Saturday, December 17, 2005

One Writer's Process: Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen, the author of That Summer, This Lullaby, Someone Like You, Dreamland, and The Truth About Forever, keeps a daily blog (Sarah Dessen's Journal) that brims with the same kind of closely observed details and insights about life that you can find in her fiction.

In one of her recent blog entries, Dessen shares her thoughts on her own writing process and succeeds in capturing much of the mystery, unpredictability, challenges and joys that she experiences in the daily act of writing.

Her entry, which she was kind enough to let Wordswimmer post, appears below:

"I started writing regularly (i.e. on a pretty much daily basis) after college, when I was juggling two jobs: working as a personal assistant to a writer here in town, the incredible Lee Smith, and waitressing at the world famous Flying Burrito. Because of this, it worked out that the only free block of time I had on a steady basis was in the afternoons, from about 3-4:30, right before I went into work. So that's when I wrote. I'd do errands for Lee in the morning, come home and have lunch, then mellow out for a few minutes and get to work. I wrote for a couple of years that way, churning out two books a year. I'd start one at the end of the summer, and finish it around Christmas, then start another around February and finish it around my birthday in June.

"Now, I didn't SELL all those books: I only sold about half. (That's another thing about my process: I have a lot of misfires. I also have several books that are not YA, but with narrators in their twenties, that are sitting in my closet, waiting for me to do something with them, if I can bear to haul them out.) But the main thing was that I trained myself that this was the time I wrote, so that if I wasn't writing, I was very much aware of it. Even now, if it's three o'clock and I'm not at the computer, I always have that twinge of guilt, even if I've earned some time off. It's like that sudden realization that you left the iron on: something' s wrong! But at the same time, you can get obsessive about it. It's a fine line, one I am still struggling with.

"I very much admire people who can write longhand, but I am a computer person all the way. And while I've tried to write in coffee shops, it's hard for me: I do best here at home, in my office, where I know I'll be serious and not distracted. Back when I first started this schedule, I lived in our little farmhouse in Durham, and my office was this tiny room off the bedroom. It was, in a word, hideous. Orange carpet, dark paneling on the walls, one very dirty window, which I faced away from, so I wouldn't be distracted. I got a LOT done there. So much so that when we moved here, to this house where my husband had built me this beautiful study, with bright walls and windows and a view, I was terrified I wouldn't get anything done. But I have learned to focus. Even if it is hard sometimes.

"If I have to, though, I can write anywhere: airports, hotel bathrooms, in the car, you name it, I've done it. I think it's good to know that you don't NEED anything to write other than a surface, a pen and your hand. I think it's very easy to get caught up in the particulars, oh, I need my coffee, or my chocolate, or the sun to be in Mercury, or whatever. Enough! Sit down and do it. Given a choice, though, I like to be here at home, where I know I can completely lose myself in the story and when I come up for air, I'll know where I am.

"I know writing every day doesn't work for everyone. Sometimes, it doesn't even work for me. There are times I think a novel is much better served by stepping away from it, taking a break, and letting your subconscious work on it. I have a bad habit of fretting over my plots, constantly, wanting to change things only to change them back, then back again. It's crazy. My editor often has to pry the manuscript from me to make me stop.

"The weird thing about writing, for me, is that there is no one formula that works. Every book---God, every DAY---is different. This Lullaby I wrote in three months: it was like riding a comet, or going to a party every day, so much fun I didn't want it to end. The Truth About Forever was incredibly hard, although it got easier towards the end; my new book I was terrified pretty much from start to finish. Why? I have no idea. It just is what it is. I think I was writing at my most free back at the beginning, when the only person I knew for sure would read my stuff was my mother. There was less pressure. But I also think the books have gotten more in depth and stronger since then, so maybe the neurosis is working? I have no idea. I could think about this all day. But I don't. Because it's all about that hour and a half to two hours, and not much else. Get it done. That's it.

"The thing is, there is no formula for me, no right answer. The minute I think I've got it figured out---I'll do this, and then this, and everything will work---it changes entirely, right before my eyes. This used to make me NUTS, but now I'm starting to understand it's probably happening for a reason. If it was easy, maybe I'd get bored with it. Anything that is difficult makes overcoming it that much more worthwhile. So I'll just keep plodding along, my two or so hours a day, some great, some horrible, many right down the middle. I guess the truth is, even on the worst days, when I want to tear my hair out, when I feel like the biggest failure or fraud ever, this is still a dream come true. No joke. It is all I ever wanted to do, and I'm doing it. That makes up for a lot. More than you know."

Thanks, Sarah!

For more information about Sarah Dessen and her work, check out her website as well as the journal where these comments on her writing process first appeared

Also, look for her new book, Just Listen, scheduled for publication in May, 2006.

(P.S. - Wordswimmer's next post--"End of Year Musings"--is scheduled for Dec. 29th.)

1 comment:

Jack O'Rourke said...

I think picking a strategic time in your day to write is an important consideration. I liked suggestions by several authors of writing first thing in the morning, when you're perhaps closest to your subconscious. Maybe then you haven’t had enough waking time to re-conform yourself to inhibitions, codes, strictures, worries, the whole gambit that can weigh on those characters to whom you’re trying to give a free rein. They could just end up living your own kind of life if your mind weighs down under your conscious persona. Surprises might be more refreshing, and challenging.
Dessen has been amazingly productive, and successful, so obviously her strategies are working well for her. She can be sure of another reader in me.
I have more time available to write these days, and though I used to spend more hours, I’ve found the most rewarding thing for me now is to write for two hours soon after rising at 6:30 A.M. First, wash, then do some loosening up exercises, and be sitting at the computer by 7. Nothing on my mind but the story. I feel like I’ve already accomplished something when the rest of my day starts at 9. I may go back later in the day to look at revisions of earlier stuff (smile), or marketing efforts (groan), but the day has already been a success. Mainly.