and studying regularly, considering myself forever in school. Journaling almost every day and keeping a notebook to write down ideas, observations, to-do lists, quotes, etc. Being disciplined in my studies sometimes jumpstarts the writing process, or it leads me to other projects. This is how I amend my agony over my human-ness. I set my intention, I am machine-like in my studies, and I give myself permission to wait for inspiration.
The other concept that I’ve had to reckon with is audience. Any writer who’s been through academia knows that you have to know your audience, which implies you have to have one. But this is another headlight that freezes me in my place. It brings questions like “Where will this be published?” and “Is this word going to stop an editor from accepting this?” and the whole system shuts off.
I’ve learned that I write best, and sometimes write only if I write for myself. My new protocol is to aim to please me, and me only. Of course, we have to go back during the revision process and check ourselves, or reckon with the person who wrote that, especially if we’re privileged. But in draft one, I’m only comfortable saying what needs to be said if I’m writing to myself.
Sometimes in the revision process, my audience expands to others like me. I write for my generation, I write for other women, for example. But I can’t get there if I don’t first write for myself. Kind of like the old adage, you can’t love someone unless you love yourself first. I always have to come first in my writing.
Kara Daly is a poet and songwriter who, every two years, finds herself needing to relocate to a new city for no reason at all. She’s currently en route to Chicago, but you can find her at www.karadalypoetry.wordpress.com or hear her at www.soundcloud.com/karadaly. Her poetry has been published in The Pacifica Literary Journal, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Blue Monday Review, and Gloom Cupboard.