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.
October 29, 2018 § 18 Comments
By Kathleen B. Jones
Awaken today in the lemon yellow-dove grey dawn. Blink several times. Close eyes again. See sentences imprinted under my eyelids.
I get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, and sit down with my morning coffee. The sentences are gone.
I try cajoling them out of my brain again. Traces appear. I type these revenants onto the simulacrum of a page on my computer screen. Amazing how the body can remind the mind of what the mind forgot it already knew.
The memoirist Patricia Hampl once said she still gets shocked when she realizes she doesn’t write what she knows but writes in order to discover what she knows. This is how I think about my writing now: I write to discover what I know. And this is why, at the age of 69, I decided to go back to school for an M.F.A. in creative writing: I’m studying the craft to write in order to discover what I know.
I’m no novice writer. But, for most of my professional life, my writing conformed to the scholarly conventions of my academic field (political theory); I told what I knew. As a university professor, my job was to lead others into discovery. Now, I’m a student again. I have the opportunity to be led into discovery, along with a cohort of peers, by a core faculty of accomplished writers.
Figuring out how to shape a sentence so it sings, how to choose a metaphor so it means more than a clever coincidence between two things, how to invent the right diction for a narrator’s voice, how to create authentic dialogue and how to employ a panoply of related elements of style in aid of telling a story will consume the next year and a half of my life. You can learn a lot about those things through independent study or by attending short-term writing retreats. I’ve done both and they’ve helped. But I’ve wanted more.
I’ve wanted the discipline of an imposed structure, the support of a writing community, and the wisdom of expert teachers in a program with students of varied ages and diverse backgrounds and I’ve wanted all that on a more consistent basis than I’d find in a week or two-long retreat or could create for myself. So I thought, back to school, why not?
I used to ignore the pages and pages in Poets & Writers advertising M.F.A. programs. A year ago, I started paying attention. I eliminated all the residential programs with the exception of two in my area. One would have taken me four years to complete, so I crossed it off. The other required the GRE. I already had a Ph.D., I told the director. No exceptions to the rules allowed, she’d said. My list narrowed to a handful of low residency programs in different parts of the country and then narrowed to two, one on the east coast and the other on the west.
I dug into their web sites to learn about what they offered. I spoke to students and faculty at both schools. I read the faculty’s books. Because I wanted to concentrate on literary fiction—I’m writing an historical novel—I was especially interested in a program with strong fiction writers, but which also stressed cross-genre training. One granted a semester’s credit for previously published writing, which meant I could complete the M.F.A. in three semesters. My decision was made. The icing on the cake was learning, after I was admitted, about Brevity’s intention to affiliate with the program I’d chosen and that there was an opportunity to work with the magazine.
When I graduate from Fairfield University’s M.F.A. program in December 2019, I’ll be 70. Remember, 70 is the new 40, a friend of mine says. So, if anyone asks why I’m going back to school at this point in my life, I say it’s never too late to learn to write to discover what you know. You might be surprised by what you find, like I’m surprised every morning by those sentences under my eyelids.
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. While completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University, she is currently working on an historical novel about the 15th C writer, Christine de Pizan, and serves as Brevity‘s Associate Editor.