This week, I was asked to compose an essay detailing some aspect of my writing process. To which, I immediately said, “Forsooth, good fellow, why wouldst I? What have I to offer in this regard?”
OK, I didn’t actually say that. I kept the Shakespearean melodrama to myself and said, “I’m not going to do that. How boring.” But, alas, I am a model student. So, dear reader, I present you with a brief ode to my writing process – an ode in three parts:
- The Sacred: The sacrosanct principles of writing. There’s a type of spiritual, internal process involved in accessing the creative muse that’s rarely discussed but virtually required. We must have reverence for the power of the muse!
- The Profane: The practical, secular aspects of writing – including how awful it can feel and a few cures for those ills. The beloved muse is like a wayward pet that requires gourmet food and committed play time. You’d better set up routines to ensure that lunatic’s minimum requirements are met!
- The Comedic: The absurd process of writing. What a mess! The trickster muse will send you down a blind alley to nowhere if she happens to be in the mood. Or, on a chill day, she’ll take you straight to an unexpected and inspiring destination. Humor – especially in the context of community – is the route to survive and thrive.
Creating is a Shakespearean comedy: sacred, profane, comedic – all wrapped into one glorious journey, often with poetically startling results.
The Sacred: The Sacrosanct Principles of Writing
I’ve dubbed Mary Oliver, the “High Priestess of Poetry.” I bow to my poetry priestess daily. Well, I don’t literally bow. Well…ok, I sorta do. Anywho…
Mary Oliver woke early in the morning daily and composed while walking through her beloved natural surroundings in Cape Cod. She’d jot down ideas and then, later, form them into glorious poems or wadded up balls of detritus filed in the circular bin (she claimed to toss most of her work).
Mary Oliver was an ARTISTE – a blessed being with a muse who joyously visited her on command. Or…ummmm…was she?
There was method to this madness of writing while in motion. Ms. Oliver was not possessed by her muse. She courted it, made love to it, and committed to an unending partnership of presence and commitment. How do relationships work? You show up. Reliably.
“Discipline is very important. [Developing] the habit. I think we’re creative all day long. We have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page because the creative part of us gets tired of waiting, or just gets tired.”
Yes, the creative part of ourselves does get tired of waiting. Waiting for us to finish work, to finish the dishes, to finish streaming that ten-episode show. And so, we must provide for it – treat it like the life-giving and life-affirming source that it is.
Discipline creates space for something mysterious to happen. Oliver talks about that “wild, silky part of ourselves…the part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — a heart of the star as opposed to the shape of the star.”
Oliver describes the internal landscape of the writer with the same insight she brings to natural landscapes. She opens our eyes to the ways in which our internal parts relate to one another.
She says that this mysterious, creative part of us “learns quickly what sort of courtship it’s going to be.” In other words, the writer is in a kind of courtship with this essential but elusive, ‘writer writing’ part. Her point: If you turn up every day, it will learn to trust you.
This is a small sample of what emerged – what flowed through – Mary Oliver in her partnership between discipline and the mercurial muse:
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
So, in bowing to the sacred, I ask you, my friends: What will you do with your one wild and precious life? Will you court your muse?
The Profane: The Practical, Secular Aspects of Writing
Morissette’s diagram is humorous. Writing IS like a rollercoaster. My muse is mooooody! For better or worse, this graph accurately depicts the organic flow of my writing process.
This is the journey. Nearly every time. I don’t recommend it. But it’s wise to expect it if you’re launching your own writing habit.
[after the spark…]
Lyssa: Yippee. Thanks for the inspiration. That connection between popcorn and the meaning of life is genius. This will be the best essay ever. Let’s get going!
Starlight (my muse; and yes, hater, I did name her – she’s beautiful and ephemeral from a distance but watch out coz she’ll burn ya’): …
[1 hour later]
Lyssa: Ummm, Starlight…ya’ there, girl? I’m a little concerned. What was my point here? I’m thinking popcorn doesn’t actually have much to do with the meaning of life.
[3 hours later]
Lyssa: Ok, where the f*@&k are you, you tease? You got me into this! This is the worst piece ever!!!
Starlight: I said, “purpose,” not “popcorn,” you nimrod.
Lyssa: Oh…uh…that makes more sense. I can fix this.
