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Process? You Wanna Talk About Process?

Maybe I’m feeling extra curmudgeonly today, but one thing that drives me nuts about writing is when people talk about “process.” And maybe this is where I finally slip up and say something that alienates me from other writers, or ousts me from the secret club, I don’t know, but I don’t buy the whole “process” thing, not a bit. And honestly you hear it asked of writers more than you hear writers talk about it. Interviewers, students, people trying to make small talk with someone who has identified themself as a writer will ask “so, what’s your process?” Writing words down and then revising them until our eyes bleed stardust and vodka isn’t a process. To me, it’s a replacement for something we might not know how to quantify. People want to know, want to express how they do what they do. I can tell you exactly how I go about my day job. I can tell you all about straightening shelves, ringing up customers, but when it comes to writing the most interesting thing I can tell you is that there’s an idea, there are words, then those words get scrutinized for what sometimes feels like an eternity until I finally come to peace with them. And that isn’t a process.

When I painted houses there was a process, when I dug trenches in the arctic there was a process. When I write there is nothing systematic about it. There is no continuous action. There is no consistency to the way it is done from one day to the next.

Sure, when I hear “process” being discussed sometimes I start to doubt myself. Sometimes I start to think I’m doing it all wrong. Sometimes, maybe, it even makes me feel a little alone. But, really? Process? I believe in the work of writing, because I think it’s the hardest work I’ve done, writing and finishing a story. But process? I don’t think so.

  • Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

13 thoughts on “Process? You Wanna Talk About Process?

  1. “When I painted houses there was a process, when I dug trenches in the arctic there was a process. When I write there is nothing systematic about it. There is no continuous action.”

    exactly, and that’s why stories about writers are usually intolerable.

    1. i think so, too. and i understand the attempt to make writing seem more interesting than it is, really, by mining for things like processes, but when it comes down to it for anybody that’s not doing the writing itself it’s going to be pretty dull. i mean telling an interviewer “well, i sit there and write some words down” isn’t going to make for an interesting conversation. what’s interesting about writing is mostly interesting to the writer until there’s a product that other people can see, read, and that’s when the possibility of outside interest enters the picture.

  2. I’m probably more cynical about this–I don’t think “interesting” is the issue as much as power is. You notice how writers don’t discuss “process” amongst themselves, but they attempt to with interviewers, students, etc. I know non-writers or new writers are the ones posing the question, but as you point out, one could always answer truthfully. I’m sure there are other subjects to discuss with a writer? (maybe not)

    1. i see what you’re saying and agree, wholly. by not answering truthfully a writer is making a decision that is based on probably any number of things, including ego and power.

      when i used the term “interesting” i was thinking more of why anyone would even bother asking about process? it seems like grasping for straws to make something interesting out of it all.

      i’m so glad i’m not the only one who feels cynically about this!

  3. Submitted on 2009/11/02 at 2:49pm

    It’s funny, I just wrapped up an interview with a writer where I posed the question about process. Here’s why I like to talk about it. I understand “process” to mean “a thing that goes on or is carried on; a continuous series of actions, events, or changes; a course of action, a procedure; esp. a continuous and regular action or succession of actions occurring or performed in a definite manner; a systematic series of actions or operations directed to some end, as in manufacturing, printing, photography, etc.,” as “Onward movement in space,” “Progress to a more advanced state,” and as “The action of proceeding from a source, emanation.” (Thanks OED!) What I like about considering our process is that it helps to demystify the practice (which includes all kinds of routinized/default behaviors) of writing. It also helps to show that there are countless ways of getting into, producing writing. Some people’s process may be more systematic than others, but I think, if carefully examined, all writers/artists of any kind have routine behaviors that go unaccounted (and perhaps wisely so especially while making stuff) for.

    Here’s Michael Kimball asking Gary Lutz about his process. He doesn’t use the word but that’s what he’s asking about:

    Michael Kimball: Let’s start with how you start one of your short stories. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t with plot, story, or even character. But is it, say, with an idea or a word, maybe a particular usage, or is it with a phrase, a feeling, or something else?

    Gary Lutz: What often happens is that a word will force itself into my mind and lodge itself there for a week or longer, and I won’t be able to shake it out. It is usually a common word, nothing fancy or obscure, most likely just something I fixated on while idling my way through a newspaper, but it’s as if I had never before beheld its singular weirdness as typographical matter. I’ll probably write it down, and a day later it might be joined by another word, another specimen of humdrum, workaday English, and these two words will start to pal around in my head and maybe decide that they’re together for the long haul. Then I will set them out on a line on the screen of my computer, and I’ll insert other words between them and see how well they can handle being separated and how politely they treat the interlopers. A usable phrase, and sometimes even a sentence, might result from that sort of instigation and manipulation. I never start with an idea-I am not a person who has ideas about anything-and I almost never start with even a glimmer of a situation or a plot. (I think of plots as patches of ground that people get stuck on or stuck down into.) On those rare occasions when some sort of story-starting circumstance does throw itself at me, I sometimes decide to have a go at it, but the result is usually laden with dialogue or an excess of action, and I’ll eventually cut out the conversation completely and boil down most of the action and maybe retain a few snippets of description.

    Check out the rest of this great interview here:

    And I like stories about writers. Evenson has one in his new collection Fugue State called “In the Greenhouse” which is worth checking out.

