Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Coming (back) to the blank page

by Ariella Papa
I have been thinking a lot about process lately. It's our topic for this cycle and it's also something I've been trying to refresh for a few months now. I seem to go through periods where process means difference things: scribbling random unedited thoughts in notebooks as teen or opting to do writer's workshops in my early twenties. The best process I've ever had was in my late twenties/early thirties. This was right after my first novel came out and when I had a two book contract. I lived in a sunny apartment in Brooklyn. My writing desk fit perfectly in a little nook against the bright yellow wall. I arranged my freelance work schedule to be every other day and every other day I wrote non-stop for at least four hours. I fully surrendered to the characters who spoke to me as I banged on my keyboard while listening to Tori Amos. I didn't edit myself, I didn't worry about the time. I just wrote. I only turned away from my computer when I felt my puppy's eyes boring into my back because the treat tin was on my desk and she wanted something tasty. It was my most productive time as a writer. It was ideal.
These days I have a room that we call an office that I never use to write fiction. I also have more creatures demanding more treats much more often. Circumstances have meant that I have needed to freelance almost full time since the beginning of the year. We call it perma-lancing. "Writing time" has been replaced by "trying to market the e-book I published in November" time and "finishing an essay for the deadline" time. And then of course the favorite though not at all productive "sitting on the couch with my husband when the children are finally in bed" time.
The process of creatively writing seems to have fallen by the wayside. The trial and error, the freedom to be led by characters to places that might not work just doesn't seem as possible to fit in to the moments I do have. Steven King says you must not come lightly to the blank page. I pretentiously wrote this on the blackboard in my little yellow writing nook. I was young and knew enough to erase it when people came over. But I still believe it and writing in tiny spurts seems like it might just be coming lightly.
I know writers who have very specific and sacred processes. The Nora Roberts' "ass is the chair" comes to mind. I envy that. I also have heard of writers who take long palate cleansing breaks from writing and while I can understand this it seems to be the antithesis of what I want to do. Shouldn't I want to write fiction every day and if I don't or can't shouldn't I force myself?
Recently my oldest friend wrote me that Jane Austen was a writer every day of her life not just when she was working on a novel. I understood that and was encouraged, yet still I need find a new more disciplined approach to make time for fiction writing. Slowly characters who have been silent for awhile are starting to call to me when I'm doing other things. I know I must find the process, the room and the space to let them out. Coming lightly seems better than not showing up at all.

Ariella Papa's novel Momfriends is available for digital download. She also has an essay in the new book A Friday Night Lights Companion
Any more tips on process and time management will be greatly appreciated.


  1. This post, especially the last line, really resonated with me. I have recently worked very hard to get a small following by way of my blogs. I then finally finished a short story and published it as a eBook. I even managed to sell a copy. But now, when I should be cashing in on all of this, I am staring at a blank page.
    But, as you say, it is better to come lightly than not to come at all. So I will keep on writing and hopefully, eventually, my muse will wake up and get back on the job.

  2. This resonated with me too, Ariella. I used to write in my head on long, long walks then spew at the computer for hours. I physically can't do that anymore, so I've had to find new ways to tap into my creativity and accept the fact that "short" does not equal "light".

    Ridley Pearson told me (while we were both on vacation) that he lives by the motto "not a day without a word"--even on vacation. He has a fancy sign above his desk with that in Latin.

    I now live by the words "show up". Even for a few minutes. Even one word. Then another might just follow.

  3. Thanks for the comments. It's nice to know people are in the same boat.
    Lyn, congrats on your success and good luck keeping the momentum going.
    Amy, you're so right. One word leads to another. Also anything in Latin seems more for real.
    I look forward to more productivity for all of us.

  4. I'm not happy unless I'm writing. I can only take a few days vacation from it.

  5. I'm not at home, so I'm seeing this late, Ariella, but I wanted to say thanks to you for this post. Sometimes I feel my energies are so scattered that it would be a miracle for a novel to emerge from the chaos ;). If I expected myself to do anything but work lightly on some days, nothing would be done at all... I do think these little bit (light or not) add up over time, and then they can be revised to be better :).