My Writing Process

Tag, you’re it! Luanne my friend and writing partner has tagged me to write about my writing process. If you get a chance check out her blog at writersite.org. This author and former professor blogs prolifically about different aspects of the writing process, book reviews, as well as her own emotionally evocative writings.

I’m thrilled to be the recipient of Luanne’s insights on my memoir as well as share a critique group with her and the similarly insightful and accomplished writer and editor Rudri at beingrudri.com, who Luanne also tagged with this meme. I’m very privileged to have these ladies in my writing life.

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What am I working on as a writer?

My writing focuses mainly on essay and article length memoir-based creative nonfiction and a book length memoir about my years teaching in remote Alaskan villages. Ten years or more into the memoir, I’ve learned that my focus is less about the wilderness and its people and more about the wilderness within—within me and other like-minded souls who seek out adventurous latitudes and longitudes.

My amazing writing partners—Rudri (beingrudri.com) and Luanne (writersite.org) have asked hard questions, which have allowed my writing to explore my relationship with my father and our curious—at times obsessive—relationship with adventure and far-flung places, which has opened up a Pandora’s box of questions about father-daughter relationships and the effects of mental illness.

I am a college writing instructor and have served as an editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review Literary Journal. My writing has appeared in The Feminist Wire, Canyon Voices and in PBS Filmmaker Jillian Robinson’s book Change Your Life Through Travel. Additionally, I also interview and write profiles on legislators in my state as a way to advocate for high quality public education—my way of giving back—since I feel I benefitted from the generous community work and education into which my parents and the generations before me invested.

Writing is my new wilderness.

While I spent my youth backpacking and teaching in Alaska and Europe, I now live a more conventional lifestyle: husband, two daughters, a dog, a cat, and one crowing hen (don’t ask). So writing not only allows me to revisit those youthful adventures, it also allows me to ply the uncharted waters of new chapters—in real time and on the page.

I never know where my writing will go on any given day. Once I found myself coincidentally writing about my cancer treatment on the actual anniversary of that treatment. What wonderful freak stuff the universe dishes up! I’ve also sat down to write memoir and instead wrote a day book entry that gave me sudden insight into my teenage daughter.

So, just like rafting down a river, the writing veers and we find ourselves in a new clearing having come through the wilderness again. Writing is an amazing lens—kaliedscope even—into the mind at work. And, what an amazing wilderness—the mind is—to explore.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’d actually tunnel this question down into the idea of category in addition to genre. My memoir falls now squarely into the New Adult category—an insight given to me by Writing Coach Windy Lynn Harris. Before this category existed, I used to call my memoir a late coming of age story—so, I was fudging the age numbers a bit. Thank goodness readers rose up and granted those of us who write about leaving home and coming into adulthood a place to shelve our books.

My New Adult memoir differs from others in that I chose a pretty harsh landscape on which to prove myself. The other thing that may lift my adventure story from others is the lyricism and philosophical asides my partners and beta readers have enjoyed in my prose. The struggles I encountered as a wilderness teacher evoke all the things young people are up against when they leave home for what is known as a “quarter-life crisis:” including isolation, identity issues (sexual, community, familial) and the desire to stake a claim in the world despite obstacles – both inner and outer.

Why do I write what I do?

Writing is what helps me to make meaning of this tenuous thing called being human. Writing helps me get at the root of who I am: Why did I do that? What motivated me?  What was I thinking? What informs my decision process? What did I hope to learn? What did I really learn? What other forces were at work? Through writing, I realize that the lessons we hope to gain from something are not always what we are given. Often what we are given is so much more profound than what we could have imagined for ourselves. Writing connects what’s deep inside of me to both the dirty and the divine—and the realization that both are needed on the human journey. Above all, I think writing has given me the courage to ask the questions and to sit without answers in the tension of the unknown.

How does my writing process look?

It either looks like a prize-fight or a ceremony. Or both.

In and ideal world, I try to line up my writing day before the day ends, hopefully with few distractions. I try to shove all my errands, appointments and calls into one day, leaving blocks of time—even (don’t tell hubby) whole days— for writing.

This is the prize-fight: clearing the path for writing days: slogging through bills, papers, student and writing client work and dreaded phone calls tracking down medical mis-billings, etc. If I have to do this on a writing day, I can resort to fighting dirty or coming down with WWS – Writing Withdrawal Syndrome. And if you thought PMS was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I bet if they studied my brain on writing and during WWS days they’d find that my brain lights up differently on writing days.

Ah – now to describe writing days. Having set up my writing tasks the night before, I’m ready to execute to that task list when I hit the computer in the morning—which happens after an hour of hiking the desert.  My list changes somewhat each day depending on journal and/or themed due dates. Additionally, I have expectations scene counts or butt-in-chair time that I try to stick to for working on my memoir—all of which works better when my children are in school (back to that ideal world thing).

