April L. Ford
As a creative writing teacher, I am a font of advice for my college students; I can talk about process until I turn purple. As a practicing writer … what’s that about process, you asked?
I’ve been writing professionally since 2002, and unless I’m romanticizing my past, I had a more inspired and energetic strategy at the start of my career than I do now. It consisted of coffee, chocolate bars, cigarettes, and compulsion. I wrote my first successful short story that way—on a weekend binge, to be exact—and then two more later that year. And I’m talking long short stories, almost novellas. My practice was to write whenever the urge seized me, to put everything aside (including college homework) and sit at the computer until I had purged all the good stuff. That worked fine when I was in my early-twenties and single; now that I’m in my mid-thirties, married, a full-time caregiver for a parent with dementia, and a college teacher, I have to be more methodical.
Last November I was flipping through an issue of Poets & Writers magazine and came across article about one author’s process. She trumpeted a computer application called “Freedom,” which one can use to block Internet access while one writes. You tell the application how long you plan to write sans the distraction of online shopping, and the only way you can access the net is to save your work and restart your computer—there’s no way to log out of Freedom. Brilliant! I downloaded the application for an easy—and worthwhile—ten bucks and was on my way. I set it for two hours and set a goal of writing one thousand words. Success! I repeated this the next day and the next, and suddenly it was a month later and I had succeeded in writing more than a hundred pages of my first novel, Gentle.
Setting aside specific days and times also helped me. As writing is not yet (and may never be) my primary source of income, I don’t have too many ideal time slots in the week from which to choose. So for me, three weekday mornings (usually every other) for two hours (6:30 – 8:30 seems to work best) has proved to be my most successful writing schedule yet. I wake up, eat breakfast, brew coffee, and then sit at my computer and activate Freedom right away—I don’t permit myself to read emails or the daily news. After my two hours are up, the day is mine; knowing I don’t have to fret about my writing for the next 22 hours is a welcomed stress-reliever. Think about how much time writers spend thinking about writing; it’s a necessary part of the process, but I dare say many of us spend more time fretting about our process than our writing.
I’ve taken an unplanned hiatus from Gentle since September; I’m but 15 000 words from the end, but my teaching load has gobbled up the weeks. No excuse, I understand, but it’s my present reality. And the longer I stay away from my novel, the harder it is to go back. My characters, whom just a few months ago I knew better than my best friend, are starting to feel like distant in-laws, and the plot … wait, there are sub-plots, too? Sometimes long breaks are inevitable. We’ve all heard about great writers who spent years between novels being depressed, politically active, consumed by new religions. I used to panic if I couldn’t write for a week, so you can imagine how I must be feeling about my current predicament—I’ve broken the generous “rules” of my process. But a day hasn’t passed when I haven’t thought about Gentle, and I’m sure that after I spend an hour breezing through my manuscript, I’ll reconnect with my characters and the story, and the rest will happen swiftly. A throwback to the days of binge-writing (minus cigarettes and chocolate bars).
So what am I suggesting, then? To follow a schedule or to blow the wind? A bit of both! A writer needs to pay as much heed to the demands of her life as to those of her process; sometimes the two are incompatible, sometimes they are harmonious. Most times, negotiations are necessary. As for what I tell my Introduction to Creative Writing Students, it’s vague yet specific and seems to satisfy them more than a bullet list of instructions: Do whatever gets you to write. It might be different every time, and that’s okay; eventually you’ll discover patterns. As long as you write something every day—a post-it note, a grocery list, an email—you’ll eventually find your way to (or back to) your story. Or, it will find its way to you.
April L. Ford teaches creative writing at State University of New York at Oneonta. She received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, where she worked closely with Jonathan Dee, Fred G. Leebron, Naeem Murr, and Pinckney Benedict. Her writing has appeared in Short Story magazine, r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal, and The Battered Suitcase, among others, and she has an article forthcoming with Ploughshares magazine. She recently completed a short story collection called The Poor Children and is ready to query publishers. Her first novel, Gentle, will be up next.