Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, March 23, 2012

My Writing Process and My Beautifully Appointed Home and Other Stories I Like to Tell

I’m thinking of posting ideas and suggestions about writing, on my FB page and also my blog, from time to time in the weeks ahead. But planning to do this makes me a little nervous.

First of all, I don’t think of myself as particularly expert at the “how-to” part of talking about writing. This may be an odd confession from someone who’s taught writing, in various contexts, for nearly twenty-five years now--but I’m afraid it’s true. As a writing teacher, I think I’m reasonably good at these three things: (1) putting interesting and valuable things to read in front of my students; (2) creating deadlines and insisting that they produce work on a schedule; (3) reading what they write and taking them seriously by suggesting ways to improve their work. 

But I honestly don’t know how to teach them to do it.

This is a problem for me sometimes. For instance, when I read or speak or talk with book groups, people often ask about my “writing process.” This makes me sweat, because as a long-time writing teacher, I know what I’m supposed to say, which is something along the lines of “I’m at my desk, which is emptied of all other distractions, every morning at the same time; I draft for three hours; I eat a healthy lunch; and in the afternoon I methodically revise for two more hours.” 

Would that this were true. In fact I often leave my desk, even my house, to try to find that kind of clear and empty space we all dream of; I’m lucky to be able to hole up in a study carrel in the library at Moravian College, where I teach, for instance. I have multiple writing surfaces in my study (which is also our guest room--a problem, as Virginia Woolf noted, but one I won’t get into now), but I have consistently failed to keep them clear of notes about my daughter’s camps, school field trips, acting and dance and music classes and lessons and performances and recitals; printed email messages (because I’ll never remember them otherwise) and so on from people I need to write to, etc., as part of promoting my novels; receipts; bills; more printed emails, etc. related to my teaching; recommendation letter requests; coupons; publishers’ flyers about books I need to order; tape paper clips a phone nasal mist a camera old printer cartridges notebooks files and a ridiculous number of books, most of which I looked a little something up in, six months ago or more, for the novel I’m working on and which I can’t bring myself to return to the library because what if I need to check one more thing?

On good days I’ll just take a legal pad and pen, and maybe a few notes, and sit at the dining room table (the single surface in our house that somehow seems to stay relatively clear of clutter), and I’ll do that two- or three-hour drafting-in-the-morning thing. When it goes well, two or three hours isn’t nearly enough. Which is a problem, because I sometimes use this knowledge, that a couple hours is never enough, to talk myself out of even getting started on days when I have a doctor’s appointment or I’ve agreed to volunteer at my daughter’s school or there’s someone coming to do some work at the house and so I’ll be interrupted and that will make me miserable and so why even start?

Don’t even get me started on what it’s like during normal years (unlike this sabbatical year), when I’m also teaching.

I’ve been stuck on a theme of full exposure vs. harmless half-truths lately, and so I guess that’s prompting this confessional post. This is the honest truth: I can’t teach other people to somehow use my “process” because I don’t think I have one; I honestly don’t remember, for instance, precisely how the two novels I’ve published happened. Basically I’m a scattershot writer, of necessity, writing in the little gaps and windows of my life, and shoving aside the pile of crap on my desk to do it. At least that’s how it is on the good days.

I was kind of mortified when visiting one of the book groups who read In Hovering Flight a couple years ago, to hear what people in the group had decided about me and my writing life. They’d read the bio that was on my web site, and so they were picturing me in a beautifully restored old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside, writing happily every day in my perfectly appointed study (I don’t know where they put the husband and daughter and pets that were also referenced in that bio). I’ll confess that I didn’t disabuse them of this picture. It was so pretty! Maybe, I thought, that really was my life and I just couldn’t see it clearly myself!

But no, it’s really not. Our house really is a restored 18th-century farmhouse, and it really is in a pretty, wooded area with lots of big old trees. But we live in a development within the city limits of Bethlehem, PA, our house has a lot of charms but won’t be in Country Living any time soon, and did I mention the part about having a hard time finding a surface that isn’t buried under my stuff or my daughter’s stuff or my husband’s stuff (except for my husband’s desk, which is somehow always immaculate--but don’t get me started on that either).

If I have any advice for writers to finish off this confession, I suppose it’s this: Shove the crap out of your way, and get your ideas down. Scribble them in a notebook if that’s all you have time to do, and see if the pressure of a notebook bursting with ideas doesn’t, eventually, force you to shove the crap out of your way again (or to pay for that service that blocks the wireless access from your computer) and start writing the story or essay or novel or memoir or whatever it is that the pressure of those notes is building toward. 

Also remember that the first page or two, at a minimum, will be horrible. This is a given, and not to be worried about. Write it all anyway, and know that, diligent writer that you are, you'll deal with it later. (Or, take my class and I'll force you to deal with it.)

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