Writing Outside the Story

For months I’ve been trying to get back into my novel after a year of focusing on the revision of A Writer’s Book of Days, and the subsequent marketing and promotion following its release. The novel, in its third draft, has been receiving what Janet Fitch calls “life-support,” just enough attention to keep it alive in my mind and note a few details or images on the page.

I’ve been told that it takes as long to get back into the novel as you’ve been away from it (Tom Spanbauer) and up to now, getting back into the daily practice of working on the novel has been about as successful as my exercise program. (What do they mean, “Just do it!”?) Something needed to change. And it has.

“Up and Out,” is my new writing practice/daily exercise slogan. I’m lucky. I live within a mile, more or less, of at least seven good cafes, five of them known writing practice haunts, two more to try out.

Here’s how my writing practice went today:

“Up and Out” by 8:15, 1.2 miles to Lestat’s on Park, a place I love for their good coffee, the ambiance (chandeliers, red velvet, and a fake alligator skin sofa bigger than my whole living room) and the owner, John Husler who has welcomed our Thursday Writers writing practice group for five years at the original Lestat’s in Normal Heights.

I’m still inside chapter three of the novel revise, where my character Louise is on a Greyhound bus, headed for Kansas City. She ran away from home the night before, leaving a note on her pillow.

In this draft, I’m re-entering the entire manuscript into my computer from scratch, rather than working with files that already exist. A way of really getting inside the story again, is my thought. When I come to a place that I’ve marked as [NEED MORE HERE] or [OPEN THIS UP] in the draft, I move from computer to notebook to write by hand.

This morning that place showed up when Louise wondered who might find the note on her pillow. One of her little sisters? Her mother? In the first and second draft I avoided going to that deeper place and left Louise staring out the bus window at the cows. Not satisfying or realistic behavior for a character and certainly not very interesting for a reader. (Stare at cows or imagine Mother discovering the note left by a runaway teenager? As a writer, what would you do?)

In my notebook, I copied the opening of the paragraph, leaving Louise to continue contemplating the cows, and I began writing the details of a Sunday morning at the fishing camp where the family had been all summer. I spent time with Anna, the littlest sister and Roseann, the second sister. Now I needed to go deeper into the character of Lily, the mother.

Louise is angry at her mother, so no matter what her mother does, she’s not going to catch a break from Louise. But Lily has her own peculiarities and problems, so what she does on a Sunday morning needs to be true for her as a unique character. (Note: a character without a problem or peculiarity isn’t interesting. “In fiction, only trouble is interesting.” Janet Burroway.)

Fifteen minutes, a cup of coffee and page and a half later, I know what they all do on Sunday morning, and I know how Louise remembers them at their usual Sunday morning activities.

This exercise is what I call “writing outside the story” and to my mind, it’s one of the best uses of writing practice for writers who have works-in-progress. I won’t use all of what I discovered this morning, and I still have to find out what Louise imagines will happen if one of her sisters finds the note. Or Lily, her mother. I can write each scene outside the story, decide which has the most power (who would lay money on the mother?) and then revise the whole thing and put it in the draft of the manuscript.

One more time a fifteen-minute session of free-fall writing practice has given me some rich, raw stuff to work with.

Another 1.2 mile walk home during which I can still smell the exhaust of that Greyhound and see Louise staring out the bus’s smudged window at the brown and white cows, and I’m feeling successful and excited about tomorrow’s “Up and Out” practice session.

Why Writing Practice?

Judy ReevesI come from the writing practice school of writing that says to be good at anything you have to practice. Everybody knows pianists have to train. So do dancers, actors, singers, and athletes. Even artists have sketchbooks, which serve as their practice pages. But there seems to be some vague notion that somewhere deep inside the desire to be a writer is the inherent knowledge of how to go about it. As many bloody-fingered, would-be writer, hip-deep in wadded up paper and frustration can attest, this just ain’t so.

Natural talent and all the breaks in the world notwithstanding, to become good at anything, you’ve got to do the drills. To quote Mick Jagger, “You have to sing every day so you can build up to being, you know, Amazingly Brilliant.”

When I talk about writing practice, I’m talking about both the practice to get better, and practice as the mindful doing of a thing—like a yoga practice, or meditation. Brass Typewriter with PoppiesThe focus need not be on what you write, or how you write, or how good or not good the writing is (I prefer to say I’m either “present” or “not present” with the writing), what makes a successful writing practice is regular attendance at the page. Going daily, if possible, to your writing desk or chair or favorite café with pen and notebook and intention.

Within the daily ritual of writing practice, the stories that want to be written find their way from our deepest self and onto the page. At any given time, you may not even know what these stories are. With writing practice, we surprise ourselves, that’s part of the fun.

You can trust what appears in your notebook during writing practice. This is where your authentic voice explores its range. Consider practice to be voice lessons. Notebooks will be filled. Page after page of original writing. Not all of it good. But not all of it bad, either. And some of it absolutely gorgeous. For some, this is enough. Making daily contact with our writing is a way of touching home. It’s an affirmation of our deepest longing. The process is what matters most.

Others discover what they want to write about. Through practice where no directive is given except Write, writers find their voice and the genre in which it hits its truest notes. Many fiction writers use practice sessions to deepen scenes and characters. Memoirists plumb memories, creative nonfiction writers explore themes and pose questions, poets uncover fabulous images. In all of it exists the freedom to take risks. “One may do anything,” Rilke told us. Go ahead, this is just practice. Write with wild abandon and no ambition except to be present.

Writing practice is trying out ideas and auditioning words and writing nonsense and secrets and lies and maybe the largest truth you’ve ever written. It’s liberating and joyful and playful and exciting and sometimes scary and often surprising and almost always spontaneous and fulfilling. It’s a place for grieving and healing and working through and remembering and recovering. It is expansive and expanding.

Practice is not just to get better at something. Practice is how you become what you want to be.