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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Creating a Text – Kathleen Maher

What phases are involved in the creation of a text?

Phases for writing follow a person’s life-phases fairly predictably, I think. A writer begins by reading as many great books as every day allows. More than that, he or she must write past the bell, wringing every last bit of spirit remaining after that day or week or month.

Some writers may find the process easier than I; their phases may bring recognition and enough money to live well. But these are the exception. Before a creative writer can expect to find his or her individual voice—which to my mind is crucial—he or she must write and write and keep writing. That, I know, is a cliché and like many clichés it’s true. The rule that a writer must write continually is a lifelong phase.

If on a given day, I haven’t already discovered what I need to write, I wait and pace and send my mind on an abstract search that feels like praying. No distractions are allowed; no phone calls, no music, no internet, no housework (forgoing housework has never been a question of discipline for me), and no noodling around—even if it’s playing with words or making up extraneous dialogue. I wait for the character and situation that naturally follows what I wrote the day before. I pace and perhaps mumble, waiting until it thunders inside my head. I am one of those writers who hold urgency among her top priorities.

Lately, I have not needed to spend much time in the waiting phase. But when I did, and no doubt when I do again, barring my own untimely death, I can judge my day’s effort by how much my feet hurt.

More common for me is tapping into the writing’s trajectory and letting it transport me. Words and more words rush from my mind and fingers. An entire, albeit imaginary, world clamours for description; characters insist upon a reference to past occurrences that may be crucial to them and who they are, but are incidental at best to the narrative. For every thousand words I write, perhaps one hundred have survived when I quit for the day. This phase is not official rewriting. More, it’s a quick scan as to what matters in the story and what’s obviously extraneous, no matter how inherently interesting and how dulcet the sentences.

Past that phase, I find my writing fuelled by its own momentum as well as personal adrenaline: fight or flight some say; for me it’s desire and fear. As a story approaches its climax, it can infiltrate my real life, and even my dream life. I grow obsessed. Although I begin with at least a vague sense of beginning, middle, and end, an unexpected narrative unfurls. Surprises occur. Kinks form.

The experience of one’s creation asserting what feels like its will is thrilling. I sit down to write and the story suddenly demands a zigzag motion rather than the straightforward plot I initially planned. How fantastic! How incredible! Unfortunately, this does not often auger well for the story.

I love racing along with a piece when the momentum has built to where it’s careening wildly on its own. But I weigh those unexpected scenes carefully. A rule of thumb as to how many prove worth the ride and which are better than my first plan, is different every time. But no matter how powerful or charming these unexpected scenes may seem—they almost always delight me—I eye them with unrelenting suspicion.

Because they have dropped in out of nowhere, and tend to skew my entire endeavor, I have learned to hold them to a higher standard than any part of my initial plan. Sometimes, however, they meet that standard; sometimes instead of skewing the narrative, they take the work-in-progress and enrich it. Sometimes they change everything. Occasionally, even an unsung writer like me gets handed a gift like that.

Of course, no story, situation or even roughly imagined characters are new. Generation after generation has already told every story imaginable. But they’ve told it differently than I or you, if you write stories. A creative writer is an artist. To me that means he or she must work with a daredevil attitude.

Dare to be a fool.

That’s me. Every writer’s different. Dare to be a fool and you most certainly will become one—for a phase. I believe, probably too much, that great writing requires taking great risks. Explore the path riddled with false starts and you will have learned exactly where not to go. Stumble badly upon rocky terrain or fall into a hole and you won’t make those mistakes again. Further, you may discover lost rhythms and buried nuance during those reckless attempts. With practice you may find the skill and strength to leap over the rocks. You may find yourself dancing, playing out a brisk and lively tale by turning here, pivoting there, and finally deftly bounding through a mine field others know better than to attempt. That’s the challenge, for me.

Kathleen Maher writes short stories and novels; she blogs at: Diary of a Heretic.

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