Process & Product

I’m a tender-hearted gardener.  When last year’s cherry tomatoes reseed themselves, I don’t have the heart to pull them out.  And so I end up with an abundance of late-ripening cherry tomatoes.  What to do?  Make tomato sauce.  But cherry tomatoes are a hassle to peal, even after blanching, so I choose the lazy route, slice them with skins on and throw them in the pot.  The resulting tomato sauce is tasty, but a bit watery and swimming with skins.

The process by which we create something helps shape the final product.  Our exuberance, laziness, playfulness, discipline, patience, bull-headedness, kindness, skill, and all the other qualities we bring to the writing process play a part in the text we finally create.  Just as my choice to give the cherry tomatoes room in the garden rather than planting good saucing Romas contributes to the quality of my spaghetti sauce, each choice we make in the course of writing contributes to the reader’s experience.  Even those choices we reverse, I would argue, build up like layers of paint to affect the final, aesthetic read.

Other factors contribute to our final product’s shape, especially the content of our story and the voice or persona we use to tell the story.  But our process—all the steps of creating literature and quirky personality who takes these steps—is the factor most often ignored, and from which we can learn the most.

For example, I worked with a skilled writer who set out to write her memoir of growing up with a father who was the only one of his vast extended family to survive the Holocaust.  His grief and depression profoundly shaped her childhood.  She was adept at writing beautiful narrative chapters about periods of her life, and amassed about 150 pages like this before realizing that she’d avoided writing about her father.  But when she tried to focus on life as his daughter, she got stuck.  “I just can’t find my groove,” she told me.  “All I’ve got are these fragments.”  I suggested she change her process.  Instead of writing long, chronological stories, simply write the fragments.  At first this felt awkward, but eventually the fragments took on a form all their own.  They now act as glimpses into a painful relationship.  Their form—fractured, brief—mirrors their content.  But the writer discovered the form by accommodating her process to the material.

What works?  What techniques squeeze the content out of you and onto the page?  When I set out to write On the Threshold, I was primarily motivated by abstract questions about spirituality—What does it mean to live a spiritually grounded life?  I sat at my desk and looked around the tiny bungalow I’d just bought.  When I’m stuck as a writer, I can usually get going again by writing about the setting.  I describe place easily and well.  So I wrote about buying that first house and what it took to make it into a home.  My house became my means to explore spiritual questions because it was a process that worked for me.

As we revise we’re always seeking some structure, some container, to hold our exploration.  But more often than not, the structure emerges through the process.  As committed writers, we must cultivate a lively, healthy means for writing because that means embeds itself in our text.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew