In 1920, the humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote in Vanity Fair,
There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.
In the spirit of this quote, I hope there are not two kinds of writers: those who like to discuss the writing process and those who do not. Both kinds, in my view, would be rather irritating, though I’d be a little more receptive to the second. There’s a time and place for discussing the writing process, and an eternity for not doing so.
Problems with discussing the writing process? There’s so much variety that one cannot draw any conclusions about a “right” way. What’s more, the “process” discussions tend to ignore substance. There are writers who revise constantly and those whose first draft is almost always their last. There are those who adhere to a strict routine and those who write whenever the ideas strike them. There are those who suffer terribly from writer’s block and those who have never known it. There are those who insist on writing in pen, or with the trusty Remington, or through dictation. In the end, I don’t care what they do, if the writing is good.
Yet staying mum is problematic too. There are writers who hold themselves above describing what they actually do; they insinuate that their work is mystical and untouchable, and that any mention of process is the mark of a lesser talent. Or they refrain from discussing it lest they expose a weakness–an embarrassing first draft, for instance, or an abundance of unfinished work. Silence is golden, but gold can be the ornament of a snob.
The ideal would be to talk about it sometimes but not all the time. Just how much would depend on the person’s judgment and circumstances. If you have been invited to speak to young people about your writing process, and have agreed to do so, then a secretive attitude is out of place. However, if you are at a tea party where people are going on about how they love “workshopping” their work (and you don’t particularly love doing that), then you have every right to maintain a happy hush.
I revise a lot. One thing I enjoy about having a blog is that I can come back and change things later. (When I do, I indicate this in a note at the end of the post, unless the changes are too minor to mention.) I rethink things continually; months or years later, I may see a better way of putting them. This is true for my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. This morning I made some revisions to an old poem, “Jackrabbit.” It’s one of my favorites (of my older pieces), but the original version and even a later version had some strained parts. The current version will rest as is.
This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.
This is a real dirt road with imagined doubts,
senses, untasted dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the wild
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.
Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.
Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.
It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.
I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.
When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.
You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.
Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.
Note: I changed three words (and fixed a formatting glitch) after the initial posting.