July 19, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Margaret Moore
Someone once told me that I must be going about the writing process all wrong.
The remark came from an individual who was eager to see the release of my debut book—a memoir about growing up with a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy, losing my father to cancer, and participating in academics, extreme sports, and extracurricular activities with my mother’s support and the inspiration of my father’s determination never to give up. Undoubtedly a flattering sentiment, this person wanted to see the book come out faster than my process permits.
He assumed, though, that I was dawdling, acting as my own worst enemy by procrastinating and delaying publication. While I admit I found the conjecture annoying, it honestly didn’t bother me—he was new to writing and had no experience with writing a book. We had never discussed my process. He couldn’t possibly know the steps that I take to produce my book.
His comments raise numerous questions, though: Are there correct and incorrect ways to journey through the writing process? Who and what defines an effective process?
I think about my experience thus far in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. Semiannually, we gather for a nine-day residency and attend workshops, seminars, readings, and presentations. Our instructors guide us through writing exercises that enhance the depth, structure, and organization of our work. Some exercises involve prompts that provoke writers to delve deeply and create a thorough illustration of one aspect in their pieces. Others come as directions to write about a particular topic for a certain amount of time—two, three, even up to fifteen minutes—before moving to a new exercise or the next part of the prompt. Still others involve jotting down on index cards a few words to label the various scenes in our pieces and then moving the cards around on a table to explore potential arrangement.
It is notable that our instructors never sit us down and say, “These are the exercises that you absolutely must do if you want to succeed in your writing career.” They simply frame them as activities that writers can incorporate into their processes if they find them beneficial.
I think, too, of the writers who publicly describe their processes. Some have a certain word count that they like to hit each day. Others write best with pen and paper rather than with keyboards and screens.
There is no question that some writers use techniques that would never work for me. While my cognition is not impaired, I rely on a motorized wheelchair and a communication device. I don’t have the ability to handwrite (give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you the best chicken scratch you can find), and I also can’t use a traditional keyboard and mouse. My writing is done on my communication device, which functions as both a speech device and a Windows 10 tablet.
I operate the device with the joystick of my wheelchair and also with eye-tracking technology. A flick of a switch turns my joystick into a mouse, the cursor gliding in the direction that I move the joystick, and the buttons on the control panel—ordinarily power buttons for my headlights—acting as left-click and right-click buttons.
A small sensor protruding from the bottom of my tablet, the eye-tracking module is a system of lights and cameras that detects reflections of light in my pupils, monitoring my eye movements and translating them into mouse clicks. My device initiates clicks in the areas of the screen that my prolonged gaze rests. I alternate between my joystick and eye-tracking, and, while the physical act of typing still takes about three times as long as it takes my able-bodied peers, using both methods allows me to write most efficiently.
Manipulating physical tools such as index cards is out of the question for me. I instead use virtual sticky notes, bullet pointing moments to include in my memoir and moving them around to explore potential organization and structures. Once I settle on an order, I start writing.
I never know how much I’ll be able to develop in a writing session—it all depends on whether my hand and eyes are fatigued and whether my technology is functioning properly. The frequency that the device malfunctions largely fluctuates, ranging from every couple weeks to a few times a year. While waiting for the glitch to be fixed or for a loaner to arrive by mail, the amount that I can write is limited. Although I can access Microsoft Word and Google Docs from my phone, typing with my fingers takes abundant muscle coordination. I become fatigued after getting two or three lines on the page per writing session and end up having to wait to finish the bulk of my writing until my technological difficulties are resolved.
I don’t set out to hit a certain word count each day. That method would only lead to my own disappointment over my inability to get a profusion of words down. I instead look at the outline in my virtual sticky note and set a goal for what scene I want to have finished before the day’s end. I am flexible with this goal—it may take longer than anticipated to adequately write certain scenes, so I don’t mind if multiple days are needed. Crafting a thoroughly-depicted scene takes priority. The only rule I have for my process is to maintain flexibility—to keep an open mind and to continue to explore new approaches both for the craft and practice of writing and the technological side of composing.
Someone once assumed that I was approaching the writing process all wrong. Is this possible? Are there right and wrong ways to journey through the process? No. Every writer must tailor it to their own unique needs. As long as they are writing in a way that is best for them and are happy with their projects, they are spot-on.
Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.