by Karen DeBonis
For those who were born with the instinct to write, you probably figured out your writing rhythm—the ebb and flow of your writing practice, and the beat and tempo of your unique voice—early on. I wasn’t one of those kids who filled notebooks with short stories, or wrote under the covers at night by flashlight. As a teen or young adult, I never aspired to write the next great American novel or publish my prose in a magazine.
In other words, I’m not a born writer. Latecomers like me often write to the beat of someone else’s drummer until they discover their own rhythm.
When I stepped on the writer’s path twenty years ago, it was because I had a purpose: to write a memoir about my young son’s struggle with a brain tumor. And it wasn’t even my idea—as often happens when someone experiences a life-altering experience, friends told me I “had to write my story.”
So, I began.
I wrote, took classes, read memoir, joined critique groups. It wasn’t a bad start, but I definitely took the long road to The End. This was 1999, when computers and the internet were as new and intimidating as a colicky baby.
I didn’t read writing magazines or books on craft, and I abandoned the first writing conference I attended in 2001. After only two days, I was overwhelmed with the sadness of my story.
I stopped writing. The book became a “Someday Project,” last in line behind a day job, a needy old house, and raising two sons. One of those boys was recovering from a brain tumor.
Fifteen years later, after a medical retirement, it was time to finish what I had started.
Better late than never, right?
The depth and breadth of information available to new writers is overwhelming. It’s often difficult to know where to start. Blogs like WITS, Janet Hardy’s Fiction University, Jami Gold’s and Kristen Lamb’s blogs, Elizabeth Craig’s Writer’s Knowledge Base, and Writers Helping Writers have an amazing amount of helpful information and all of them are searchable if you are looking for some specific how-to.
Take notes, bookmark pages, or print out what’s useful and put it in a notebook, but search out the tips that work best for you.
Here are the pieces of advice that many writers follow:
I tried all these tips (and failed at many). But recently, I’ve come to understand my own writing rhythms—what works and doesn’t work, what I can accept and what I can improve as I create a more harmonious life of writing.
Below are my seven – you will likely have your own.
My husband is retired, so I tell him, “I’m going to work,” when I head to the dining room, as a reminder not to read me the news headlines or his Home Depot list.
“Work” may mean writing and revising, but more often, it refers to myriad other tasks necessary in becoming a published author: reading, engaging on social media, working with critique partners, developing programs offered through my website. I usually “work” a few hours every day, but it’s not always writing.
Creative nonfiction writers will often say they write to know what they think. I’ve experienced this, but my ah-ha moments don’t happen until my final revisions.
In the meantime, if I don’t have a good idea where I’m heading, I end up with pages and pages of crappy writing. It doesn’t even achieve that first draft status. If I spend the time allowing story ideas to percolate in my head, there is much more clarity to those initial drafts and the work is more productive.
I’ve concluded I’m not a “pantser” or a “plotter.” Instead, I’m more of a “planner.”
As a memoirist, overthinking is a gift. I can unwrap deeply complex and often universal truths, as long as I have 80,000 words in which to display them. In a blog or personal essay, however, it feels like reaching into my tornado of thoughts to pull out a toothpick. I’m still learning how to be selective and brief in how deeply I dig.
In part because I overthink things, and because I’m relatively new at my craft, it takes me f-o-r-e-v-e-r to finish a piece. I can easily take 24 hours to write a 1000-word blog, and I don’t mean it’s done in a day. I mean 24 in-my-chair hours logged over days or weeks.
Fortunately, I don’t rely on writing for income.I write mostly on spec, not on deadline, which helps my stress level enormously.
And I know speed (without sacrificing quality) is a skill I can develop.
Music, coffee-house chatter, people in my vicinity, even buzzing bees outdoors are distractions. I function best indoors in as much silence as possible. But, unlike Stephen King, I need visual distractions: my lavender orchid, the tray of candles I seldom light, a view of the outdoors. Like setting a scene, I arrange the room with details that move the story forward.
When I’m searching for the perfect word, or metaphor, or physical disruption to convey confusion, I can’t sit still. I have to leave my writing table to make a cup of tea or walk around the house or sharpen pencils—anything to get my body active. While I’m moving, my mind is busy (see #2 above.)
When I completely eliminate the passive voice, gerunds, and adverbs, my prose seems stilted. Editors: feel free to disagree. But I recently read this article about friendships by a literary agent I follow.
I loved it so much, I read it twice. Then I realized the author broke some rules with her very first sentence: “‘You know what really drives me crazy?’ Silvia was saying…”
Not only did she open with dialogue, but, “was saying?” Should’t that be, “said,” according to the pros? And yet, the conversational style captivated me.
It’s okay to break some rules if the writing is fresh and it feels right. Editors: feel free to cut.
Tuning in to my writing rhythm has been a process of self-discovery. Owning your process, whatever it may be, is empowering.
It helped me to embrace that I am a writer who doesn’t write daily, who jumps out of her seat, who overthinks. This open-minded acceptance of my own writing path helped clarify that all-important question: What is my book about?
It’s not about my son’s brain tumor after all, at least not entirely. It’s about me. It’s the story of my deeply ingrained need to please and the life-threatening consequences for my family. And it was the months and years of overthinking that opened the door to the real story.
What are your unique rhythms of writing? How did you discover your process? Please tell us about it in the comments!
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Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently available for representation.
A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-nine years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.
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