Ambition Lost and Found

If I haven't always claimed the name, I have been a writer for longer than I can remember. I scribbled stories on scrap paper from my grandfather's printer and on the backs of math worksheets. I made up elaborate stories while playing with my younger brother and then grilled his memory to record them at day's end. I filled seventeen journals between the ages of 10 and 18.

I piled them up on a closet shelf and in a drawer in the window seat of my bedroom as my words consumed the pages. I wrote about the mundane details of life one day and the next started sketching out a story. I began my first novel in 1999, when everyone knew the world was going to end. If life as we knew it would be over, I thought I may as well shape the life that would follow.

In middle school, I decided to interview my maternal grandmother for a school project of some sort. I flew towards her house on my still-new bike, reveling the power of my legs as I anticipated the power of my mind. I imagined the winds of change coming. This was it. This story about my grandmother was to be the making of Stephanie Lang, Writer. I had my Serious Journalist black and white composition notebook tucked under my arm (acceptable for note-taking only) and a pen in the pocket of my denim shorts that stabbed my thigh each time I pedaled. As I sat on the carpet in front of my grandmother's blue floral couch, I heard stories about my grandparents as young teenagers; learned that my grandmother didn't speak English until she went to grade school. The story began to shape itself as I rode home.

I was confident. I was happy. I was a girl with a mission and a passion, and I vowed I'd stay true to that little self no matter what life threw at me.

After four years writing and editing for my high school newspaper, though, I no longer wanted to barge into the lives and tragedies of others and tell their stories. I wanted to tell my own stories. I certainly had enough of them bouncing off the walls of my imagination. Still, my brief time as a reporter had given me my best friend, my first writer's conference, and invaluable practice and instruction in interviewing, writing, editing, and page layout.

As I grew my career in publishing and as an editor, I discovered ways to help others tell their own stories. Along the lines, as I engaged in this important work, I neglected my own stories more often than not. They sat in unopened notebooks and buried in my Google Docs list.

----

I've been doing a fair bit of writing lately, for myself, privately and quietly. I'm not yet sure where to take some ideas that have been swirling, and, quite honestly, they sit forgotten because I have chosen to funnel my attention and energy into the problem-solving episodes of real life. You know the ones, they refuse to be ignored.

I'm still writing. I just haven't been sharing that writing, or making ambitious plans for the words that result.

But, I still want to. I still need to.

A bit of that young girl's ambition has resurfaced in the last year. It's time to do something with it.

 

The Quiet Hours

They do exist, believe it or not. There are moments in the day where the house falls silent. The dog leaves her post at the window and picks up her bone, satisfied that the threats have been scared off. The baby sleeps deeply. These are the moments to pounce on "work." I find that I am most productive in the early morning hours and late evening. This stage of life is quite full during the daylight hours. Full of everything. Of squeaks and giggles, barks and wrestling. Of errands and cooking. Housework and conversation. Frustrations and milestones. It looks like life, sounds like life, feels like life. It is good.

However, some work must be done in order to support all this living. It's rather difficult to work or create in the midst of all of these moments. So I bide my time until peace descends. Keep mental notes and handwritten ones. And then, I work. I don't always feel that I have enough time to accomplish what I'd like to, or to calmly weigh options for days as I once could. 

I gather my tea, my m&ms, and my slippers. I boot up my laptop and soak in the steam from the tea as I wait for the blinking place-holder line to appear in Word. At times, there are empty pages to fill. More often, there are full pages to screen, searching out homophones and typos. Preventing technicalities from ruining the essence of a piece. 

I don't merely "work for the weekend," usually. I love my work and it fuels me throughout the day. Writing and editing for myself or editing for others keeps me engaged in the world beyond my small circle of home, friends, and family. It keeps me learning, researching, fighting to make a difference in the world.

That's what writing does. The written word can change the world. It does so quite often. 

Does the way you write affect what you write?

I find that when writing by hand, I am able to get into the flow of things much more easily. I can find that sweet spot where my pen becomes an extension of my brain and I don't even register the words that I write until I've written them. Of course, much of this material ends up on the cutting floor, but then doesn't much of ALL material end up there? Still, writing by hand makes the act of writing feel more natural and relaxing. It also circumvents self-censorship long enough to get the heart of my scene/description/line of reasoning out into the light of day.  As I watch the pages fill with my neat, less neat, and out-right sloppy script, I feel progress happening. Literally. I feel it in my fingers. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think I am being productive, so I am inspired to continue working, and end up being productive.

My most effective process looks something like this:

  1. Write, by hand, whatever words flow from the pen. À la good old "guess and go" spelling.
  2. Read.
  3. Make some changes by hand.
  4. Type what I've written, editing and rewriting as I go along.
  5. Print and edit by hand again. 

I know some can edit on-screen, and that works for me for catching glaring typos and things I can easily resolve on the fly. But for developmental editing and reorganization, I need the spatial representation of the content changes and relocations. I find I am too easily distracted when editing in digital form. 

What about you? What does your writing process look like? What works, what doesn't? Let me know!

--Stephanie