by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.
I've been a writer for about 20 years now, which sounds like a long time even to me. During that time, between writing several nonfiction books and around 700 articles and essays, I've also produced several short stories and about a dozen poems that I'm not embarrassed by (and a larger number that I am). I would never say I don't like writing nonfiction. After all, it suits me in a lot of ways: I can express things I believe in, learn all about whatever interests me, ask interviewees snoopy questions, and make difficult concepts clear to a large audience. I like making things clear. I crave clarity.
Yet when I fiddle around with fiction or poetry, clarity isn't the point at all. I'm having fun, time ceases to exist, and I don't care all that much whether my work is published or read by anyone else. When I write creatively, I'm satisfying something much deeper. For me, it's usually an emotion, or a memory of an emotion, or maybe some big existential philosophical insight that I want to capture. I'll keep coming back to it and coming back to it until it stops haunting me. And that's the most fun I ever have writing.
My husband, Stephen, is a poet, and we both work at home. One day recently, he exited his writing room with his usual half-dazed look, compounded this time by a broad smile, and said, "One of the neat things you can do as an artist...is anything you want."
When time stops because you're so happy doing whatever it is you're doing, that's called flow. You enter flow, which is an altered state of consciousness, by getting engaged deeply in some activity, by forgetting yourself and your surroundings, and by sharpening your focus to the
pinpoint of whatever it is you're doing.
I wanted to learn more about this rewarding state of mind, so I could learn to be there more often, more regularly, no matter what kind of writing I was doing. I interviewed 76 novelists and poets and asked them how they arrive there, how they enter a state of flow where the words come pouring out.
I wrote a whole book around their answers, so I won't go into all that right now (but I'll be giving an online class right at Coffeehouse for Writers if you're interested in discovering more). What I will do is tell you what I plan to do when I'm ready to write a novel, and how you might like doing the same thing.
I'm going to use Diana Gabaldon's "chunk" method when I write my novel. Sometimes she calls it the "kernel" method. Same difference. Gabaldon writes very long time-travel-romantic-historical fantasias, quite engrossing, and her wry sense of humor shows all through them. What Diana does is she starts anywhere and writes anything. Then she writes anything else--whatever she feels like writing.
Say she wants to set some scenes in Scotland (she did). Perhaps the mood would strike her to describe the town. Fine. Put a description of the town into the computer. Later she feels like writing a funny love scene, or a conversation between a serving maid and a stranger. So she does.
Gabaldon describes her process like this: "I don't normally write anything from the beginning and work straight through. I will pick up some bit of resonance--I call it a kernel. In terms of fiction, it's a very vivid image or line of dialogue or an emotional ambiance; in nonfiction, it's a striking idea or turn of a phrase. Anything that I can put on paper easily, I put that down first. And then you've got something to stand on when you're working backwards and forwards. In its own good time, the first sentence will come along and you can put it where it belongs."
Gabaldon further explained that her chunks, while not geographically next to each other in the finished book, would eventually start sticking together and forming a kind of framework. Once the connected chunks became a long enough sequence, say one that might run 150 pages, she'd be more able to see what was going to happen next. She explains:
"They would be long sequences connected to each other like continents rising out of the ocean. First you just see the tips of the islands--the volcanoes coming up--but then as the whole landmass rises the contours become evident. You can see where one valley leads into the next mountain."
And all this starts with a scrap of dialogue, a mood, or a vivid image. I can do that. And, I bet, so can you.