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Writing without Writing

When I'm out on book tour, at every reading, someone will invariably ask me about my process. The question is asked by writers and non-writers alike. What's your typical day like? Do you write better in the morning or at night? Do you work from home or an office? Do you start with a character or a premise?

I try my best to answer these questions in as coherent and helpful a manner as possible, but the truth is, I'm simply not the writer to ask. I do wake up early, but that's because I have young children, not because I'm rising with the sun to write. I can't work in my house because I'm devoid of any semblance of discipline and I'll end up changing light bulbs or watching television or playing the piano or cleaning out my desk. I don't have a typical day, because of said lack of discipline. Without structure, I'm worthless, so I try to treat it like a regular job, get to my desk by nine and put in a full day. But the muse won't always cooperate and she will never be coerced. Sometimes she'd rather take a nap, or see a mid-afternoon movie.the muse won't always cooperate and she will never be coerced. Sometimes she'd rather take a nap, or see a mid-afternoon movie.

But, in retrospectively considering the creative trajectory of my last few novels, I've discerned a repeating pattern embedded in the chaos, the same heartwrenchingly serpentine path to completion. And in that pattern can be found the unintentional blueprint of my "process."

Step 1: Procrastinate

I've recently finished a novel. I know I have to start another one, but I can't start one just to start. The muse must be fed. So I read a lot of books. I go to movies. I consider the characters I'm reading about and seeing, consider the characters that have been floating around in my own mind, waiting to crystallize. But after a while, something changes, and the books and movies are no longer about stimulation, but simply another mean of avoiding that increasingly daunting blank screen. This step is a two- to three-week exercise that, if I apply myself, can be stretched to two or three months.

Step 2: Cry to Agent

I call my agent repeatedly, bending his ear with every half-baked premise and character I've come up with, telling him why none of them will work. He listens sympathetically, like a long suffering wife, nods and laughs in all the right places. Then he growls at me to quit my bellyaching, stop wasting his time, and start writing. Energized by his tough love, I vow to do so immediately.

Step 3: Wait until the Next Monday

It's not worth starting if the weekend is going to come along and throw off my rhythm. This is true even if it happens to be, say, Tuesday.

Step 4: Getting Started

I start to write. It goes okay. I force myself to keep at it. It starts to feel familiar. Something in me starts to relax into it as my confidence returns. A sense of well being rises up in my chest as the creative machinery starts to hum and churn. My mood at home improves. I am galvanized by the potential of what I've started.

Step 5: The Reckoning

I'm 150 pages in. Suddenly, it doesn't feel like a novel anymore. I've taken a wrong turn somewhere. I stop cold. I reread everything. I throw out my outline and start again. I consider a major overhaul. Production shuts down.

Step 6: See Steps 1 and 2

Step 7: Eureka!

At long last I see where the true heart of the story is. Certain characters and events won't make the cut. I'll have to lose whole chapters and write new ones. But finally, I see the book from beginning to end. Six months into the process, I finally see my way through the forest. There's a lot of work to be done, but the major mistakes have already been made, and the way is clear. I work longer hours. I get excited. I smile more. I snap less. I remember that this is what I do.

In the martial arts classic Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee refers to his fighting style as the art of "fighting without fighting." It's a nice, Zen moment, but everyone knows that within 15 minutes he'll be shirtless and howling as he kicks the crap out of everyone on the island. Likewise, my style might best be described as the art of "writing without writing." But ultimately, just like the late, great Bruce, I reach the point where there's nothing to do but roll up my sleeves, crack my knuckles, and take a flying leap into the fray.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jonathan Tropper is the author of How to Talk to a Widower, Everything Changes, The Book of Joe, and Plan B. He lives with his family in Westchester, New York, where he teaches writing at Manhattanville College. He is currently adapting This Is Where I Leave You as a feature film for Warner Brothers Studios.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. How to Talk to a Widower (Bantam...
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  2. Everything Changes
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. The Book of Joe
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. Plan B Used Trade Paper $9.50
  5. This Is Where I Leave You
    Used Hardcover $11.95

Jonathan Tropper is the author of This Is Where I Leave You

One Response to "Writing without Writing"

    Paula August 27th, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Funny, but true. I make it a principle not to put pen to paper (or, these days, fingers to keyboard) unless I've already written substantial chunks of the book in my head. Even then, drastic rewrites and changes of direction may ensue, but, if I have a sense of where all this is going, they're much easier to slog through.

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