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A Look at Process

I am often asked what my writing process looks like. At author visits, sitting on author panels, counseling an aspiring writer – this question about process always pops up. I think a good description of my professional writing experience (or process) is to say that it involves many “worlds”. Throughout the writing of a book, these “worlds” include: reading and imagining, note-taking and highlighting, Internet surfing and bookstore visits, traveling to historic sites (where I ask lots of questions and listen!). It may also include “worlds” that involve watching movies, documentaries, or even relevant TV shows. For me, all of these “worlds” expand and diminish and expand again as the process of creating a book develops (and even after I’m finished!). Some I visit for a few hours. Some I immerse myself into for days. Some of these little ‘worlds” are like a convenience store, in (I get my stuff) and out, quickly (onto the next stop).

If you noticed I did not yet list the all-important “world” of writing. I think it’s because I sort of see writing as happening all the time. I am, in a way, always writing in my head. This may be a poor analogy, but, for me, the writing is the “universe” and these other places I visit are the “worlds” in that universe. I have been on writing expeditions where I sit for hours and the real world is forgotten. A specific example would be this winter. I was deep into researching and drafting about Clara Barton. When I really get into the chasing of a story I typically get lost! In the midst of writing about Clara, I was going to sleep at night (often very late) imagining the world Clara lived in. Then, I’d wake up the next morning wanting to get right back at it; I couldn’t wait to discover more about her epic life. I recall one morning quickly eating two bowls of Crispix and then getting right back at it! I think I started at about 9:00am…then, I literally looked up at the clock – and it was 3:30pm!! Getting that much peace and quiet (with no phone ringing or some other interruption) is rare. I didn’t even eat! (I actually started getting a headache from being famished!) I was absorbed into everything “Clara”!

In this six hour “swim” I bounced back and forth from reading pages from Clara’s actual diaries and letters to writing thoughts on Post-Its to reading Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s huge biography about Clara to writing scenes from Clara’s epic life to re-reading Stephanie Spinner’s Who Was Clara Barton? (Yes! I read kids’ books too…) to writing and imagining and re-writing and then to watching videos about Clara and writing and crafting and recrafting and reconstructing some more and fact checking and more. Eventually, I contacted an expert at The Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum in Washington D.C. (Finding an actual human to talk to that only wants to talk about your writing topic is a blessing!) My mind was totally drenched. And my heart too; I fell in love with Clara Barton!

I really believe that if writers don’t get to a place where they’re “swimming” in their thoughts about their subject then they will not succeed. Or at least the book won’t be the best it could be. It may not be a “place” as scattered in approach as one of my six-hour swims, but writers need to get lost in their process and in their subject. I once heard Laurie Halse Anderson tell a group of aspiring writers to simply “turn off the TV!” However, she added a choice four-letter adjective in her stern recommendation. Her powerful insertion really made that piece of advice stick! And that’s where I’ll end this streaming rant! Turn off the %#@* T.V. and get lost in your writing!

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