The Wave Builds
Writing is a deeply individual process. Grammar, narrative structure, character development – these things can be taught. Process, however, is personal. It cannot be taught. Process is excavated through painful trial and error, and is unique to each writer. I’d even argue it is what makes each writer. If a writer has discovered his or her process, it’s a demarcation, a stepping into the ring, proof positive of the hard yards, late nights gritted out, self-doubt waded through, and writing, writing, writing (rather than talking about writing). There is no substitute; it is a quest all writers must take.
I discovered my process in my mid-thirties. My process is a wave. A powerful wave, one that slams down on the seabed and thunders ashore, rather than gently caressing the sand. It is a thing of great energy, with its own rhythm, regardless of my wants, needs, or reality.
The Wave begins with a great intake of energy, sucking everything to it, building, gathering force. I am at my most unpleasant during this time.
I stalk the house. I’m impatient, restless, and anxious. I don’t sleep very well. I feel as though something is always on my mind, but I can’t put my finger on it. I’m distracted and wracked with self-doubt. I want to write, but I’m not ready to. I plan and organize, rather than producing, which amps up my anxiety.
I don’t have the luxury of writing in rhythm with my process; few writers do. Deadlines are what help shape writers’ processes, but they remain unfeelingly fixed, and the Building phase is always the worst one to push through. Burgeoning writers frequently give up during this part of the cycle. They don’t yet recognize it for what it is, and they haven’t yet learned to just get it done, to get words on paper whatever the cost. (Great is the enemy of good during this phase, and experienced writers are not immune to the danger.)
Eventually, the Wave crests to a breaking point, and that’s when I’m ready to write. This is the ‘lightning strike’ writers talk about, and – obviously – it’s my favourite part of the process. I write hard. I write well. I’m in rhythm. My mind bursts with ideas, and the notepads I’ve stashed (my purse, the car, my bedside table, pockets, the coffee table, the kitchen, etc.) fill up with ideas, often in the middle of the night. (I still don’t sleep well during this time).
I can write for long stretches of time, breaking for sleep, food, or exercise. I am productive, and that helps keep the anxiety quietened and the restlessness at bay. My forearms swell from overuse and my writing callous (from holding a pencil / pen) puffs up to the size of a pea. I feel happily preoccupied with my work.
And then the Wave is spent. It washes up the shore, thinning out, spilling energy, until it’s reached its limit and begins to recede. Now I can sleep. I also feel drained, unfocused, foggy. I can still work, but prefer concrete tasks (doing laundry, conducting interviews, responding to emails, organizing) to creative ones. I gravitate to activities with a clear end, something I can tick off a list. I read a lot during this time; it helps me recharge.
The length of the Wave cycle changes every time. The Breaking cycle usually lasts two to three months. Its length and intensity determine the Thinning and Building times (as I’ve taken to referring to them in my strange little mind). The bigger and more gnarly the Breaking, the longer it takes me to recover and regenerate.
In the writing of my current book, I’ve gone through two massive Breaking cycles, and fought to maintain productivity through the Thinning and Building cycles, further complicated by the pandemic, and the fatigue and anxiety it carries.
The pandemic lengthened the Thinning cycle I was in. It lasted so long I’m almost welcoming of the twitchy, unsettled, self-damning feelings that are rising now – a sure sign that I’m entering a Building phase. Hopefully this phase won’t last long, because one more Breaking should see me through to the first draft of this book being finished, which is something I’m very much looking forward to – not just because I want it done, but because it’s something good, and I am eager to see a complete first draft of this amazing odyssey, years in the making.
Wish me luck, spare a kind thought for Chris (he puts up with a lot when I cycle through the Building part of the process, even though I try to protect him from it), and I hope all of you are keeping well.
Once upon a time, when I first moved to New Zealand in 2004, I wrote a weekly email to my close family and friends, cleverly titled The Weekly. It was my way of sharing the details of my new and day-to-day life with people I loved who were back in the States. I continued The Weekly for many years: sometimes it was a breathless paragraph; sometimes a lengthy ramble (or vent).
I am currently writing hard to finish the book resulting from our extraordinary assignment, but I’ve been toying with the idea of reinstating The Weekly for a while now. I think I’ll give it a try, although it may be brief and breathless for now, and the writing will be far from perfect. So, check back around this time every week if you’re keen to be part of The Weekly II. I’d love to have you along for the ride.