Faye Rapoport DesPres


Writers often talk and think about “process” — the path from an idea to a final product in a writing project.  From what I’ve read and heard, the way writers work varies widely, and what works for some doesn’t work for others.  If you’ve ever read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, you know that Goldberg is a fan of “freewriting.”  She recommends putting pen to paper and writing without stopping for a pre-determined period of time.  You don’t worry about punctuation, you don’t edit yourself, and if you write the same sentence twice that’s fine —  as long as your pen keeps moving.  The point is to free the ideas that are just out of reach of your conscious mind, ideas that might get blocked by the self-editor on your shoulder who insists that you correct your spelling or grammar before the creativity has had a chance to flow.  This method works for a lot of writers.

Author/editor Michael Steinberg often tells this story about the way he wrote his award-winning memoir, Still Pitching: he wrote something like 300 pages of the book before realizing that he was over-reaching.  He was trying to cover too many years in his life and was having a hard time finding a central thread for the story.  He went through the text and found one paragraph that he felt was the kernel of what the book needed to be about.  Then he started over, limiting the text to his high school years, with a focus on his determination to become a baseball pitcher (a story that, he always says, also turned out to be about how Michael Steinberg became a writer).

Some writers insist that you must write virtually every day to succeed, and some even write at the same time every day.  Others aren’t as strict about it.

I’ve noticed that I don’t have a specific writing process that works for me all the time, at least not yet.  My essays tend to fall, most of the time, into one of two categories: 1) first drafts that come together quickly; or 2) first drafts that take days, or weeks, or even months to gel into anything of interest.  Occasionally I will work hard on a piece for weeks before deciding it just isn’t going to work, and I move on (but I always keep the work, because sometimes I find something in it that I can use in a different piece in the future).

It seems, so far, that either I get inspired to write about something immediate — an event in the “present” — and I write the first draft pretty quickly, or I decide to write about something that’s been on my mind for a while, maybe an event from the past or an idea I’ve been turning over.  In the latter case, I often have to work harder to find out what I want to say, and those drafts tend to take a long time to come together.  I think most of the best writing I’ve done, so far, has been in the first category.

I’ve also noticed that if I write that first draft by hand, instead of on a keyboard, the language feels more connected to the moments or thoughts, and seems to represent my “voice” more closely.  But I have to say that this is not always the case.  One of my recently published essays, “Forty-Six,” was composed completely on a  laptop keyboard — and it’s one of my favorites.

I will say this.  Revision is always a part of my process — usually heavy revision.  No matter how strong a first draft might feel, the language (down to word choice and sentence structure) and the shape of the piece (paragraph order, beginning, ending, fragments, etc.) always needs work.  I recently sat down with an essay that I thought was “good” six months ago (and that had received a lot of positive comments from readers) and realized that there was a lot I could do to improve it.  I spent four days revising just that piece, and I am a lot happier with it now.

So, writers, what is your process?  What works for you, and what doesn’t?  Comments?


4 thoughts on “Process

  1. Cindy

    Hi Faye,

    It’s always interesting to read about others’ writing processes. I’m not sure what my process is exactly, except that it involves a lot of shitty first drafting (in the spirit of Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird) and much self-doubt about my writing ability. “You can’t write for shit,” is a usual phrase in my head during the early draft phrase. “You’re brilliant,” is my self-delusional phase upon first revision. “Oh, you can make it better than this,” is the second or third (whatever) draft stage. And “You will never get this right” is the near final draft stage. “I can’t read another word of this shit,” usually means I’m finished with the piece, at least for six months. This is also, ironically, the stage where I get many compliments — when I’m in a stage of self-hatred regarding my work. Hummph…

    I admire you for being able to write using different processes and for being able to articulate those processes so well – quickly written first impression essays, those that have been lingering in your brain awhile, those written by hand and those composed solely on the computer. You write some great stuff that is now getting published and I’m so happy for you. I hope to emulate some of your success over the next year. Thanks for being an inspiration.

  2. Cynthia Briggs

    Hello Faye,

    Well written!

    I’ve only been writing for 12 years. In 1999 I started out writing a weekly cooking column, which continued through 2005. By 2006, I was cringing when I took out those old columns to reprint in my blog. I’ve not been able to use one of them without doing a complete rewrite. Although I find my “old” writing nearly embarrassing, it’s been an exhilarating boost to my ego to see my progress. Today I’m pleased to rewrite one of the old columns…it actually makes me feel better, especially on those days when I feel like I’m not getting anywhere in the writing world.

    Like you, I save everything I’ve ever written and then I go back to it and use the entire essay or snippets of it. I even save the hand written notes from my purse note pad. I have used portions of that material perhaps years later. Mostly I write using the keyboard, but some of my best work has been scribbled down during the 30-minute wait to see the dentist.

    Free form writing works best for me and then I go back and make my corrections. If I try to “stay on track” or remain structured while in creative mode it seems I never like my finished product and it gets shelved (sometimes indefinitely).

    My goal is to discipline myself better, not let events of the day distract me from time at my desk. Creativity goes out the window when I let events of the day control me rather than the other way around.

    You’re articulate in your writing and have probably mastered many of the bugaboos that plague authors. After reading your essay I feel better knowing the journey is much the same for all writers. It just takes some of us longer than others to arrive at our destination, and what I’ve read tells me you’ve arrived!

  3. Jim Kennedy

    Hey Faye — great question.

    My old process, which produced much spreadth, little depth, was to always carry a small notebook, and to always write down what felt like an insight, or a significant detail. This notebook would get up to 50 to 100 ideas, and slowly I would cull them, and find several worth pursuing. Once I got a few pages into that idea, I’d slow it down, re-read and revise frequently, taking my time, like drinking a cup of wine very slowly, or returning it to the basement to age longer. Sometimes I’d be revising 6 or 8 pieces simultaneously, as changes were modest, cautious.

    My new process, which produces much depth and little spreadth, is once I am sure of an idea I dive into the muck with it, and mud wrestle it until I’m either exhausted and defeated or have pinned the sucker down for a 10 count.

    I’d love to merge these two processes — don’t have time to, yet.