How I Write
The O Pine

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© 2003 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

Each generation presumes that it will be faced with great peril that must be met with considerable self-sacrifice. To the detriment of humanity, each generation is usually right.
A lot of people ask me, "hey, how do you write so much?" Although I often think they are politely not finishing the question, today I've decided to try to provide an answer.

I start off with a deadline. If there is no deadline, no pressure, then writing takes a back seat to almost anything else, including navel picking. Deadlines are critical to good writing. If no one else will provide an adequate deadline, I try to make up my own (the deadline for this piece is a couple of hours from now, and I shall loudly berate myself in front of my imaginary colleagues if I blow it).

I also like to have an audience in mind. It's seldom enough for me to write just for its own sake -- aside from there being no deadline for such an endeavor, I find that I have little interest in writing with myself as the only reader. Identifying an audience gives the work some focus, a tone, a direction to travel. It can even be a pretty broad audience; the audience for this piece is "people who stop to read stuff on my website." But here I am, and there you are, so this silly little construct seems to work, at least for me.

Some characteristics of my audience? Well, they're not paying for this, so if they go away unimpressed, it's not a big deal. They have a short attention span so I'll have to keep this to a couple of pages in length, and try to avoid complex sentences or really big words. And no matter how nice I try to be, someone is going to send me hate mail anyway, so I might as well call it as I see it.

Next I get a blank page. Now, this is the digital era, so a blank page isn't what it used to be. I used to start off with an actual page of paper that some poor tree died to provide, and an actual ink pen that was ready to ruin some article of clothing for me, or at least a pencil that was hellbent on turning the side of my hand that drags along the actual piece of paper an odd shade of dark metallic grey. These days, however, a blank page is a fake blank page created for my convenience by a program that, at its core, is nothing but an exceedingly long string of zeroes and ones, displayed on a screen that in actuality is nothing but a single dot of light zipping across a piece of glass really quickly.

The sad thing is, in the course of writing I spend so much time with those zeroes and ones and the zippy dot of light that the line between them and the non-magic-box world sometimes seems a bit fuzzy. One of the hazards of my job is a need to find hobbies that reconnect me with the world that has, you know, weather.

This blank page often is a roadblock to writers because they pull up a page and then look for inspiration to fill it. By the time I get to a blank page I already know what I am writing about and typically have about a quarter to half of it written in my head. Churning out the first few sentences is a piece of cake.

The real work begins shortly thereafter. That half in my head isn't conveniently the first half or the last half; no, it's little snippets of ideas scattered about, often not in the right order, and they need to be laid out, padded and expanded, and put in some sensible order. For example, the paragraph just above this one is among the half that I had prepared ahead of time in my head, but at the time it read more like "Blank page isn't a problem." End of paragraph. Extracting something meaningful from these Cliff's Notes versions of thoughts and concepts is where the brain starts to sweat.

One thing I always try to do is write a piece, especially a shorter piece, in one sitting. By the time I get back from doing something else, my mood has changed, perspective has changed, even the drive or spark has changed. It makes it harder to continue when I have to add re-finding the groove on top of all the other writer's block things. In this case I've just come back from a meal, and am surfing the Washington Post Online in an effort to dodge finishing this essay.

But finish I shall.

A cruelty of writing is that if I don't finish this piece, I will obsess over it until it is done, even if that is never. I have a completed but not edited short story in my briefcase that I wrote a year ago. I have incomplete pieces stashed on my computer, written a decade ago, that even today I can summarize for you. Stuff I actually finished a decade ago? Not a clue. This goes back to the importance of deadlines.

It's the extraction process that makes writing difficult. Sometimes I get lucky and the words just flow -- particularly true if the purpose of the piece is to raise hell about a wrong I've recently suffered -- but more often I sit in my chair, fidgeting like a flea-bitten mutt, picking at my nails, scratching my head, eyes darting from point to point (I keep innumerable small but interesting artifacts lying about my work areas for this, which actually helps stave off the frustration), as I spit out clause after clause, written twice, three times in my head before reaching for the keyboard, where I'm just as likely to take a fourth cut at it. And this is just the rough draft.

If I find myself having a particularly tough time of it -- and believe me, writing about myself writing is no picnic -- I get a peculiar sort of feeling in the head. It can't properly be called a headache because the pain isn't physical, but it has a similar effect, a nagging distraction that interferes and yet drives, compels me to finish my thoughts while making the process even more difficult. Too much of this is, in actuality, quite exhausting, and after a while I find I must get up and take a walk. If deadlines preclude short breaks, then I start to get really silly, such as just a moment ago when I was playing with a 1:18 scale motorcycle while reminiscing about the old book The Mouse and the Motorcycle. And wishing I had a copy.

Then I re-read the paragraph I've just written, not because I plan on making any corrections, but just to sort of marvel that somehow I've managed to write anything at all. After a moment I scroll up and down a little bit, comparing what's been done to what yet needs to be done. Finally, back to the zippy dot of light and the peculiar feeling in the head.

The process gets harder as I start to run out of pre-written snippets in my head. Each clause that works its way out requires more trials before accepting it. Word selection takes longer -- a black hole process that is difficult to describe. Conceptually I know what I want to say, but it is impossible to say because I haven't yet found the right word for it. I just sit here with a vapid conscious while my subconscious does whatever it does to find words, until blam! the right word for the job clobbers me with a force I can almost feel, and I rush through the next couple of sentences like they were being dictated to me.

Sometimes a piece finds its conclusion naturally, which is great when it happens. This is most often the case for pieces that have a strong point to them -- rants, research, technical papers, anything where the entire work is building to a unified point. Not everything works that way, though, and conclusion-writing can be a frustrating part of the process. However, I've discovered that when a conclusion proves nettlesome, I find most of the time that I have one of two outs: either the piece doesn't really need a conclusion in the traditional sense, or I've already written the conclusion but put it in the wrong place. It pays to sit back and re-read the piece, looking for these easy outs. It sure beats "...and a good time was had by all."

Once I've got a rough draft in front of me, it pays to go over the piece again. A quick review will catch errors that result from being too focused on individual clauses during the writing process: run-on sentences strung together by an overpopulation of commas, pronouns that refer to the wrong subject or have lost any point of reference at all, an overuse of certain words, paragraphs that seem to have been written with a different piece in mind. More advanced editing usually requires a certain amount of time lapse between creation and correction, the longer the better.

At last, when the work is complete, I must let others read the piece. I am compelled to deliver a finished work to an audience -- any audience, preferably an appreciative audience, but household animals will do in a pinch. When a proper audience is not available, or falls asleep in the middle of it, there's always the world wide web. Praise or criticism, I absorb it all, for it means someone at least got through it and had a thought about it. Frustration only mounts with criticism that indicates the reader has missed the point of the piece, for it shows that I have failed in the most fundamental purpose of writing: to communicate effectively.

I never consider whether all this angst is worth it. Such a question implies that I could set down my pen (or keyboard) and take up fly fishing or nuclear engineering in its place. I cannot -- I'd end up writing about my experiences fly fishing, or jotting down what it's like to work in the nuclear field. I simply must write, and if I have nothing to write about, I write about nothing.

The process no doubt differs for other writers as much as their works differ from mine. There may be no real value in trying to explain how I write. But here it is, the not-a-headache can fade away, I can let go and move on, and most importantly I can turn off the zippy dot of light for a while.