The writing “process”; examining the holy relics

There is probably no human endeavor that bestows a higher level of prestige for a lower level of actual accomplishment than writing. Even people who have never read anything beyond their grocery list or the TV listings are often in awe of even the most obscure scribbler.

“Ooooh; you’re a writer? Hey, Mabel; come take my picture with this guy!”

Even in this era of self-publishing, when even somebody who couldn’t write a coherent ransom note can get into print, writing has a mystique as some higher calling. This mystique manifests itself in various ways, but one of the strangest, at least in my opinion, is a fascination with the so-called writing process. People seem to be absorbed with the minutia involved with pounding a keyboard. How many hours a day do you write? Do you write in the morning or afternoon? Do you have a special place, or can you write on a bus?

A lot of this, of course, is just a healthy curiosity about a field that, for many who dreaded having to crank out a book report when they were in school, is another world. The strange thing, however, is how often actual writers ask these questions. I have attended a few writing conferences in the past several years, and they usually offer some good up-to-date information on marketing, trends, and news. Many of the sessions, however, seem to be agonizing discussions of the writing process. Exactly how should you outline, and in what format? Should you write one chapter at a time? Should you set a daily quota of words or pages written? How about critique groups? How does J.K. Rowling do it? The implication seems to be that if you adapt these “correct” methods, and follow in the footsteps of more famous writers, your writing will improve dramatically. It’s like the role played by holy relics in the early days of the church, when, say, St Peter’s sandals were assumed to have the power to inspire or heal.


A great example of this idea is when Adrian Conan Doyle wrote a followup to the Sherlock Holmes stories his father made so famous. The preface to the book assures us that Doyle used the same desk his father used to create the original stories and that he was surrounded by the same objects that his father handled. My reaction was a hearty “so what?”. Desks and objects don’t have any writing talents to impart to anyone who doesn’t have talent to begin with. How successful Doyle’s efforts were depended on him, not the objects.

Much of this is interesting in an academic sort of way, but any author that tries to copy either the conventional wisdom, or the methods of some well-known writer is doomed to disappointment. Moving to Maine will not make you Steven King, any more than writing with a quill pen will make you Charles Dickens, or wearing a white suit will make you Mark Twain. A writer has to do what works best for him or her. It might resemble how some big-time writer works, or it might not. You may work best in the middle of the night, or while watching Jeopardy, or at the beach, or while wearing a lucky hat. If it works for you, who cares? It’s the end product that counts.

Writing is not like repairing a computer or removing an appendix, where there is one specific, proper way of doing it. Different things work for different people. Don’t try to imitate someone else; write so that they might one day want to imitate you.

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