As I embark on actually getting the words down for the first chapter of my doctoral thesis (on heroes and hero-worship in Charlotte and Branwell Bronte’s early early writings), I’ve been thinking a bit about taking the leap from research and planning to actually writing. I’ve realized that my process for academic writing is in many ways similar to my creative writing and since I suspect some other grad student and writerly types may be reading this, I thought I would attempt to explain how this works for me. As with everything concerning the writing process, this is highly individual.
Before I start writing, I need to know where I’m going. If I start in on an essay or a novel without having worked out what my end goal is and, at least in general, how I’m going to get there, I flail around hopelessly. I'm totally lost in the woods. Generally, I just don’t go in to a piece of writing until I know my major road markers, unless I’m trying to write an abstract or a proposal, when getting my ideas down messily and then shaping and cutting for word count after seems to work quite well.
I know some writers can go into a book and not know what’s hiding behind each corner (I’m thinking about fiction writers particularly here, but I know students who write this way too – it boggles my mind). But then they go back and revise and work their book, essay etc. into a workable shape after the fact.
For whatever reason, I can’t do this. For essays, I need to know each major point I’m trying to make before I start. I need to see the shape of the argument in my head. I also know it’s time to start writing when the essay, in a sense, begins writing itself, when I hear random sentences in my head that belong in the essay, when I come up with a way to describe something I’m trying to prove.
I used to plan out my essays in great detail, writing down every point and every quotation and page reference in a gigantic outline, then typing everything onto the computer. That way I got to put off the actual writing for as long as possible. I think I’m better at embracing a bit of mess now, and have found that roughing out a paragraph or a section on paper and then typing and refining seems to work quite well.
I seem to need less detail going forward on a novel, but like an academic paper, a novel also needs to have enough complexity in the ideas and plot to move it forward. Now that I am hopefully coming toward the end of revisions on my current novel, I’ve begun thinking about what the next one might be like. Over the last couple years, I’ve had about three reasonably novel-like ideas, but none of them is tugging at me, shouting at me to write them now. I suspect they are rather half-baked. I don’t think there is enough imaginative force there to propel me through an entire novel. I started, and even finished, so many longer stories that were really just dead inside as a teenager and discovered in the process that novels need a critical mass of ideas, so that a chain reaction occurs and ideas spark new ideas and pull up old ideas and rework them for the new context. I think that’s what I’m waiting for at the moment.
And even then, when will I know when to start writing? Well, I’ll need an idea of the plot structure and my end point. And, as occurred with this novel, I’ll know it’s time to start when it begins writing itself in my head.
I remember this quite clearly. I’d had the original idea for this novel back in March of 2006, and then on August 17th, after I had just finished a summer Latin class and put another old (and frankly not very good) novel to bed, I was sitting on my bed, eating strawberries, listening to CBC radio, and reading Wuthering Heights, and I think the cadences at Emily Bronte’s language set something going in my mind and the book began writing itself.
At that point, you really do just need to start.