Writing like processed meat

This essay was originally written in 1995 for a college course, The Personal Essay. I have made slight modifications to it as of October 30, 2001, for presentation here.

In the course of my schooling, I've been told relatively the same thing by two different professors. This thing rather disturbs me. At least, from the standpoint of a writer. And not just any writer. An amateur writer.

"What is this thing?" you might ask. That writing is tough? No. I've been writing for school for the last I don't know how many years. (It frightens me to think that I can't even remember when I began writing for school. Was it really that long ago?) One thing I've learned in that time is that it's tough.

Well, then, you might be saying, I must mean that I probably have less than a snowball's chance in hell of ever getting published. Get real. I've understood that little tidbit for a long time, too. In fact, that truth has me a little apprehensive about even trying to get published.

By now you must be dying to know what I could possibly have been told in the last week that disturbs me about writing. So, wait no longer. Let me tell you. It is that writing is a process. I've heard it in my Personal Essay class, and in my Expository Writing class. Actually, in the latter, my professor told us that writing is not one but two processes, quite distinct from each other.

Is this true? Is writing a process? Is it multiple processes? Must it be?

I don't know. According to my Expository Writing professor, "good" writers use the following two processes: composing followed by revising. Whether the latter must immediately follow the former, he did not say. He did say that "good" writers can switch between the two with ease. (Composing here means sitting at your word processor, your computer, or with pen and paper, and doing nothing but writing, with no regard for correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and the like. When you begin to care about those things is when you are revising.)

Well, one thing that ruffles me as a beginning writer is being told what "good" writers do. Am I supposed to be in awe? Am I supposed to say to myself, "Hey, they are published writers and I want to be a published writer, so I should do what they do?" Am I supposed to believe that what has worked for them will work for me? But, I digress.

So, is writing a process? I don't like to think of it as a process. The idea of it being a process makes me think that there's some magic formula, like E=mc2, that will make my words accelerate at light speed into the hearts and minds of my readers. The idea of a process makes me think that someone, either myself or some "good" writer, should be able to write a how-to book, like Five Sure-Fire, Fool-Proof Steps to Writing a Book That Will Sell Millions of Copies and Be Turned into a Movie That Doesn't Resemble Your Original Work In Any Way But Still Makes You Tons of Money So You'll Still be Happy. Okay, okay. So that's a little ridiculous. But still, that basic principle should be true, shouldn't it? If writing is indeed a process, then shouldn't that process be subject to documentation? Shouldn't a writer be able to write down those five or ten steps that guarantee the six-figure advance?

I think the answer is "No." Because what works for one writer doesn't necessarily work for another writer. Some writers like to spend an hour every day writing, forcing the words onto the page, if you will, even if they are garbage. I recall an author saying that he sits at his computer every day for an hour. It doesn't matter if he writes or not; he sits there, and if he can't think of a damn thing to write, then he doesn't write. Others don't go by time, but by pages or words (i.e., they don't leave their computer until they've written five pages or two-thousand words).

Some writers finish a work and leave it sit for weeks, then come back to it and hack away, refining and retooling it until it more clearly and eloquently, and often more efficiently, says what they wanted it to say. Others put the last period on the work and send it out in the next day's mail, nary a thought to editing or proofreading or that other revision stuff we beginners are so often told is a necessity. Still other writers invoke the advice of friends and family, or trusted colleagues, to scrutinize their work.

Perhaps these examples don't show that writing is not a process. But, I think they show that if writing is a process, then it is a different process for different writers. Perhaps the "good" writers all do follow a certain formulaic process that leads them from point A to point B and so forth. But, for myself, I'd rather just leave formulas to mathematics. I don't want to make writing into a rote thing, a mechanical thing. Mechanical things tend to break down. I'd rather have my writing be organic, to have it grow naturally, to change when it needs to. Although organic things die physically, they seem to have a way of staying alive in the memories of others.

If I never subscribe to formulas and processes, then perhaps I'll never become a "good" writer. But I hope that I will always enjoy trying.