With my task list to my left and my writing folders (Rolling Submissions, Work on Deadline, Memoir Scene List) to my right, I sit down and pick up where I left off. One great tip I use—iterated by writers Michael Stackpole and Tayari Jones—involves stopping the writing session in a place where you know what comes next in the text or process—so you start with forward momentum where you left off rather than at a dead-end.

Another technique I’ve come late to is freewriting. I used to use it a lot early on, but found for shorter pieces that I rely on the idea sketched out in my head and take it from there through several drafts. For a blog piece that process may be a couple hours in one day or 3-4 hours over a number of days. For a journal article—I’ve spent up to 45 hours over a few weeks drafting one 5,000 word story.

I now free write on my memoir, thanks to Stuart Horwitz’s Blueprint Your Bestseller, forgoing the urge to shape or edit until all scenes are written and/or the heart of the story truly emerges.  With each revision of completed works, I try to focus on a different aspect of the work starting with idea fine tuning, scene development, story tension, aesthetics, mechanics and much more… finishing with line editing—the one thing my blog is likely in need of. Speaking of—if you find yourself in need of a great line editor, Anneli at  wordsfromanneli.wordpress.com and anneli-purchase.com has lined-edited some of my writing and she’s fabulous!

On the ceremonial aspects of writing: the more banal writing aids include a soundtrack of Argentinean techno tango, a pot of coffee and bottle of club soda. Sometimes, once I hit my writing flow, I can put headphones on and write/rock out when my house fills with cookie-seeking teenagers after school. But, like Rudri at beingrudri.com, my writing benefits from long periods of solitude. When I don’t get solitude before and during writing time, I’m right back in WWS—Writing Withdrawal Syndrome.

Nobody likes me when I’m ragged out from not writing—not even me.

In plain speak, for me, writing’s more than medicinal—it’s addicting. You are seeing here first hand, the confessions of a writing junkie.

What informs your writing process? What are you working on as a writer? Why do you write what you do?

Next on the writing tour: 

Author, editor and blogger Anneli Purchase of and anneli-purchase.com has agreed to write about her writing process this week in her blog: wordsfromanneli.wordpress.com or at anneli-purchase.com.

I’m curious how she has balanced an active outdoors life, travel and writing.

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23 thoughts on “My Writing Process

  1. Renee, fabulous info here! And thanks so much for doing this and for being such a wonderful writing buddy with all your great insights and knowledge! This New Adult category intrigues me. I guess I need to read up on it! xo

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  2. Renee,

    I loved reading about your process. Thanks for your writing wisdom and camaraderie. I learn so much from you, Luanne & Windy about the writing process. I am grateful to have all of you in my corner. xoxo

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  3. I envy you being able to clear your slate to free up writing time. I haven’t managed it yet. I still have to write when I can find a bit of time. Very unsatisfactory! You sound busy, but you seem to be managing your time well.

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    • I don’t feel like it as I’ve gotten little done on my book this summer –tugged from one kid shuttle or project to another… before reading your eaglet -puppy piece, I suffered the loss of our beloved cat. He’d been with us ten years. Found his carcass next to the pool. Looks like the work of a coyote… man they must be athletes to scale an 8 foot wall from the wash side of our property. Owls next just above our pool and have swooped my head in the back yard… and they are formidable, but having grown up in the woods, I don’t think poor Tango met is end at the talons of an owl. Just didn’t look that way. I’ve been so heartsick missing our daily routines. Never thought I was a cat person… or at least would never self-identify as such, but Tango brought me around. Loved that guy.

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      • Oh, Renee, that would be heartbreaking! I’m so sorry to hear that. Just yesterday a friend told me that the cougar sightings we’ve had in our neighbourhood is not the only one. The next little town, not so far away (I can see it from my window, across the bay), also had cougar troubles. The cat was on someone’s veranda and their housecat has been missing for a couple of days. So we really do have to be careful. I’m really sorry about your cat. I love cats.

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  4. Great insights, Renee, and you managed to convey your process in a way that also gives your readers a sense of who you are — as opposed to a punch list to follow. Witty and insightful, with a touch of adventure 😉

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  5. Fascinating memoir subject- unique as well. Teaching in remote areas of Alaska is something not everyone has done. Your process is so organized. I’d love to have more chunks of writing time (oh, and a whole day to write would be heaven!)

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  6. I am awe-stricken and fascinated by you. Woman, you are amazing. I hope one day we can meet. Keep writing, teaching and sharing. I am inspired. Like you, when I don’t write for a while I can’t stand myself. Thank you for being the light for others to follow. Mucho love!

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    • Millie – I feel so much the same! I have relatives in VA and the Carolina’s and I intend to get there in the next few years! I can well imagine a great side trip at your retreat. I always associate Easter/spring with Myrtle and VA Beaches and hiking the Appalachian trail as my dad made sure we visited his family and did those things every year. Please know you and your emotional intelligence and emotional clarity are an inspiration to me. You are the light. I am merely following a path light by other beacons my friend!

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