When Stuart Barnes, my invaluable poetry editor at Tincture Journal, asked me to join the writing process blog tour, my first thought was to politely decline. My writing process could easily be taken as a guide on how to not get any actual writing done. If you want to write regularly then you can probably take this post as an excellent example of what not to do.
Let’s be clear: I love reading, writing and words and I’m studying an online MA (Writing) through Swinburne University. But I also enjoy editing Tincture Journal. I have a full-time job as a software engineer. And then there’s music, film, art, eating, sleeping, cycling, and don’t forget the drinking. Basically, I want it all, and writing often suffers as a result.
Now, to the questions…
1. What am I working on?
My main project is a novel with the working title of Shanghai Wedding. In late 2012 / early 2013 I wrote a short story for an undergrad uni subject (Writing the Short Story) and after many revisions it was picked up for publication by Hello Mr magazine in mid-2013. The story is titled “Purple Galaxy” and can now be found on my fiction page. It’s very much about the issue of domestic violence in a same-sex relationship, and after the joy of having the story published, I decided to expand upon some of its themes and attempt a novel-length work. The plan is to structure as much of my Masters degree as possible around the novel (with the exception of units such as Journalism and Writing History which have more specific assessment requirements).
Around the same time that “Purple Galaxy” was published, I was starting a subject called Research For Writers and wanted to use it to kick start the novel by submitting the first chapter for the major assessment. But where would research come into it? Firstly, I decided that the opening and climax of the novel would be set in Shanghai, so it was a chance to research place. In addition to the first chapter, I submitted an exegetical research journey which provided great insights into my creative process and the different ways that inspiration came to me day by day.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
What even is genre? That’s a topic for a blog post all on its own, but the idea of genre is something that I’ve always struggled against (in music and film as much as in books). In some sense, genre provides a template and becomes restricting, but in another sense it helps set a reader’s expectations and can be an important tool for book selection and marketing. For better or worse, none of these considerations come into my writing at this stage. I’m writing the story that I want to write and it just may be a story that nobody else ever wants to read. So be it.
My initial idea was to write a kind of picaresque gay novel drawing on thinly veiled elements of personal experience, but it has since moved well beyond that (thankfully). I will still draw from personal experience (it seems unavoidable in a first novel), but the primary plot arc, whereby the male protagonist travels to Shanghai for the wedding of his ex-boyfriend to a woman, is not at all within the realm of my own experience.
If the genre is “gay novel”, then I don’t even know what that is. Apart from reading Armistead Maupin decades ago and some Edmund White more recently, I’m not widely read in that area. If the genre is “literary novel”, well… maybe that’s for others to decide.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I write what comes. In his post, Stuart Barnes said “it’s my cure” and that’s a big factor for me as well. Coincidentally, I just glanced across and Twitter and saw that somebody had retweeted a quote by Mario Vargas Llosa into my timeline: “Writers are the exorcists of their own demons”. That says it all really. Stuart also wrote of the need to move beyond narcissism and use personal experience to discuss larger issues. I couldn’t agree more.
I write to make sense of the past, to see events (real or imagined) from the perspectives of different characters and to produce work that makes some kind of statement about our social and cultural moment. I find it difficult to escape from psychological realism, although I do want to explore with other modes of writing as my confidence builds (if it ever does).
4. How does my writing process work?
Umm… it doesn’t? This is the bit where it becomes a non-writing process. Although working as a software developer uses the more logical/mathematical side of my brain, it’s also creatively draining in its own way, so it can be difficult to maintain my mental energy on weeknights. Thankfully I now work for a great company that realises overtime is counter-productive, so I finish at 5pm most days, and that helps a lot. Last year I founded Tincture Journal and the combination of reading submissions, editing, publishing the e-book, social media, etc. takes up lots of spare time. In short: I’ve found it impossible to keep up a daily writing process.
And yes, on top of all that I’m studying the MA (Writing). The benefit of this is that it does force me to set aside at least some writing time each week. I only do one subject at a time, but there are four semester a year without holidays. We submit a fully referenced 500-word forum post every week and critique the work of at least two other students. This gets me writing regularly, but it also means that I don’t always get to choose what I’m writing about. Sometimes they’re posts of creative writing, but often they need to be academic. Each subject has a final assessment of 2000-4000 words, so I use these to get longer pieces of writing done. Unfortunately, for subjects like Journalism it takes me away from the novel and results in unpublishable rants about the police use of Tasers.
After submitting Chapter One of the novel last year and receiving a great mark, I was full of energy and decided to use NaNoWriMo to try and get into a daily writing process. I ended up with 20,000 words of the novel, but quit halfway through the month and burnt out. Issue Four of Tincture was due out on 1st December and it had to take priority. The lesson, for me, was that I needed to slow down. I’ve taken a few months away from the novel while changing jobs and gathering my thoughts.
Right now I’m studying a subject that’s basically about literary theory and how it applies (or doesn’t) to the creative writer, and despite the dense theoretical readings and forum posts each week, the final assessment can be anything we like. So my most recent writing is a 3000-word standalone short story taken from the world of the novel and also inspired by all of the times I’ve been lucky enough to see Australian jazz band The Necks. The assignment is due next week.
So, how can I summarise this non-process? I write when I can. Friday nights and Saturday afternoons are often the best. I used to be a morning person, but have lost that habit since moving to Sydney in 2009. I also write when I simply have to: when the inspiration has come and needs to get out of my mind and on to the page (screen). I’m finding this happens more and more just because my mind has opened up to the idea of writing and is more actively seeking inspiration.
I walk to and from work and take a one-hour walk every lunchtime, and I find that letting my thoughts wander while walking can be an excellent source of ideas. I use Evernote on my phone to scribble things down when they come, because I have a terrible memory. I often listen to podcasts while I’m walking, but I’m starting to consider a move back to silence, to let my own thoughts bubble to the surface on their own. I also find that cycling helps to clear my mind, and occasionally a heard phrase has inspired a story or scene, even if I’ve just a grabbed a snippet of conversation while quickly cycling past.
And that’s it.
Many thanks to Stuart for asking me to participate.
Next week Jodi Cleghorn will post her Writing Process Blog Tour at www.jodicleghorn.wordpress.com.