The Art of Fiction: Honoring the Process

March 29, 2008
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

The Art of Fiction: 

Honoring the Process

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
April 2008

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

Mind of Your Story
Mind of Your Storyby Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

Last month, I finished a novel on which I’d been working off and on for many years. The next day, it was as if I’d quit smoking all over again: I kept thinking I’d forgotten something, but couldn’t figure out what. But I hadn’t forgotten anything. The problem was there was huge whole in my habits, no manuscript waiting for me to write, rewrite, or even stare out the window and think about.

My first impulse was to pull some old manuscripts from my closet, both novels and short stories. So I did. I read the first pages of a few, even opened one on my computer with a new filename, usually a sign that that’s what I’m going to work on next. But in the end nothing grabbed my attention, or, should I say, my fire. And so, for the first time in years, I had no choice but to allow myself some time off.

"Next, I tackled my office. I moved still more books up to the high top shelf… "
—Lenard-Cook

Time Off

Time off, in this case, meant cleaning out some real (as opposed to metaphorical) closets, then hauling clothes I haven’t worn, sheets and towels we no longer use, and past-their-prime (for us) appliances to the local donation center. It meant getting a few more recycling bins (my goal this year is zero trash to the dump, and we’re getting closer all the time), and then rearranging that corner of the garage so they weren’t in the way.

Next, I tackled my office. I moved still more books up to the high top shelf to make space to shelve the ones I stack in front of the bookshelves after I’ve read them. I moved my c.d. player to my desk so there’d be room for more books in my overflow shelves (yes, there are a lot of books in my office). I went through the files I keep in a stand on my desk and put some in my filing pile instead (I didn’t go so far as to file, however – it’s a task I abhor), and pulled some out that I knew I’d be needing. I even dusted my old Underwood typewriter.

"Every morning, though, it seemed to me I “ought to” be working on something."
—Lenard-Cook

Every morning, though, it seemed to me I “ought to” be working on something. This is not to say I wasn’t writing. I wrote several book reviews, last month’s Authorlink column, a newsletter article for a volunteer organization in which I’m active, and hundreds of emails. But none of this is work, to me. “Work” is writing fiction. And, as someone with an old-fashioned work ethic, I felt terribly guilty. Honor the process, I told myself. And finally, I did.

"That was when, in quick succession, a number of things occurred."
—Lenard-Cook

The Seeds Sprout

That was when, in quick succession, a number of things occurred. I started teaching a new session of Fiction Writing I. My agent called, with a “quirky little thing” that came across her desk. My husband and I rented the d.v.d.s of the HBO series Band of Brothers. An advance copy of my book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story arrived. (Yes, it’s gorgeous, and yes, I hope you’ll use the link above to order an advance copy, as it will be out by the end of this month.) And I read an article in The New Yorker about… well, it doesn’t matter what it was about. Let’s just call it a fictional seed.

"Remember fictional seeds? I do, of course. In fact, I’d just told my class about them, in their first session."
—Lenard-Cook

Remember fictional seeds?

I do, of course. In fact, I’d just told my class about them, in their first session. Then I read about them in the first chapter of my book. And then, the next morning, just as I say it happens, again and again, I pulled out my father’s scrapbook, and the articles he’d written for Stars and Stripes, from post-World War II Italy. I got out his parents’ Ellis Island passenger reports, which I’d found and printed out seven years ago. I pulled out a map of eastern Europe and noted where they’d started their journey, the departure point of the ship on which they arrived.

"And then I opened a new file on my computer, and started to type."
—Lenard-Cook

It was, I realized, over a thousand miles. How had they done it? I looked out the window. I imagined them, walking across Europe. And then I opened a new file on my computer, and started to type.

"The lesson here (it’s my lesson, but it’s yours, too) is to honor the process."
—Lenard-Cook

The lesson here (it’s my lesson, but it’s yours, too) is to honor the process. Sometimes, we aren’t writing because our seeds need time to lie dormant. If we try to force them, they’ll either emerge stunted or be killed in a late-season frost. I hope you’ll remember this, not just now, when it’s spring, and all those hopeful sprouts are appearing, but year-round. Honor the process. You can’t hurry seeds – or creativity.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, (April 2008) is now available for advance purchase at amazon.com.

 

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