The Artist in Me

If you ask me, I am an artist. Not exactly the kind of artist who paints or sculpts (though I did try both in college and found that, although I love the visual arts very much, I have very little talent), but the kind of artist who writes. 

My visual arts training has very much carried over into my writing. It is embedded in the way that I think about my personal writing process, and I often wonder whether other authors have the same kind of mental schematics to guide them in their process. Perhaps you have a process that is wildly different from mine, but similar in the way that it guides you through your work. Perhaps you do not have a process at all, though I would wonder a bit if you told me that. For what it is worth, here is mine:

First comes the lightning bolt—the hot strike of magic that is inspiration. I imagine it is much the same for any kind of artist—you are moving through your day normally, thinking of something bland like the grocery list or the color of the sky, when all of sudden you notice something. The shape of the moon, or the smell of fire in the wind. Inside you, something clicks and brings together a thousand stories you have heard and the particulates of half-formed ideas. And you are inspired. 

It is exciting to feel this kind of inspiration. It is sudden and bright. It illuminates the mind; when before you had been just an ordinary person, nothing special at all, you are now aflame. I tend to feel ideas in the space beneath my ribs, taking up space between my lungs. But I have to be careful or these ideas will burn themselves out, fading away just as swiftly as they come.

The second step of the process is the sculpting. I imagine the shape of my inspiration as a rough, amorphous stone. It is weighty and powerful, but does not yet have a firm shape. I have to sculpt it. So I take out my tools and get to work. Sometimes this means that I pour myself into a Draft 0, writing fast and chipping away at my idea until it begins to take form on the page. Sometimes I plan, using lists and notecards and plot structures to pattern the idea and find the proper shape of it. This is the part of the process where things tend to be rough and difficult. I might (and have) give up in the middle of this process, because I find that the stone of inspiration has a fatal flaw, or the shape of the story will not reveal itself to me, or I am just not up to the work of shaping it. But sometimes the story takes shape, and I move on to the next step. 

I like to think of the third step as the act of collage. Collage is a flexible medium, adaptable to lots of manipulation, and this is what I do in this stage. I go back to what I have shaped, and I look at my sculpture. I find the flaws and cut them out. I slice one piece of the story free and move it to another place. Then I cut out another, and another. I shuffle things around, glue them down, and move them again. For me, this is the act of big edits and changes, I rewrite entire scenes and character arcs, and other times just make small changes. I try to bring harmony to the pieces, though this is the messiest of all the stages of my process. I check plotlines and character arcs, and the tone of each scene. I start to figure out how it is all meant to fit together.

And when all that is done, and the story feels almost complete, I take out the embroiery thread. For me, this is the act of going back and tidying up the details. I change small things, like dialogue and phrasing. I tweak the style of a scene or I plant a clue that the reader will need later. This is all the little work, when I reread the story again and again to make sure that everything reads and sounds right. I embroider by making small changes, little stitches in the fabric of the story that will finish it up. 

Each part of my writing process is a tactile thing. I shape the story to match my inspiration, building and refining it layer by layer. Until, somehow, with the last stroke of the brush, it is done. It is a process that works for me. I wonder how other writers see their process. What kind of architecture do you build?