Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Defend the Process

Last month, fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri wrote an essay in the New York Times about her fascination with sentences and described her writing process in this way: "I hear sentences as I’m staring out the window, or chopping vegetables, or waiting on a subway platform alone…. Over time, virtually each sentence I receive and record in this haphazard manner will be sorted, picked over, organized, changed. Most will be dispensed with. All the revision I do — and this process begins immediately, accompanying the gestation — occurs on a sentence level. It is by fussing with sentences that a character becomes clear to me, that a plot unfolds."

Lahiri's love of words, sentences and writing shimmered on the page. Her process isn't mine, (And only in my dreams do I compare my writing to hers.) but there are commonalities, and they lend a sense of kinship—writers are in this together. Most of my friends and acquaintances write, and I can't think of one who doesn't shut up and listen when awriter talks about his or her process.

Evidently my friends and acquaintances are a cut above.

A few days after publication of Lahiri's essay, a dissenting letter to the editor
was published. In it, a disgruntled writer suggested Lahiri's point of view misrepresents the craft of fiction writing: "…she perpetuates the notion that if you learn to write grand sentences, and string enough of them together, somehow — by magic — you’ll have written a story. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Language is the handmaiden of story, not the other way around. Master story. Everything else is gravy."

Thus speaks a plotter—in more ways than one. Admittedly, plot's critical, especially for commercial fiction, but isn't what comes first: plot/characters/sentences part of a process that's both the same and different for each writer?

The same day the dissenting letter was published in the Times, a senior editor at Mother Jones wrote an essay critical of some of the sentences in Lahiri's essay. "In an essay exploring her love of sentences in last Sunday's New York Times, the great writer Jhumpa Lahiri put together some awful sentences. I say 'put together' intentionally: The sentences themselves were mostly fine, at turns even terrific, but in several places they were assembled quite awfully. This surprised me in light of Lahiri's literary talent and the reputable publication to which she was contributing. Where the heck was her editor?"

Apparently a writer bold enough to admit an absorption with sentences makes her sentences vulnerable to attack.

The publishing industry is in flux, but Lahiri didn't address agency pricing, the growing influence of Amazon, the adversarial stance taken by some self-published authors toward those traditionally published--and vice versa. She dared to write about sentences.

Let's agree to disagree on agency pricing. Let's stick up for or rail against Amazon. I beg you, fellow writers, to join me in defending each writer's process as his or her own.


Ginger Calem said...

Oh Pat, I totally agree! The last thing we need is writers nit-picking each other about their process. It would be a shame if writers shied away from sharing for fear that their contributions would be bashed. :(

I completely related to her comment about hearing sentences, say while driving, or staring out the window. When I'm in a comfort-zone, I hear voices constructing beautiful sentences. They bring me inspiration and joy. Now, if I can just figure out how to remember them all until I get to paper and pen. ;)

Great post!

Lark Howard said...

Interesting post, Pat. I, too, love to listen to writers talk about their process including some very successful commercial writers at RWA National Conference. What's fascinating to me is that some of my favorites have completely opposite processes. The lively plotters vs pantsers discussions are especially interesting.

I'll admit I'm less interested in words and language than telling a compelling story, which from my prospective is not just plot but character development, emotion, relationships, setting, conflict, stakes, and so on.

I wouldn't say beautiful sentences often appear in my mind, begging to be transcribed. My characters do show up and hold conversations in my head all the time, which makes me wonder about the fine line between being creative and crazy.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Haha. Like you, Ginger, I hear beautiful sentences when I'm far from the laptop or unable to get to a pen and pad. Yes, if only we could remember those phrases that brought us inspiration and joy. Big sigh here.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

The line between being creative and crazy is fine, indeed, Lark. I may have crossed it this am, but that's another story.

I love plotter versus pantser debates and workshops, but, within RWA, there's respect for both processes. A plotter might roll her eyes when a pantser describes the thrill of flying into the mist, storywise, but that plotter doesn't bash the pantser's process. A pantser's jaw might drop at the amount of outlining a plotter does before she begins a story, but the pantser doesn't damn the plotter with faint praise.

If I respect someone's process, chances are I'll respect the other choices a person makes with her writing and her career.

Coleen Patrick said...

Yes, to each his own! I love reading about other writer's processes because I can find both similarities and differences. One to make me feel like I'm not so different and one to maybe help me learn something new/grow.
Great post Pat!

Christine said...