This journey, occurring daily, would crush the average writer without hacks that make the impossible act of creation bearable and even joyful. Here is where the profane and practical come into play.
👨👩👧👦 Community + ✍️ Daily Writing Habit = ❤️
Writing doesn’t haven’t to be solitary. In fact, it works most effectively when done in community.
My community has inspired me to produce 40 essays in 6 months.
Because I’m writing daily, my muse feels properly courted. She (sometimes) responds appreciatively. And my friends keep me sane when she’s pitching a fit.
My community components:
- Writing buddy: Over the past 4 months, Michael Newton (read his fabulous Tea Letter here) and I have gathered nearly every weekday morning at 9 AM for an hour. We check in (ostensibly about that day’s writing project; more often, about life), write together, and debrief.
- Feedback group: The marvelous Fei-Ling Tseng gathers a group of brilliant, creative, and supportive women on Sundays. Sometimes we discuss what we’re working on. At other times, we brainstorm ideas or brass-tacks edit each other’s essays. And we’re available through chat for both moral support and feedback.
- Accountability group: Throughout the pandemic, I’ve met with this group of accomplished authors weekly. Aside from discussing our personal lives and the state of the universe, we make public our commitments and hold each other to them.
🌿 Nature in Motion + 📱Tech That Streamlines
I also take my cue from Mary Oliver. Long walks in nature (or the closest approximation possible when living the inner city life) with devices turned off, invite my muse out to play.
This is an activity that reminds my soul that writing is movement.
One piece of tech I do invite into my courtship is otter.ai – a transcription app that has been somewhat miraculous. During my nature walks, I often feel inspired enough to spit out an entire essay, whole cloth, as if possessed. Sometimes these require a little follow-up editing. Sometimes, a lot. But it feels amazing to arrive home knowing that the bones are there.
This is what happens when I court my muse. I take her on a lovely date by the lake and she’s responsive. My heart opens, and she’s willing to speak her vulnerable thoughts. Mary Oliver, the High Priestess of Poetry is, of course, write.
The Comedic: The Absurd Process of Writing
In my fantasy, every date with my muse would look like this:
Ta da! Done!
(Note: There’s another fantasy many prefer: Elves enter while we sleep and actually write the piece themselves. This does not happen often, so maybe don’t plan on that.)
Seldom do my fantasies about the ease of writing manifest.
For example, this is how I birthed my last essay:
Spark #1 → First draft → Research → More writing → More writing → More writing → Oops. This essay doesn’t fit the assignment at all. → File for later.
Spark #2 → First draft → Research → More writing → More writing → More writing → nearly ready for feedback → sleep on it.
Spark #3 → Wake up after a good night’s rest → speak an entirely new piece into my transcription app while still in bed (time start-to-finish: 15 minutes) → edit for 10 minutes → spend 30 minutes searching for the primo photo for the post → publish.
Hmmm…That’s a lot of hours of work before the final piece birthed itself ‘overnight.’ Almost as if those elves actually visited.
This process reminds me of the life story of Harrison Ford (and many other celebrities). Considered an ‘overnight success’ with his starring role as Han Solo in the sci-fi/fantasy film, Star Wars, he actually spent the previous fifteen years struggling to survive on the proceeds from bit parts and carpentry jobs.
I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.– Thomas Jefferson
Creating requires commitment. Courting the muse. Showing up. That’s when the elves appear.
The time a writer spends staring out the window and writing stuff that gets filed in the waste heap is somewhat staggering. It’s also a valid part of the process.
A typical morning meeting with Mike sounds like this:
Lyssa: “I’m so frustrated. I’m 2 hours into working on that essay I said would take five minutes to polish off. Why do things take as long as they take?”
Mike: “Yeah, that’s the proverbial question.”
Lyssa: “Shouldn’t they take less time…than they take?”
Mike: “I don’t think it works that way.”
Lyssa: “And also, my floor-to-ceiling windows are filled with fog. I can’t see anything outside but fog. This is the outward manifestation of my writing mind.”
Mike (sage): “Yeah, I’m pretty sure the fog in Chicago is entirely about your state of mind.”
Writing is weird. You might as well laugh about it.
Writing is a Shakespearean drama, so embrace it all: the sacred, the profane, and the comedic.
Embrace the messiness, build habits, properly court the muse, entice the elves, cultivate a community, and accept the roller coaster ride…with glee.