Sunday, September 5, 2010

My writing process

Evelyn N. Alfred wonders:

I'm very curious about how writers - especially published ones - write. I'd like to know their whole writing process, from the brainstorm, first draft, second draft, seventy-elevnth draft, all the way up to publishing. It would be nice to know these things, to see if their advice could help me with my own writing.

I write every day.  I don't have a set amount of words, or time, that I need to write, just so long as I write one poem.  That's anything from an epic (well, for me) 3-pager to a haiku, though I almost never write anything so short, since I consider it cheating.  Cheating, that is, myself.  From time spent writing.  I mean, there's nothing wrong with a good haiku.

The process can take anywhere from half an hour to probably around an two hours, depending on my mood and the poem, though the poem depends so heavily on my mood that these qualifiers might be one in the same.

With that in mind, I tell myself I won't go to bed until the poem is done.  This means that most nights, it's the last thing I do before I go to bed.  Possibly not the best state of mind for a lot of people to write, but I've always been a night person, and poetry is exciting to me and keeps me active enough that I rarely feel tired until the poem is written.  Writing has always been exciting to me.  Reading can be.  Depends on the artist.

So it's 2 in the morning, and I've decided I need to write my poem for the day.  What do I write about?  I have three methods for topics.  The first, and most common approach I take is that I basically free write.  I start writing about whatever pops in my head, or something that I see in the room, or something that happened that day.  Method two has me write a poem specifically in response to a contest.  If there's a contest that's looking for poems for an AIDS anthology (and there was) I write to that.  And the last method is that I read a poem, and write a 'response' to it.  Either a direct answer to some question the poem asked, or what I think about when I read that poem.  Pretty much anything.

From there, it's all instinct for the greater part of it, if there is such a thing.  If I like what I've written, I'll try to do more of it, whatever it is.  Alliteration, or in-rhyme, or a theme, or whatever.  But I basically try to keep writing until I feel an end coming on, and end it when it feels right.

That's how I write the majority of the time.  I edit heavily that first night, and put it away until some undetermined time in the future, when I look through a lot of my poems at once and edit them again.  Throughout the week, I read the last three or four poems I wrote to see how I feel about them, and a lot of times, I edit those as well.

Form poems are a little different, but I still mostly do this free-write approach.  I almost never plan everything that I'm going to write before I write it.  I maybe have never done it.  I don't know that I believe that poetry can't be organic when it's planned, or can't seem it anyway.  All I know is that when a trained singer goes out on stage, the one thing that nobody can teach them is to be in that right state of mind to really hit every note the way it needs to be hit.  After a while, they just learn the place they need to be, and for me, the place that I've needed to be for as long as I can remember is fluid, and unplanned and free as I can.

Frank X Walker said, in the first writing class that I ever took, that there's no such thing as writer's block.  And I believe in that.  Writer's block isn't a literal inability to pen a word to paper, it's a fear or feeling that anything you have to say isn't worth saying.  Or else, you don't feel as if you know what to say.  But if you sit down and just write, you'll have something.  If you learned how to spell, and you can speak, you can write.

Every single time I sit down to write, I'm not crafting something spectacular.  I'm just crafting, and that's enough.

Most nights.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Keith.

    Sometimes I respond to poems or books I'm reading, or maybe I'm just reacting to what I've read and out the poem comes.

  2. Dang, I got a shout-out on your blog, but still not on the blogroll. Shoot.


  3. keith, i like how you use freewriting as the basis for a poem. julia cameron (author of _the artist's way_) talks about the process of writing "morning pages," which is basically a kind of free-writing, done just about first thing in the morning, as a way of "clearing" the mind for the task of making art (which includes writing). though the morning pages just accumulate, and you store them and maybe never even read them, there are things in them that can become the basis of writing or other kinds of art. your method, which seems like a kind of "clearing the decks" from the day, seems equally valid and productive as well. and of course i identify with it more strongly since i tend to do my best writing in the late afternoon or at night too! & great reminder that there really is no writer's block, just fear that you don't have anything worthwhile to say. thanks.

  4. Thanks poets.

    Lisa, it's strange that I never really attributed what I do to that kind of writing, not because it isn't, but just because I do what I do because it feels necessary in some way. I sometimes wonder how many poets write a certain way, or style, only because that's what seems right.