Totally agree, Pat.

We're all brothers/sisters in ink no matter how we publish or tell a story. As we all have different eye, hair, skin colour so do our process in how we tell a story differ. I adore hearing how other writers work. It truly saddens me to see writers/editors/publishers attacking each other.

This behaviour has taken me by surprise to be honest because it smacks of the school playground. You'd think as sentient adults they'd have outgrown such behaviour. I'm becoming increasingly tired of it. Goodness knows what readers must think.

Which is why I love our supportive WANA group so much because we have a deep mutual respect for the process, feelings and a genuine desire for each of us to do well.

I must admit word usage does matter to me but only after the first draft is finished. Then I'll go back through the work three or four times to include character development, descriptive word usage, relationship and emotional development.

Sometimes a phrase or rhythm of words land on the page the first time but that's rare. The house is filled with notebooks and pencils to scribble on when something hits me. I've learned the hard way to date these and note which story the conversation/phrase/idea is for.

Great post :)

Debra Eve | Later Bloomer said...

Great post, Pat. It's so obvious those dissenters completely missed the point of Lahiri's article. She was in process for all of us to see, and I applaud her.

Emma Burcart said...

I agree with you, Pat. It seems like too often people are so quick to tear others down. I don't know if it's because of a fear that there are only so many writers who can make it, so everyone is seen as competition. I see the same thing happening in other cirlces, too. Women tearing other women down is something that always bugs me. We should be lifting each other up instead. It is the same with writers. We are all in this together and the success of others really does benefit us. And, to each her own process.

Reetta said...

Interesting topic. I love reading other writers describing their process. I've learned a lot from that.

The only times when I am happy with what I wrote is when I had the words in my mind before setting down to write them. When I just sit at the keyboard and wait for words to come, some element always seems to be lacking from my writing.

And shame on the editor for attacking Lahiri's sentences and the editing. In a long book there will always be some sentences that aren't perfect. Writers and editors are only humans after all. Too much polishing can kill the author's voice completely.

Lynette M Burrows said...

I agree with all of the above. It is a shame when someone chooses to focus on negative energy. There's a way to critique without tearing someone down, without making it seem so personal. In my opinion those who are negative are tearing down many bridges and will find that out at a time that will hurt.

I, too, feel fortunate in that my circle of friends online and in the 'face-to-face' world are respectful of process and supportive of everyone's efforts. Yay, for you, Pat, for calling out bad behavior and standing up for support and respect!

Sheila Seabrook said...

A long time ago, I read a piece by Susan Elizabeth Phillips in which she described her writing process. She said it took so long for her to write a book because every day, she started rewriting back at page one. So I can picture Lahiri disassembling each sentence and putting it back together until she finds her character and story within. Wow, what a process. Now I feel better about having to rewrite every single word in my first drafts. LOL!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I like reading about other writers' processes, too, Coleen, and for the same reasons you do.

A multiple RITA nominee from my local RWA chapter once talked about the amount of time she spent on each of her novel's first paragraph--a long time--and she went into funny detail. I turned red as she spoke because she could have been describing the way I fuss over a first paragraph. I took away the knowledge I'm not alone, and that has comforted me.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

The WANA group means a lot to me, too. Life is too short to surround ourselves with people who don't want the best for us. For anyone puzzled over WANA: it's an acronym for We Are Not Alone, a community of writers/bloggers founded by Kristen Lamb.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I thought I heard clapping coming from the west, Debra. I applaud Lahiri, too.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

"To each her own process" is my new motto, Emma. Thanks!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

So true that too much polishing can kill a writer's voice, Reetta.
And while I expect every line of a poem to be perfect, I don't expect that in a novel.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Lynette, this situation bugged me for two weeks before I wrote about it, so I don't deserve that yay. Yes, we have to respect each other. If we respect the process, we'll respect the choice of genre and the decision to publish traditionally or go the self-publishing route.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I'm a big Susan Elizabeth Phillips fan. I heard her describe her process at an RWA conference, and she demonstrated it by walking a few steps to the left and then walking right back to where she started.

LynNerdKelley said...

I love this post. Each writer has their own way of getting their story on paper and then revising. I, too, love to listen to others tell us about their process. And I agree that we surely don't need a war between authors as far as all these changes the industry is dealing with now. I agree that we should be supportive. And there are decent ways to communicate and get our message across without ripping the other person apart. That just does more harm and widens the gap.