Thursday, September 19, 2013

A return. And some thoughts on the writing process

I thought at the end of August that I was back, but it turns out I was not. One would think that the modest goal I set for myself of one writing-related quote per week, plus maybe a poem, would not be too much to ask, especially since my kids are now both at public school. But it was.

On the other hand, once I returned from points east, I got swept up in--consumed by--preparations for Joan's memorial services and with writing a eulogy for her. Which meant that I spent hours drafting and revising my remarks for Joan's "official" memorial service.

Some of the best writing teachers in the Bay Area were going to be in attendance--people whose books I've read, people who have shaped my own philosophy on the teaching of writing. Plus a whole mess of Joan's smart friends and family, several of my former colleagues--brilliant English teachers all--some exceptionally bright (much brighter than I) former students, and of course her amazing husband--all of whom loved Joan and her legacy in a way that only she could inspire...loved her somethin' fierce.

No pressure.

So here's the Writing Process protocol:
1. pre-write
2. draft
3. revise
4. publish

Step 3 actually gets repeated over and over and over until you're at deadline and you have to go to step 4 or you'll be fired, embarrassed, or have points taken off your grade.

Step I: Prewriting
Actually I did about a week of pre-pre-writing. Just thought about it. Had some interesting ideas for organizing principles: maybe center the piece around her classroom, which was an extension of her. Maybe use her phrase, "What's the so what?" (What does it all really mean in the end?) as a metaphor for her very meaningful life. Sentences percolated.

Okay, on to true pre-writing. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard in my case.

Lots of writing teachers and programs suggest starting with a mind map.
courtesy of
I've never trusted mind maps, because I need to dump everything out of the bag before I start sorting it. I can't do words and phrases because I start "hearing" sentences and stories. Also drawing takes too long. Maybe it would be different if I were writing something with a pre-determined structure. An evaluation or a request or a story or something.

So no mind maps. Usually I go with freewriting--just writing whatever comes to mind, and then using the best/favorite ideas as a launchpad for a more finished piece.

Freewriting over a period of about a week got me several stories, some interesting organizing principles, some great sentences, and nothing compelling. Three pages (single spaced!) of nothing. Just a lot of words that sounded good together but had no emotional power.

Step II: Draft
I grouped sentences with similar themes together, took out redundancies, and still nothing.

I Googled "how to write a eulogy" to see if I was missing something. But most websites said the obvious. Some articles suggested purpose: to remember the deceased, to offer a personal perspective on the deceased, to praise the deceased, to "brighten an otherwise dark time".
Others made suggestions: go beyond biographical information. think of fond memories, collect stories, describe what you loved about the decased, list the things the deceased loved to do, insightful things the deceased said. Well, duh.

The problem with Joan is that there was so much information. So many stories, so many quirky expressions, so much personality. Hence the three pages.

I spent almost a week spinning my wheels, just adding to my three pages.

Finally, a good friend said to me, "Write from the heart." Which is a cliche, and which so many of those eulogy writing websites had already told me. But hearing it from my friend, who was heartbroken along with me and who trusted me, felt different.

So I took a look inside my heart, as it were. What's in there? When I think about Joan, when I read what I've written, what do I feel that I need to tell people? I thought.

And just like that, I knew. I needed to thank her.

Ta-daa. The organizing principle and the emotional core. Everything fell into place (sort of). It was miraculous.

Step III: Revising
Drafting was just a matter of picking my favorite bits and re-framing them as paragraphs of a thank-you letter. Easy-peasy. On to revising, which involved

  1. Choosing what order to put the favorite bits in.
  2. Re-arranging them.
  3. Adding a story.
  4. Taking the story out.
  5. Taking a field trip to the church to see what it looked like so that I could accurately describe it in the eulogy.
  6. Calling my best friend, reading it to her, and listening hard to what she liked and what she had questions about. 
  7. Deleting a few sentences.
  8. More re-arranging.
  9. And some more.
  10. Another story added and deleted.
  11. Reading it to Tad.
  12. Keep this paragraph? Take it out? Keep it? Take it out?
  13. How about this word? Keep it? Change it? Keep it? Change it? ad nauseum.

Sorry to make that list so long, but that's what it was like. Every time I thought I was done, I thought of a new way to change and possibly improve it. One of the favorite things anyone has ever said to me was a friend who I had asked to speak at Joan's high school memorial. She texted me the night before, saying, "I can't stop revising." So true. It's like picking at a scab.

Step IV: Publish
I stepped up to the podium with a eulogy that was easily twice as long as the other speakers' eulogies. It was 100 words longer than Robert Muldoon's eulogy for Seamus Heaney, which I had read and done a word count of earlier in the week (590 words). I spoke too softly for the mic and got a lot of whiny feedback for the first couple of paragraphs. According to Tad, I spoke too softly throughout, and he had to strain to hear me. Oh, well.

But it was still great. I made people cry, reportedly. I know I made them laugh. I was proud of the piece, and I think Joan would have been, too.

All this to say that the writing process is a messy one, and not the neat little 4-step package that writing teachers (myself included) often try to teach. Pre-writing and drafting, especially, are idiosyncratic processes, and don't work in the same ways for most people. Gotta try to remember that.

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