In an earlier post (July 24, 2011) I mentioned Louise DeSalvo’s excellent writing book, Writing as a Way of Healing, and in particular her “stages of the writing process.” If you’re writing a memoir that involves pain, her book is invaluable. If you’re not writing as a way to help heal, it’s still a great book. And even if you’re not even writing memoir, it’s got worthwhile things for writers, such as her description of the stages of the writing process. It may help at times to know there ARE stages, and to identify which one you’re in at any given point in writing something. It may help you go the distance. There are many schemas for writing process stages, but I like hers the best of the ones I’ve seen.
DeSalvo says every creative project is different, but that they usually involve passing through a series of stages in a predictable order. These stages do not necessarily occur in lockstep. You may go back and forth between some of them, but in my experience there does seem to be a progression and as she points out, identifying them and knowing what to expect from each stage can be very helpful in seeing a project through to completion.
The first is “Preparation Stage,” in which you have an idea, an image, an incomplete vision or vague intuition maybe. She describes it as “partially conscious, partially instinctive.” You want to write something, and it begins to build and form in your mind. You might be spurred by something you read, you might do some pre-writing, such as clustering, in which you circle a key word in the middle of the page, and then brainstorm all the associations that come to mind, branching them out in all directions from the key idea or subject as fast as you can, in a right brain way. You might doodle or make lists or even draw something. DeSalvo comments that she thinks beginning writers often spend too little or too much time at this stage, which I found interesting. “Some avoid it altogether and plunge right into working, which can derail our process.” You’re not ready yet. Let things build a bit, but determine to move on.
The next is “Germination Stage,” “during which we gather and work on fragments of ideas, images, phrases, scenes, moments, lines, possibilities for plots, characters, settings. Sometimes we don’t quite know what we’re doing or where all this is leading.” I’ll say. Again, this seems more a right brain thing, where you’re more or less musing and not consciously, rationally, linearly figuring things out. You’re letting things accumulate and generate and multiply: i.e., germinate. Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones has a similar idea she calls composting. “Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time…” The important thing here is not to rush too quickly into writing a first draft, because you may run out of fuel. In the germinating stage, you’re tanking up and building up pressure (and material) to carry you through the next stage.