How do you keep writing?

We write because we love to write, even when it’s hard. But what about when we’re stuck?

What’s your process? (Or processes…)

I was stopped at a red light on my way to work at the tasting room when my cell phone rang. The power had gone out at the winery, so there was no point in keeping it open. That gave me a chance to turn around, go home, work on the grief poems, and read The Writer’s Chronicle interview of Joan Wickersham. I confess I haven’t read any of her work (although after reading the interview, I want to), but I am always intrigued by process, and so I enjoyed hearing what she had to say.

Basically, that it is hard. That writing means revising. Starting out writing badly, even though it hurts to write something you know isn’t working, and then going back and doing the work. (She confirms that she once threw out a 400-page manuscript.) Somehow, this is comforting to hear–in an “it isn’t just me” way.

She also talks about how hard it is to get published–and that it’s always going to be hard. For her, it isn’t that you reach a certain point and you’ve paid your dues, you’ve “made it” and the doors just open for you. Instead, she says, “…I wonder if paying your dues actually means the door in your head opens. The door opens in your head, and you start being able to do a different, freer kind of writing…So it’s less about the profession, and more about what you can access in yourself.”

Which puts the responsibility back on the writing, and the writer, where it belongs. (A colleague refers to this as the “locus of control”; you can’t control who chooses your poems for what, but you’re in charge of your work.)

Ms. Wickersham also talks about mapping a story by pinning pages up on the wall. I’ve heard of poets spreading their manuscript out on the floor. Have you tried this? I can’t imagine being able to track 50 or 60 pages on the floor, but maybe I’ll try it. The manuscript I’m working on feels like it has good poems, and I’ve cut out quite a few poems, but I’m thinking more need to go, and probably some gaps need to be filled in–and stylistically, do they fit together? Variation is good, but how far can you vary without giving the reader a disjointed experience?

Time comes up, but I won’t go into that here–except to ask: How do you carve out time to write? How do you protect that time?

Going back to starting, she mentions learning about how architects use a parti, a basic concept to get started on the design process. That initial concept might not be visible in the final building, but it’s a way to organize thoughts. I want to explore this more, use this tool–for my manuscript and for the novel I keep threatening to write. Maybe this will help me get started.

What tools or tricks or do you use to keep writing, to help you through the rough parts of a poem or a project when you feel stuck?