Writing often seems like such a mystery. When we read, we see the final printed page but not the person sitting alone somewhere, grappling with words. We turn the page of an article without knowing when and where the writer noticed a nub of an idea, or how the writer pulled at the threads and then wove a story. When I marvel at a writer's surprising turn of phrase, I wonder if those words just leapt out at the writer, or if she or he stayed up all night pleading for inspiration, or if the writer's best friend suggested the phrase after reading the first draft. The picture of a writer on a book jacket doesn't give me much of a clue about the writer's struggles and joys. Is her hair in curlers as she jots ideas on the back of an envelope at the kitchen counter? Is his child sleeping in the next room as he whispers to himself the paragraph he just spent two hours revising? Are there really any writers, I wonder, who perch at a tidy desk, take a clean sheet of paper from the top drawer, and write a perfect piece in one sitting?
Right now, for instance, I'm sitting in the bathtub with my green spiral Washington Huskies notebook, my blue ballpoint pen gliding across the page. The page is half filled. A few words are scratched out, and in the margin is a doodle of a head with one piece of hair sticking straight up. I mention this because I know I'll be typing this on the computer, and the final product won't retain evidence of how I begin, which most often is with a pen on paper in some comfortable place, like this steaming bathtub, or in my burgundy arm chair, a cup of coffee or a glass of cabernet at my side. Although I rarely write sitting at a table, that can work if I have that spark, that thread, that kernel--something that's been scratching at my psyche, saying "Write about me. You'll never know where I might take you." And it swirls, a little fish swimming around corners of ideas that I round in my mind, a mental exploration--or prewriting, if you will.
This happened last week when, after going to get my hair cut, the conversation I'd had with my cosmetologist whirled in my mind. By the time I finally sat down to write, the piece spilled out. I was in flow mode, and I knew it, but I couldn't congratulate myself about it, or I might notice it to death. I just let it happen. And 45 minutes later, I had written a creative essay. I liked it a lot. Yet I knew I needed to try it out on an audience. Audience is important to me. I am much more successful writing if I imagine I'm telling a story to someone--doesn't really matter who, just another person who likes words and stories. If I know someone will be reading my piece immediately, I'm much more likely to fall into flow mode. Often my first audience is my partner, Annie. Sometimes it's a friend in California; I'll call her and read it to her over the phone. I almost always read my piece aloud to someone, or to myself, if I'm the only one around.
In the case of the cosmetology conversation piece, though, there was a built-in audience, my writing group during a Writing Project summer writing institute. I shared it with my group (we are all teachers and writers), and I got two things from them that I really needed: positive comments that expressed I had indeed written something worth reading and comments about where they, as readers, got lost or were confused. The latter comments are invaluable, but they always make me jumpy. I want to be perfect the first time. Yet when I take notes on my audience's input, and I look at it in a day or two, carefully considering what they've said, I am better able to make needed changes. That's what I did with that piece; I even changed the title based on a suggestion from one of my group members. I now want to send out this piece, release it to the world, so I can move on. That's the scary and exhilarating thing about writing: I get about two minutes of peace, of basking in the glory of having completed something, before I get the gnawing feeling that I need to keep writing.
I seem to write most prolifically when I'm involved in some sort of writing group. I once took a creative writing class where I wrote a poem a week. That poem would brew and brew, from that kernel of an image or idea, and a few days before class I'd usually barf up (quite messily) a first draft. Then I'd refine and refine, sometimes until a few minutes before class started. (This refining often involves shamelessly exploring the thesaurus.) The fact that I was falling in love with Annie then, who I'd met in the class, made that my most crazy, dizzy creative experience. We got to know each other through our poetry--how sexy and romantic! But that's another story. What I was getting at is that being part of a group of creative, generative people spurs me on. Even when I taught an adult education creative writing class, I participated as part of the workshop, and I wrote like a fiend.
