The academic year is upon us, and, though I spent a month of the summer in course preparation (after one month dedicated to writing and one month to reading), I will now be dedicating nearly all my time, outside immediate family obligations, to serving students and academic committees, which will leave precious little time for writing. Yet, I will continue to find ways to squeeze the most out of those spare moments. In fact, I’ve even developed a couple methods for doing so which I can share with you.
First, I’ve started adapting certain elements of poetry writing to all writing that I do. Most importantly, I’ve made the epiphany the fundamental unit of my composition. I brainstorm or freewrite my way to the heart of an issue (often in about half an hour), isolating the concept, phrase, or image that seems to be compelling me most acutely, and then I build an edifice of thought, image, and emotion around that cornerstone. Since I have already done the work of getting to the heart of a matter, I can build outwardly from it quickly, without the likelihood that I will eventually find myself editorially thwacking my way through a thicket of misleading words, scenes, or even chapters. I can take one of these epiphanic nuggets, and examine it “out loud” (on paper) from as many angles as possible in, say, an hour (often before sleep), and come back to it for a quick, half-hour clean-up at some later time. This process is very similar to what one would do when exploring a musical phrase at the piano: start with a run of notes, and keep playing them over and over in different ways, until you find the combination that unlocks your heart. The result of this two-hour, three-step process will often result in a solid, freestanding page or two of material: a poem, scene, or brief chapter. Sometimes I’ll even sit down and brainstorm a list of potential epiphanies, setting myself up for months of future sessions such as these.
Another helpful component of this process is to identify discrete, subgeneric forms that one can work in during these sessions. By “subgeneric forms” I mean things such as setting descriptions, dialogues, and character introductions, materials of which a complete genre are built (in this example, a short story or chapter of a novel). I’ve found that if I work on these elements in the right order, dedicating a couple hours to each one, I can save myself tons of time over the longue duree. For example, a good character sketch (even one that never leaves a journal) can lead to a good sense of character which leads to a good character introduction which leads to good, believable dialogue, and more quickly than usual, in the case of dialogue, since characters with distinct personalities will tell you what to write.