How We Write

How We Write and How We Talk About How We Write

How We Write

For the past week I’ve been mulling over this excellent post on Neurodiversity, Writing Process, And Writing Instruction by Leah Pope of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She talks about how academia sometimes fails students by not making it apparent that there is no one best writing process and that if a student can’t follow a process proscribed to them by some professor or professional writer, it doesn’t mean they’re doing writing wrong.

The narrative we spin through the mainstream writing processes we learn and teach is not always an accessible one. As Rick Godden’s essay in How We Write demonstrates, not all of us have the option of following a model of daily writing or scheduled writing periods. Physical realities make highly regimented writing rituals impractical, even impossible, for Godden, as well as a not insignificant number of our colleagues and students. Preferring or needing to use dictation or screen-reading software in order to write might mean that recommendations about drafting or revision practices sometimes simply won’t work or will be excessively time-consuming within that physical reality. Such diverse groups of writers — at the undergraduate, graduate, even professional academic level — are often left on their own to sort out an effective writing process, frequently without resources like the standard Writing Center conference, which does not easily accommodate accessibility software.

I would suggest that writing is always a neurodiverse process. Regardless of label-happy diagnoses, one “normal” writer, if there is such a thing, will always be different in some way than another “normal” writer. We already acknowledge this with matters of timing: I am a morning writer, but that is considered no better or worse than my friend who writes best in the middle of the night. The logic behind accepting and encouraging our students to explore writing at different times of day (in different settings, in different media, etc) could be extended to make advice about writing processes more accessible to a more diverse range of students. No one (to my knowledge) is saying that having difficulty following one writing process or another makes a student a bad or ineffective writer, but I don’t believe we are saying often enough that there are endless possible ways to write by which a person can be an effective writer.

On that bolded point–Pope may not see that in the UW Writing Center, but it certainly happens among fiction writers.[1]

At the start of my short fiction classes I talk to my students about this Daniel José Older piece where he reads the idea that a writer must write every day for filth:

Writing advice blogs say it. Your favorite writers say it. MFA programs say it.

Write every single day.

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice and it’s wildly off base. I get it: The idea is to stay on your grind no matter what, don’t get discouraged, don’t slow down even when the muse isn’t cooperating and non-writing life tugs at your sleeve. In this convoluted, simplified version of the truly complex nature of creativity, missing a day is tantamount to giving up, the gateway drug to joining the masses of non-writing slouches.

Nonsense.

Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.

wild applause

From here I do actually assign them a daily writing exercise for the duration of the class (I lay out the reason why in this post), but I hope I don’t make them feel like they have to keep doing it forever to be a Real Writer™. My hope is that they’ll figure out what works best for them and to try, at least for some weeks, to do regular writing each day.

Pope’s article has me thinking more about my approach as a teacher and whether I’ve thought enough about neurodiversity as I plan out classes.

I’m fully on board with the truth that no one way works for every writer and that the process that works for you is the best process. It can be hard to find a process that works as long as you keep hearing that things must be done this one way. I agree with Pope that this can be solved by more openness and that there’s not enough discussion about writing processes–discussion without judgment, that is. It would be beneficial for writers to be able to talk about what works for them without making it sound as though one way is a certified Best Way and also without having their way scoffed at by people who do things differently. There’s a fine line between advice or suggestion and a command from on high (which has less to do with intention and more with framing). It would be nice to find that line, make it thicker, and stay firmly on one side of it.

At the end of her post, Pope makes this call to action:

I believe it would be good for us… to talk more honestly about how we actually write. By sharing our psychological experiences of writing, we might just find our way toward happier, healthier, and more productive writing.

Let’s do this! I’d love it if working writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, stage and screen answered this “simple” question: How Do You Write? What processes do you find successful? What was your journey to what works?

I’d also love to collect these for my students. Not only as a guide, but also proof: There are many ways to make writing work for you.

You can do so in the comments of this post. Or share your process on Twitter with the hashtag #HowWeWrite. On Facebook, comment here. On Tumblr, reblog and comment on this post and tag it how we write. On Google+ tag your posts #HowWeWrite.

I can’t wait to see all the different answers and explanations.

Footnotes

  1. Whenever some version of this discussion happens I think of this old post by John Scalzi that I always think of as “Writing: Find the Time or Don’t… As Long As You’re A Comfortably Middle Class, Neurotypical White Man”. One of the major examples gives for a person writing under extreme hardship ignores many, many factors that made it possible for that writer to keep writing: a white collar job he wasn’t in danger of losing, medical care that was comprehensive and not tenuous, medical care he could afford, a vast support network of people specifically devoted to him. Not everyone has all of this, and that’s not even getting into different levels of ability.[]