What is your process for creating whatever it is that you create? What’s my process? Truthfully, I have no clear idea, which might be why I struggle with productivity so much in my career. (Teaching a 4-4 load as a contingent faculty may actually have more to do with it, but that’s a blog for another day.) When I teach writing-specific courses or just writing lessons in a literature course, I don’t talk too much about process, except to say that everyone has their own. Do you like outlining? Great, do that. Hate it? Okay, just starting writing whenever you’re ready. This may sound haphazard, but it’s not a great idea to force students into a process they don’t like, just because it might work for you, or because the writing textbook suggests it. But how do we learn best practices? Where can we find practical advice or inspiration? I’m glad you asked, because there’s a new podcast for that!
“The Art of Process with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo” started up on the Maximum Fun podcast network earlier this year, and I was a bit disinterested at first. I thought it sounded like a show in which smart, successful people just talked about how great they were so that I could then feel bad about myself. It’s not that.
Mann and Leo are longtime friends and music legends (especially Aimee Mann, in my personal opinion) and they have a relaxed approach to interviewing artists of all kinds and talking about how they get things done. The conversations are not strictly about success, but about failure and frustration, as well.
The most recent episode with Emily Nussbaum has been really enlightening for me. I sometimes consider myself a writer, so hearing Nussbaum discuss her inability to get a column exactly the way she likes it in less than 3 drafts was heartening. The first interview on the podcast was with Wyatt Cenac, who discussed his process of writing comedy on paper, in longhand, and why that is the most effective way for him to write jokes. Other guests have included Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe, and former speechwriter for Al Gore, Eli Attie. In many ways, these conversations demystify the process of art and creation, which is essentially the mission of the show – to investigate how creative people go about the work of creation. I’ve enjoyed it so far, and I’m hoping to get a bit more inspired with my own writing going forward. For now, though, I’m going to try a writing exercise inspired by something Emily Nussbaum said in her interview.
Nussbaum said she writes columns of 2 lengths at The New Yorker: 1350 words and 1650 words. She also said that 1350 words can really only support 1 – 1.5 ideas, and the 1650 words can handle 2 -3 ideas at most. I think, like her, I tend to get off topic and find new ideas while I am writing that then get stuck in the piece, whether it was part of my original idea or not. That can sometimes work in longer (MUCH longer) academic writing, but as I blog and look toward writing for a more general audience, I think it’s good practice to work on more focused writing with fewer ideas. In fact, Nussbaum, a one-time graduate student in poetry herself, says in the interview that “the way that you write as an academic is a trap, if you want to communicate with people more broadly.” Whew! I felt that deeply.
So I am going to try to make my next few blog posts around 1350 words, and force myself to stick to 1 idea (or 1.5). This already sounds hard, but I think it could be a great, frustrating challenge. And who knows? Maybe I will learn a bit more about my own process – or perhaps a new process will emerge and lead to positive changes in my writing. But first, let’s give it a try.