When the Lights Turn On: A Writer’s Process

I wrote my first short story when I was six-years-old about a little family of hearts called, of all things, The Sweethearts Family. I drew all the pictures myself using scented markers on different colored construction paper, because I was serious about this, guys – no janky-ass, plain white filler paper or, pffft regular set of magic markers were gonna cut it for that project, son! I gave each member of my beloved Sweethearts a name and some kind of profession, which for the parents were something like “cooker” and “dish-washer,” while the kids were, “drawer,” and “sports.”

I overcame my fear of staplers (briefly – it had its second-wind a few years later) for the express purpose of piecing those pages together with precision, and took it with me to school the next day for Show and Tell. I sat in front of a semi-circle of my peers and read every page with pride. They probably didn’t give two shits what the hell I was saying, but from then on I was hooked.

My next venture became a romantic saga of a book series based on the life I imagined for older me (I didn’t even have shame enough to disguise myself with a different name) in which I was the long-time college girlfriend of Josh Hartnett, who later moved away, never to be seen again until much later in the series, when we were both decades older and I was already married to that guy from Alias whom no one knows now, Michael Vartan. It was tragic, guys. And it took up five three-inch binders filled to the brim with over 400 pages worth of self-indulgent fiction.

Writing became my most treasured compulsion – this thing I simply had to do because actions weren’t enough, speech wasn’t enough, and I couldn’t get enough. Of storytelling. Of words and language. And if I’m being honest with myself, I know that being a writer was never something I decided to become; it’s something I was, something I am.

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I’ve always thought of writing as more of a calling than a profession.

I know, I know, that sounds real heavy on the bullshit and is probably something every douche-lord with a beret and a pipe will tell you – but it’s the truth. I’ve always thought of it as something that happened to me first, and now I’m just trying to actively reach the zenith of its potential. I’ve always done it, and more importantly, I’ve always LOVED doing it. It’s so natural, so instinctive, so intrinsic that I don’t even have to think about it, really. I’ve never been fond of writing prompts or exercises, or the type of shit they give you in those “How to Write a Novel!” books in the hopes of second-handedly inspiring you with an idea.

For me, the best writing has always come – as Emma Thompson’s lovably neurotic character in Stranger than Fiction (who’s all-too-similar to yours truly; I might not stand on tables and imagine my characters plummeting to their deaths, but T tells me that I sway back and forth like a stoned pianist whenever I’m at the keyboard writing) put it – “inexplicably and without method.”

I can’t do outlines, and I never seem to have a clear grasp of the plot or exactly what it is I’m trying to say until I’m already halfway into it – and I like it that way. There’s a mysterious quality about writing that I like to honor – the subconscious quality that leaves room for the story to write itself, for nuances to appear in the development of the most unexpected characters.

When people ask, I paraphrase Mary Gaitskill and describe my writing process being a lot like this:

Like I’m in a room with the lights turned off. I am sitting in a chair with a table in front of me and I can’t see a thing – not one shiver of movement, not even the slightest tremor of another object. I reach out my hands and discover that on this table, there are innumerable parts of a larger whole. I feel each of these parts with tentative fingers first, then with the certainty of both palms. I attempt again and again to put these pieces together, and after a considerably long time, maybe I’ve found a few that seem to connect and fit. Time passes with me sitting there in the dark, patient and focused and unrelenting.

And then, suddenly, the lights turn on.

– Jayne

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