In December I jot down what writing got done and what didn’t over the past 12 months. Then I work on the house my wife and I are building, wash dishes in plastic tubs (we don’t have running water yet), and go for walks to figure out why certain stories, novels, and essays took off, while others stagnated, why certain months were the most productive. It works like a courtroom drama in my head, especially for the stagnated stories and those months of sparse writing. Prosecutor me claims one thing and defender me claims another. I never get answers I fully trust, but eventually I’m able to let go of every page I didn’t write and map out the new year. More than resolutions, the map is part of a writing cycle I started 20 years ago.
Back then I decided to shape 10-20 poems a month into middle drafts—drafts somewhere between rough and final. I had wanted to write a poem a day, but that, I knew, would be impossible. I was a stay-home dad of three kids. Some days the kids ruled and writing couldn’t happen. I had to have flexibility, so I gave myself a range of poems to work on. And I needed a simple way to organize the process, so I used months as the markers for finishing each round of poems. It worked. By the second year, I had a wealth of material.
I chose only 3-5 middle drafts from the previous January folder I thought good enough to send out to journals, and I spent a great deal of time revising them. I did the same thing in February and March and April and the whole year long. Granted, it was difficult to draft 10 new poems a month with all those revisions, but I managed to stick to my deadlines.
One of the best things the writing cycle did was give me distance from my work. We must have time to write. But there is the other time, too. The time of not writing, the time when poems and stories need to sit, so that when we come back to them, we can approach them anew. And while those poems and stories sit, we can work on other projects. To write well, it’s important to establish a daily rhythm of shaping words, whether that means writing about our characters and how a plot will turn, or gearing up, doing the writing in our thoughts, getting ready for when we can write.
I changed my focus over the years from poems to prose, working on a story a month, then picking up some of the middle drafts 12 months later to make into final drafts. When my kids got older I shifted to writing novels. At the same time I kept folders labeled novel, story, and essay ideas.
From this process, I learned sometimes I work best in revision mode, sometimes in draft mode, and sometimes just coming up with ideas for the future. But if I try to force my brain into a certain mode, it shuts down. Quick. So now when I get stuck revising my novel, I go through my unfinished stories and essays from the past year. I thumb through my journal or scrawl new words until something clicks. The key is to have material at different stages of the writing process (from first lines to almost finished drafts) ready to be taken up. Then I just have to find a way in. It is the best cure, I have found, for writer’s block.
I still have my files and journals from all the years of the writing cycle, but those early ones from 20, 10, 5 years back, I don’t look at any longer because the writing cycle did something else—it forced me to let go. I know writers who have the one story. A story they have workshopped and revised and for whatever reason, they can’t move beyond it. That story is a mountain in their way. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll never write anything better. Maybe they think they can’t come up with another idea as good. But we have to believe we have more good words in us than one story’s worth. We also have to be willing to put in the long hours it takes to make new stories. And ultimately we have to be willing to let go of the stories that won’t let us write new ones.
Publishing is an essential part of the cycle because it motivates us to look at our work critically and winnow our writing. But when it’s time to choose what to revise for publication, let it be your choice. Don’t be persuaded by someone else or a current publishing trend. Because trends change. And ultimately, we have to be the first, best judge of our work. We write to be read that’s true. But there’s another piece: we are also trying to bring readers to us, to get readers to see the world a little bit of the way we do, the way our characters do. How we see the world and write about it separates each of us from everyone else. So invest in your own unique voice and vision. Then write from that voice and with that vision.
Once started, the writing cycle doesn’t stop. It simply changes direction. It draws on what we’ve done and gives us momentum forward. It offers a perspective of writing as a continuous act. And what about you? I’d be grateful if readers would share their writing plans for the new year by leaving a comment. What do you want to write? And how will you make that happen?
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