    1. maybe it’s just me, but i think it mystifies the practice of writing further. Gary Lutz talking about a word lodging in his brain being a seed and then more words following it, is a mystification, a romanticizing of it, but it’s certainly not a process in my mind. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I completely understand the impulse to mystify and romanticize writing.

      as writers we do something that most of the population has the ability to do, which is write down words, the difference is that we care about them more (maybe), or that we labor over their specific order in a sentence (maybe), or that for some reason we are drawn to making stories or poems out of them, and even that seems to be a basic instinct of development.

      i know there are writers who are very systematic about what they do. who write at the same time every day, who perhaps have a plan or blueprint for how they go about their writing. but is that process or work or compulsive behavior?

      i think it’s opinions like this, though, that explains why i start to annoy other writers, haha.

  4. From John, above: “What I like about considering our process is that it helps to demystify the practice (which includes all kinds of routinized/default behaviors) of writing.”

    This is really what it’s all about for me–the primary reason I converse with/interact with other writers. I just want to know how they do it.

    Writing is all about self-doubt. If you’re not self-doubting, then odds are you’re writing something terrible. Doubt is what brings about revision, re-seeing.

    I guess my question is, what is the “work” of writing if not process?

    1. David, I agree, it is fantastic to hear that other writers have the same self-doubt, and even, at times, self-loathing. it means we aren’t alone, even in a practice that is inherently solitary. knowing that there are other writers out there dealing with the same problems, is very comforting.

      I think the “work” of writing, though, is intangible. it’s not the putting of words down, or the making of sentences, or even the revision that exhausts me about my writing. it’s the stuff i’m dealing with in my head and trying to connect to a story or poem that does that. and i wouldn’t qualify that as a process, but maybe as a side-effect.

  5. I was thinking about this, and kind of going back and forth with myself, agreeing and not, and here’s one conclusion I came up with:

    I think, ultimately, I like this question of process because of what it tells me about the writer itself. Frankly, it neither mystifies nor demystifies the act of writing for me, because my perception of such isn’t that reliant on how others do it, nor do I much care about others’ perceptions (whether or not they are mystified, etc.).

    Describing the “process” of painting a house or digging trenches explains to me how to do these specific things, but a writers describing his process explains something to me about that writer. I love the above Lutz quote. I find it mystifying as all hell but, to me, it mystifies Lutz and not the act of writing, and I think that is interesting.

    1. I understand what you’re saying. And I even agree. I like hearing writers talk about writing, because I’m interested in that sort of thing. I like the Lutz quote, but that’s never posed as being about process, he’s directly answering the question about whether his writing starts with a specific word or something else. When I talked about Lutz’ quote mystifying writing, I meant in relation to being under the umbrella term “process,” which I didn’t articulate well.

      What I like about that Kimball interview is that he doesn’t bother with the a term like “process” he cuts directly to what he means, what he wants to hear answered, which is what Lutz answers. Lutz maybe goes on to talk about the progression of a story from that seedling of a beginning, but what Kimball’s asking about is the genesis of Lutz’ writing, not how he goes about writing. If that makes any sense.

      I guess what I don’t like is the usage of the term “process” it bugs me in the same unexplainable way Derek Jeter’s face does.

      1. Whether Kimball used the word or not, what he was asking about was Lutz’s process, which Lutz then parsed and broke down in a methodical way. Why give up on a useful word like “process” that brings up both the connotations of procedure, of method, of regularity, while at the same time bringing up associations of movement, progression, or of, as I quoted from the OED above, “proceeding from a source, emanation”?

        I just found this exchange today at David Peak’s blog between Peak and Keith Nathan Brown:

        Me: I’m curious what your writing process is like, being ill. I’m sorry if this is intrusive, but process really fascinates me. How do you manage your writing?

        Keith: writing process is a huge question with many boxes. to keep the answer short i’d break ‘process’ down into two types: inspired and uninspired; and i’d break ‘writing’ down into two types: computer and mental. i’d define uninspired as: writing because my only other options are depression and tv. and i’d define inspired as: being so immersed in a piece that i un-self-consciously experience the sensation of being engaged in something meaningful, experience the feeling of importance for no particular reason. uninspired writing (when i am capable of writing) generally occurs between 1-4pm; if not then, then maybe an hour or two in the morning or evening. also, uninspired writing is always computer writing, never mental writing. on the other hand, inspired writing occurs at any time, although i am never capable of more than 4hrs of computer writing in any given day. even so, as many hours might be put in by mental writing, which i then immediately transcribe to the computer whenever i am finished with whatever activity i was doing (which would either by lying down, eating or showering (which are the only primary activities i do on any given day besides writing (and besides watching tv, surfing the net or reading, but i can’t do mental writing during any of those activities))). yet i’m never able to exceed a combined 8hrs of computer and mental writing in any given day, and even when i approach such a quantity, i usually convalesce for a couple days afterward. and so setting a pace is very important for me. and yet pacing myself usually breaks, completely halts the state of inspired writing, which frustrates me to no end, wanting to take a goddamn hammer to the computer screen and say fuck off body mind motherfucker i’m gonna do this shit, but i can’t do that. that’s the general gist of it. all of which (even this sentence) was composed mentally, during my evening respite of lying down to keep the chronic pain at manageable levels. hahaha. although i hardly write this much in an email or in response to things, but it was an interesting question and there’s plenty more to say. enough.

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