I have had negative experiences, though, in some workshop situations. There have been times that a piece I've written has been picked apart by people like scavengers gnawing on carrion, and I carried my dead bones home so deflated and enervated that I was sure I'd never write again. I know now that there are some people that need to be taught how to constructively criticize, which is something we talk about a great deal in the writing classes that I teach. Also, however, I know that there are times that I am so attached to a piece that even good criticism feels like someone's gloves slapping me in the face, challenging me to a duel. Certainly people in writing groups can talk about what's helpful to them and what's not, and at the same time I realize that ultimately I'm the writer and I can decide if I think someone's comments are valid for me, for my piece. There is power in that. I can use any word wherever I want, even if that is rebellion, not good writing. Sometimes, after I let even bone-picking criticism sit for a while, I can find the iota of truth in it and make use of it.
I guess the bottom line is that what I need most from a group--and what I get if it's a good group--is that push to keep writing, to keep those creative juices fluid. Then I can keep writing, keep getting triggered by that kernel--or, at least keep noticing those kernels and following through with them. I have a kernel with me now, in fact. In the newspaper the other day I read a profile of a "house beautiful." An s-shaped mansion on a lake, the house is all creams and white and golds, inside and out. And there are lots of mirrors and glass. Even the garage is creamy and curved, and each of the very valuable six cars has its own window with a view of the water, where the family yacht is parked. These images are with me, as is a quote from the homeowner. She said of her house, "I like light and bright. I don't like wood." I picture her with blond hair, white skin, white and cream clothes, gold earrings. All that whiteness, the blinding of it, swirls in me, and I'm sure I'll do something with it. I see Daisy in The Great Gatsby, sitting beneath billowing drapes in her white outfit saying to Jordan, "Let's do something. What do people do?"
That image is playing against another, me sitting in a low-cost health clinic waiting for Annie while she gets a mammogram, because she found a lump in her breast last week. Annie doesn't have health insurance. She could have it if we could get legally married, which we can't since we happen to be two women. And my insurance plan does not cover same-sex partners. These thoughts have plunged me into some deep fears--and I wonder about the struggles of someone who has a curved, white house and a glass table with a solid-gold base. Even though I like writing essays, I know I can't write this as an essay because I'd get too didactic. When I finally do sit down to write, I'll probably begin by clustering "white curved house" to see where that takes me, into a poem or a piece of fiction. When I cluster, I almost always get an "aha" that sends me off writing, into the flow.
The "flow" does not mean, however, that I feel no resistance. In fact, there is always resistance associated with writing for me. Someone once said that creativity begins with resistance. If writing is assigned, or if I'm doing it on my own, it doesn't matter. There is still the resistance, the procrastination, the stalling. Like in the case of writing this paper: I stopped once I got too hot in the bathtub. I got out, dried off, dressed, and instead of moving to the living room to finish, which had been my intent, I had a sudden urge to bake a banana bread. Those four brown, withered bananas had been sitting on the counter far too long, and suddenly they couldn't sit there a second longer. After baking, I cleaned the kitchen. As I washed the dishes, thoughts about my not continuing to write, even though I'd been in somewhat of a flow, danced around in my mind. I was prewriting this paragraph, I believe. But I never got back to writing yesterday.
I woke up this morning thinking about getting at the computer to write up what I had and to flesh it out. The minute I sat at the computer I had a compulsion to play computer solitaire. While playing, I was thinking about how funny it would be to write about the ways I procrastinate. I also thought that whoever was reading this would probably relate--and those who can't relate, well, I'm insanely jealous of you. About 24 games of solitaire later, I felt ready to get started writing again. So that's where I am now, sitting here, finishing up this writing, wondering if it will come to a good close, one that doesn't make my readers feel that they've been dropped off a cliff. I look back to the beginning and realize I started writing about being in the bathtub. That might be a good way to end, to come full circle by pulling the bathtub image back in. Then again, that might be too mechanical. Hmm... Well, I haven't taken a shower yet today. Maybe I should get my body in the hot water and muse about ways to finish this piece. Then Annie will be home, and I can read what I have to her.
Reference Citation: Evans, Kathleen. (1999). "Bathtubbing It: The Writing Process of a Teacher-Writer-Woman." WILLA, Volume 8, p. 22-24.