A Peek Behind the Curtain

The writer’s life is anything but glamorous—mostly staring out the window, then crossing out what I’ve just written. Nonetheless, readings and author interviews are inevitably peppered with process questions: Do you write by hand or on the computer? How much do you write every day? How long did this book take you? The nitty-gritty aspects of writing never fail to intrigue us. I suspect we’re looking for the magic: When and how does it strike? So when a colleague suggested I write a “behind the scenes” blog post, I thought I’d give it a go. Here are a few peeks:

A writing morning starts with a visit to my journal. What’s stirring today? What were my dreams and what do I make of them? What in my reading or family or work is rumbling in me? I need that daily, audience-less check-in to remember (re-member) my interior world. Even though I almost never revisit old journals, they are the wellspring for everything in my exterior creative life. Journaling keeps me sane, and I love the way ink flows from this fancy fountain pen gift from my parents.

For decades I composed exclusively on the computer. After two years of pandemic zooming, however, the screen makes me want to run for the woods, so for my latest project I’m using college-ruled notebooks and cheap fountain pen. I write characters sketches, plot out narrative chronology, draft scenes, and do my window-gazing from the sofa. Yes, writing by hand is slow, but slowness has its gifts—the primary one being pleasure.

After I accumulate enough handwritten fragments, I move into Scrivener, a word processing program that’s especially agile for book-length projects. While typing up early drafts I make major changes, mostly additions—my first revision, I suppose, although it still feels like a mess of prewriting. In any given morning, I move back and forth between the notebook and computer, tapping both the joy and freedom of the physical page and the organizational capacity of Scrivener.

Because I write on the computer, my biggest distraction is email. Occasionally I remind myself that, prior to the internet, I was just as distracted by clipping my toenails and brewing another pot of tea. Writing has always been and likely always be accompanied by the desire to flee. These days I use the top of the hour as my excuse to check—but not answer–email.

Perhaps because half of my mornings include getting my daughter to school or perhaps because I spend so much time window-gazing, I’ve never been one of those writers motivated by word-count goals. What I get done in the time I have is enough. At noon, before I conclude my writing morning, I make sure I’m in the middle of something—a sentence, a paragraph, a scene. That way I have traction when I begin the next day.

When and how does the magic strike? Beats me. All I know is that I need to be working when it does, and that work includes those long, blank stares at my muse—the elm across the alley.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Photos by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew