Random and messy: What writing process?

Messy desk cartoon

My writing process doesn’t deserve the implied organizational prowess of the word. Cartoon courtesy Lauren Edwards.

I always laugh whenever somebody asks about my writing “process.” Many new writers and readers expect the conception and birth of a story to start with an inspirational moment followed by furious scribbling and late nights at the laptop. After a few months of intense activity, a book appears on a shelf or in a tablet fully formed. Experienced writers and mature readers know that the process is far more complicated and littered with numerous points of potential failure. But even the word “process” implies an inevitable outcome.

Watched from 30,000 feet, my own process could be described in step-by-step terms. But seen under a microscope, my creative ways are a hellacious mess. I defie anyone to find order in my madness, particularly with my non-fiction writing. When putting together a novel or short story, I’ll make notes about characters and write a basic outline. But when I’m writing an article for a magazine or a blog, all that organizational paraphernalia goes out the window.

Take my current non-fiction project, an article for an in-flight magazine published by a well-known airline. After spending hours on the phone with sources, searching the web for background materials, and putting all my notes into a pile a couple inches high, here’s my process as the micro-level:

  • Open new document, stare at blank screen
  • Flip through notes, write a paragraph
  • Displace anxiety by running fingers through hair
  • Blow nose
  • Write another sentence or two
  • Leave desk, wander into kitchen, open/close refrigerator door
  • Return to desk, write a paragraph, delete it
  • Write a new paragraph
  • Get up from desk, wander around room like a blind robot
  • Read over work, fix an error, write another paragraph
  • Go into the living room, turn on the TV, watch five minutes, turn off the TV
  • Answer email
  • Return to the kitchen, eat a potato chip
  • Go back to desk, pick up paper notes, drop them, reorganize them
  • Revise a sentence in a previous paragraph
  • Take a nap

Creativity is a meandering thing for me. The word “process” gives it a glory it doesn’t deserve. I suspect other writers’ processes are more like mine than they like to let on. Messiness is not a popular motif. They want to look like they know what they are doing, when the truth is closer to the opposite. That mess of language you created is probably as much random accident as intentional design.

What do you think? Is your writing random or ordered?

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