“So show me (I’ll show you)”
Reflections on my writing process
I’ve been getting in the practice of doing more creative, fiction writing again — for the first time in probably 10 years — and I have to say, I really missed this. I am also struck by how similar my process for writing fiction vs non-fiction is. (This started as a lazy Sunday morning Twitter thread of thoughts, which I quickly realized really probably would be housed better as a blog article.) Here are my reflections:
I often struggled trying to “write like other people” because a lot of the advice and tricks never worked for me. Of course, before fully embracing my neurodivergence, I blamed myself. I figured, even though I enjoyed writing as a hobby, I just wasn’t talented in it. Then I went to grad school and, of course, had to write a lot. I loved it. While lots of grad students felt writing was the worse part of the job, I thrived in it. Of the entire process of research, writing up my findings — telling the story of the data — was my biggest joy.
There were a lot of times I struggled, of course. I was learning a new writing style and I was still being stifled by a lot of advice that didn’t work for me. I have learned, but it has taken me YEARS, to write *my* way. I’m very visual in my thinking. When it comes to writing academic papers, including much of the more nuanced data analysis, happens visually, in my head. Then, when it’s stewed enough, it flows out of me. Once it’s on paper, I can edit and find the details my visualization had missed.
With my academic work, I didn’t realize fully how I was “seeing” the paper before I was writing it. Because with academic writing, it’s not exactly like a play or movie. But it is like a story, a story I was thinking about a lot and then playing out in my head.
Now that I have been doing some creative writing again, I have connected some of the dots in terms of how my writing happens. When I am writing a fiction story, I do actually see the scene play out in my head. I can actually watch it like a movie. Some of the scene might be fuzzy and not all the details are necessarily filled when I am “watching.” Much like a movie in the physical world, you are necessarily pay attention to every single detail of a scene, you’re just taking it in — until you are asked to describe it.
I write down what I am seeing in the scene. In the process of writing, more details come to me. I wonder, “Oh, how does he turn the light on when he walks into the room?” I figure that out, add it to the scene, give myself the details I need to fully show the reader my vision. I can’t “see” more scenes until this one is complete. I don’t strictly know what’s going to happen next because I don’t have enough details of this scene to be able to visualize the next. I might have snatches or glimpses of where things are going. I usually have an arc of the story. I know (vaguely) the milestones of the story and how I would like it to end. But that’s it. Everything else has to be written in this process of visualizing, capturing my observations, and then adding more nuance and detail.
I absolutely love this process. I get caught up throughout my day imagining these scenes. I want to know what happens next, but I have to write down this scene in order to find out. I can’t rush this process either, because these scenes don’t necessarily pop up immediately. I have to give myself time to understand fully what is happening in the story before the next scene can be viewed. In some ways, it’s very meditative.
In reflecting on this writing process, I realized how very similar I was in my academic writing. I can’t watch the scene play out in the same way I can my fiction stories. But nonetheless, that is what is happening. I need a full “scene” of the story to emerge so I can write it down and add nuance. I have a broad sense of where the story of the paper is going, but I have to fill in the details to see that clearly. I didn’t fully understand this process until I started writing fiction again.
Not understanding this process has led to two things.
1. I thought I was bad at writing because I couldn’t follow conventional advice and found working with particular co-authors challenging. (For example, “make an outline first!” or “start with Section XY of the paper”). I ended up spending much too much energy on feeling awful about myself instead of just focusing on my own writing. It took all of grad school, getting a PhD (after writing a ~230 page dissertation), and embracing my own neurodivergence to realize internalized ableism and systemic issues in academia were really my worst obstacles.
2. I was not giving myself credit for all the incredible amount of work I do in my writing process. You’ll even see how I’ve written above. It sounds like a very passive process. I’m just letting my brain come up with visuals for me. But here’s the thing: I am my brain.
These stories and scenes are not appearing out of nowhere. I am doing the work. It just doesn’t look like work to neurotypical people or whatever this mystical writer “norm” is. I might be taking a walk or with my kids at the park, but I am thinking all the time.
When I get home, often after the house is still for the night, I feel the urge to write and so I do. Often writing in large quantities as I capture all the ideas and scenes I had been imagining. Then I edit and add details. I start to add the structure the audience expects. I move things around a lot. I realize the scene I imagined last will actually be what the reader needs at the beginning for the story to make sense to them. A lot of that comes from reading a lot of other similar writing and knowing the audience.
I think I have three big take-aways from this reflection that might be worth something to other writers:
- Write with the process that works for YOU. I love trying out other people’s advice and am constantly iterating on my own practices. But I keep what works, throw out what doesn’t.
- Don’t judge yourself by other people’s standards and make sure you are giving yourself credit for the writing work. Are you getting writing done? Are you enjoying the process? Are you growing as a writer? Is what you are writing meaningful to you?
- Don’t just write for your job. Write for fun. Write what feels good. If you’re an academic, I encourage you to try other styles. Take the time to reflect on how you write and why you’re writing. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Yes, the title of this article is, in fact, lyrics from Magic Shop by BTS. Recommended listening.
Also, many thanks to my writerly brother for his continued encouragement and only slight derision of past attempts at writing (younger siblings are why we do things out of spite). Thanks also to my mother who heard the rant version of these reflections before I put them to “paper.”
I also want to specifically call out my past article about being disabled in academia as I feel it is relevant to this post in many ways and from where a lot of these reflections started.