Wrestling with So-Called Process

Wrestling with So-Called Process

by TWC Memoir Instructor Jill Smolowe

There’s a piece of advice commonly offered to people stymied by the tendency to procrastinate: focus on the process, not the outcome. This can be wonderful advice for writers when it’s understood to mean that you should concentrate on the writing task immediately in front of you (a paragraph, a page, a chapter) and avoid getting freaked out by unanswerable questions about what the next hundred pages will be.

But if you understand “process” to mean a prescribed set of steps that must be methodically undertaken to bring a project from conception to completion, I encourage you to ignore “focus on the process” advice. An approach that works for one kind of project may not work for another, inviting frustrations and road blocks.

During the three decades I wrote for newsweeklies, when my task was to craft stories based on the reporting of multiple correspondents, my process (or what I’ve come to think of as my so-called process) was predictable and consistent. On closing day, I’d shut my office door. Plow into the pile of files from correspondents. Create a rough outline. Then I’d take a deep dive into the story and stay immersed for the four, six, eight hours it took to produce a finished narrative.

Given the tight time demands, I made no allowance for distractions. I dispatched any interruptions—emails, phone calls, people knocking at my door—quickly. My grinchy writing face and unwelcoming manner lacked charm, but I needed unbroken concentration to meet the sometimes ridiculously tight deadlines. Often, I’d close out the week with apologies to an editor or researcher for having been brusque earlier in the day. Thankfully, my colleagues understood that when I was facing the deadline crunch, I had no bandwidth for office schmooze.

When I ventured into writing non-fiction books, I initially had a so-called process that was also clean and clear: write a book proposal that includes a sample chapter and a detailed outline of the other chapters. Send it to my agent. Wait for her to sell the proposal. Then produce a manuscript that faithfully mirrored the book described in the proposal. Count down the days to my pub date. Rejoice.

Though the book writing, like the magazine writing, relied on undisturbed immersion, there was one noticeable difference: while I could immerse for hours on deadline stories, I could rarely sustain my focus for more than three, maybe four hours when setting down new material for a long-distance project. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe the adrenaline shot of a looming deadline enabled me to tap deeper reserves of energy. Or maybe the mental game of a sprint is simply different from that of a marathon.

Certainly it helped that with my first two books (a memoir and an anthology), I not only had a clear vision of the book; I had confidence that I could see the book through to completion. I delivered both manuscripts on schedule.  

When I turned to fiction, however, this tidy, outlined process was a non-starter. As a practical matter, while established magazine writers can hope to sell non-fiction books on the strength of a proposal, never-heard-of fiction writers cannot. That was fine by me. When it comes to fiction, my so-called process matches the famous description offered by E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights.”

“Process,” in other words, is nothing more and nothing less than what enables you to stick with the work day after month after year.

While this GPS-free approach has not produced commercial results, it has produced four finished novels, and in each of them I feel pride of authorship. The one time I tried to impose order on my so-called process by outlining the plot and sketching in-depth character studies before wading in, I bailed after writing the first few chapters. Apparently, when it comes to fiction, following directions—even my own—doesn’t interest me. 

When I began working on my second memoir, my so-called process took yet another turn, this time settling on a jagged path that fell somewhere between a confident I-know-where-I’m-going mindset and an uncertain I-haven’t-a-clue-where-this-is-headed approach. In this instance, I was clear that I wanted to produce a memoir about bereavement that was counterintuitive and departed from the standard grief narrative. But I wasn’t sure if I had the stomach to stick with such raw material through the length of a full manuscript as I revisited the back-to-back deaths of my husband, sister, mother, and mother-in-law. I wanted to maintain the option to abandon the project if my well-being demanded it. As a result, I chose not to seek a publisher (and therefore a deadline) for my book until it was written.

That freed me up to take a looser and gentler approach to what was, unquestionably, very painful material. Instead of creating an outline, I sketched out a list of the ideas I wanted to cover. Instead of trying to write chapters straight through, I wrote scenes. When pages accumulated, I’d print them out, cut them up and move the fragments around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Instinctively, I sensed I wouldn’t be able to construct a frame until I first identified and played with the pieces. In the end, the memoir got finished and published.

“Process,” in other words, is nothing more and nothing less than what enables you to stick with the work day after month after year. Maybe your so-called process is to set down five hundred words a day. Maybe it requires an incentivizing weirdness, say, Jimi Hendrix playing in the background. Whatever the case, trust that it’s legitimate as long as it helps you to get the job done.


Jill Smolowe is the author of the memoirs Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief and An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood, and co-editor of the anthology A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents. An award-winning journalist, she clocked 35 years as a foreign affairs writer for Time and Newsweek, and a senior writer for People. Jill’s essays have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, among them the New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, More, MoneyTimeAdoptive Families and the Reader’s Digest “Today’s Best NonFiction” series. She has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, MSNBC and NPR. A Princeton grad and a Duke Visiting Journalism Fellow, Jill has guest-lectured at several of the area’s journalism schools.

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