“How do you write?” asked an audience member at a recent book discussion at Stanford. Tobias Wolff, professor of literature at Stanford and author of several books, picked up the microphone and responded: “I sometimes spend all day deleting semi-colons and then re-inserting them back.”
The agony and ecstasy of writing, of formulating thought into words and then into sentences, from whence to paragraphs and chapters, with and without semicolons, is so overwrought and contradictory that everyone seems to ascribe a different evasive explanation to the process.
“Write, as though there’s no tomorrow.” “It’s ok if you don’t write a single word. The important thing is to think about what you will ultimately write about.” “Don’t think too hard, just snatch an idea from the air.” “Read before you write.” “Write, and it will all fall into place.” These bits of non-specific advice I’ve encountered at writers’ workshops, book readings and literary forums. It is possible that there’s no one single explanation to the “how do you write” inquisition. There are answers that suit different moments, different personalities, different habits and different genres of writing.
My own writing process is a function of my passion and paranoia. When I write, I’m compelled by a sense of obsession, worrying about a phrase, anxious about a word choice, a comma placement, an intransitive verb. I’ve spent hours working the same paragraph; written a whole monologue in one sitting; and searched for my muse in unlikely places.
Upon deconstructing Wolff’s explanation, it seems to be cognate with the same compulsions that I’ve experienced. That which seems perfect before lunch I’ve often seen crumble into meaninglessness at dinnertime.
A writer-friend recently remarked that she imagines I deliver a thousand words a day when I sit down to write. It’s true; I sometimes do, and then there are those days when I stare at the blank page waiting for it to come alive without my intervention.
It was the wonderful writer Dorothy Parker who once said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” The writing process is neurotic. It’s filled with uncertainties and yet, once that beautiful idea is laid out and that perfect sentence is formed, and you’ve exposed a little bit of your soul, there is no turning back. Writing is its own reward.