Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
Join The List!

Sign-up to receive stories, specials, & inspiration a few times a month.

search this site
« Things I've Seen (this summer) | Main | Noise »

Writing as Discovery, or, We're All Normal (In The Word Cellar)

beach stairs, nantucket (cell phone camera; photo by Bee)

I sit down at the keyboard. I'm following a snippet of a scene, a hazy idea whispering in maddening mumbles at the back of my brain. I have an impression, an inkling, a vague image that I need to uncover and discover.

I sit down at the keyboard and start a conversation with the words. I slide down rabbit holes, jump over fences, take a bold leap into the bright, high sky.

This is writing.

At least, it is for me.

A lot of the time I have no clear idea what I'm trying to write about until I'm elbow deep in a piece. For me, writing is a process of discovery. I write to know what I think. I write to discover how I feel. I write to create a cohesive whole from jumbled sections of thought floating around inside my mind.

As a result of this approach, my writing process includes a lot of editing and rewriting. I forge ahead, I double back. I tinker. I twiddle. I give and I take. This is writing. (This may also be why I fully believe that editing is a creative act.)

For a long time, I thought my natural writing process meant I wasn't a very good writer. In fact, I worried that it meant I wasn't a "real writer" at all.

I'd thought that "real writers" had an easy time writing. I'd thought that they came to the page pregnant with stories and ready to burst at the seams. I'd thought that this is how it worked for real writers every single time.

Boy howdy, was I wrong. There are times when we writers are ripe with words. Those are the joyful times. But there are other times when we writers have to dig and scratch in the dirt, like a dog or a chicken, looking for words like a bone or an insect, unearthing the story. (There are times when metaphors get fuddled.)

What sweet relief when I realized that my writing process is valid and true. When I embrace this idea of writing as a process of discovery, I can stop struggling so mightily with both with my identity as a writer and with the writing itself. When I realize that the story emerges during the process of writing, I allow myself to relax and do what comes naturally.

*  *  *

Turns out, all of this may be due to my natural preference as an extravert.

Stay with me now.

During a planning phone call with my Writing Lab panel for Blogher '10, the organization's co-founder Elisa Camahort brought up an interesting point about the way different personality types write. She said that she's heard that introverts and extraverts have different writing processes. While introverts tend to write a piece in their heads and come to the page with a nearly fully-formed piece, extraverts tend to do a lot more rewriting.

When I take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, I always land on the extravert side, but just barely. Of all the M-B metrics, I'm most balanced on this one. In general, this means that to feel grounded I need large amounts of time alone as well as large amounts of social interaction. I need time to dream by myself, but I also need to brainstorm and hash out ideas with other people. As a writer, I tend to need a lot of quiet time to write, but during that time I engage in conversation with the page. By Elisa's definition, I'm definitely an extraverted writer. Occasionally I start writing with a clear story in my head, but usually I'm following breadcrumbs through a shadowy forest or running after the glint of sea glass strewn along the beach.

An unscientific, anecdotal study of other writers leads me to believe that there's something to this intro/extra process idea. (Chime in below and let us know if it holds true for you.)

*  *  *

One of the worst things we do to ourselves, both as artists and as humans, is to compare ourselves to other people. A lot of times this shows up in comparisons of how good or bad we think our work or life is compared to those around us. But we also tend to judge our processes against other people's processes. We think there's a bona fide norm to which we should aspire.

I thought that I had to master a particular writing process in order to consider myself a good or real writer. My mistake was believing in this elusive idea of the norm. 

I make that mistake in other areas, too.

I often make dinner after 10:00 at night because my husband's job forces him to keep odd hours. I'm a natural night owl who can set her own hours, so usually it's not a problem. But instead of reveling in the freedom to make this strange schedule work for us, I used to worry that we were weird and deviant, as though eating dinner at 11:00 p.m. somehow made me less of a mature, responsible adult and contributing member of society. But now I'm beginning to see that this is simply our norm for this time in our life. When I worked a traditional nine-to-five job, my husband and I rarely ate dinner together. Now that I can set my own schedule, I can choose to have dinner with my partner long after some of my friends have gone to bed. And then I sleep for hours and hours after they've gotten up the next day. This doesn't make me lazy. I'm just on a different program, one that works for me.

So I eat dinner during the nightly news, sleep till noon, and pick my way through words blindfolded. Maybe you like to eat dinner during the evening news, get up at dawn, and write whole stories in your head before you ever touch a keyboard or pen. We are each of us our own version of normal. As long as we stay true to that, we'll all be alright.

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month.
Read other posts in the series here.

The first In The Word Cellar online writing course for creative souls is coming soon! Learn more about Alchemy: The Art & Craft of Writing.

Reader Comments (4)

so much goodness here. i always appreciate coming here and being reminded that i am not the only one. (thank you) and, you used the phrase boy howdy in this post and that just about made my day. yep.
August 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterliz elayne
I love this, Jenna. Staying true is more important than conforming to anybody's idea of you. And despite (or perhaps because of) all the "blindfolded" re-writing, you definitely have a way with words.
August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatie
I love that you posted this! I thought of this and what you said at Blogher when I wrote a post that was giving me a lot of trouble. I spent more time tinkering than writing. Embrace your own process!
August 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMommy on the Spot
I used "boy howdy" today in a conversation long before reading this approaching midnight...to thine own self be true continues to work...thank you for the reminder.
July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterB.A. Hanson

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.