Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Organization of Rabbit Trails

I think in rabbit trails. I’m told that I talk that way as well, but I can’t help it. I start talking about a topic and something is said that spurs another topic and I’m off on a tangent. Eventually I do get back to the original conversation and finish it up. I just usually take the scenic route as opposed to the expressway. It’s how my mind works.

Because of my rabbit trail aversion, writing became a tad frustrating at times. I’d start on one piece and before long another concept was triggered and I’d begin writing that one and then another idea would spark my interest and I would switch to that one and then another… Well, you get the idea. I had several partially completed essays scattered all over the house, van, work, etc. To make it worse, I have a habit of carrying all of my projects with me wherever I go because I never know what I’m going to feel like working on. This makes even a trip to the store a weighty affair and one arm is now thicker than the other. Of course, the girls won’t classify this as my daily workout, so I’m still forced to go to the gym.

In order to succeed and be productive I had to harness those rabbits without closing the trails. In other words, I had to organize my chaos. This worked out good for me because it meant I was able to purchase more writing supplies and gadgets, which some believe is my fetish.

It started with a little black book. No, I don’t mean that kind of a black book. I keep those numbers hidden in my phone. No, if you read my blog post, They Say I’m Quirky, a couple of years ago, then you may recall that I carry a little leather notebook and pen with me wherever I go; out dancing, to a friend’s, on the toilet, in the shower, on the headboard during sex…again, you get the idea. This notebook is my catch-all. Every idea that flutters its way through my scattered brain is dumped haphazardly into the notebook, whether it’s a few words, a couple of phrases, or a description of something. I write down whatever I need to so that I do not lose the gist of what I later want to create. Sometimes I go overboard on this because far too many times I have looked back on what I had written and said something along the lines, “What the hell did I write down chopsticks and purple Speedos?” I’m sure at one time that made perfect sense. Furthermore, there is no semblance of order to these little notebooks; they’re not arranged by category or even separated between fiction and non-fiction. I simply get a thought that piques my interest; open my handy dandy little black book to a blank spot and put what I can down for later perusal. I’ve been known to stop dead in my tracks while we were out somewhere just to get a fleeting thought down before it fades. It’s a wonder I haven’t been trampled yet!

When I get caught up on the several projects I have going at once, I can thumb through the notebook; pick two or three or four ideas that spark my interest. Once the selections have been made the ideas then get transitioned into my brain. I know you’re thinking that they started in my brain and that this is a wasted trip since I already admitted that my brain loses things, but I’m not talking about the gray matter under my gray hair. I’m referring to an even bigger black book. This one is my day planner and organizer that has all the information in it that I need, but can never remember, such as my address and phone number. In it there is a section I have dubbed “In Progress” because I couldn’t come up with anything wittier to call it. Within this section I outline the idea that I pulled from the first black book, making sure I get down all the points I want to cover as well as any research I have stumbled upon or anecdotes that, at the time, seemed to fit.

Sometimes ideas just need to germinate. While some essays flow fairly easy and are quick to hit the revisions phase, others require a longer incubation period. When I’m trying to write about a memory it may take longer for my mind to recall anything that’s back there in order to bring it forward and on paper. It could also just be a piece that has me wrestling with the wording. Either way, whether quick and easy or drawn out, the writing has to sit and simmer, and the first stage of the simmering process for me is my brain. I can revisit the page adding thoughts and taking away as the concept finishes formulating in my head.

Once I’m satisfied with the outline or have grown sufficiently impatient with this step of the process, I expand my ideas onto index cards. I believe I developed the idea from David Sedaris in one of his essays, and I’m not sure if he uses them or just mentioned them. Still, whatever I read gave me the idea and I snatched it up. It’s this phase where my rabbit trails are truly free because I only write enough to flesh out a thought or an anecdote and not worry about where it fits into the grand scheme of the piece. Furthermore, I can work several thoughts as well as essays at a time, so it doesn’t matter what tangent I’m following at the time; I just allow the words to go where they want. I can take a break from one writing and work a paragraph or two of another without losing anything of either. Every rabbit trail is captured without the rabbit ever escaping.

Like my little black book, these groups of cards go everywhere with me as I’m always rereading them and expanding the thought. I shuffle them, rearranging them until they seem to flow naturally from one thought to the next, looking for any holes in the story. Once I have it thought out as much as possible it’s time to write it all out in order as a first draft. However, with the outline and the index cards this part of the writing is more like a third draft where I’m merely adding the transitions between index cards.

Once I have the essay written in one complete, flowing draft, I’ll read through it a couple of times out loud making sure it sounds as it should, working out whatever kinks pop up. This is where my vast collection of Post-it Notes comes in handy as I use them to fill in additional thoughts. From there it finally gets typed.

This is the part I hate the most. It’s better with a laptop, but I dread sitting at the desk, trapped inside pecking at a cold keyboard. I took typing in ninth grade, or maybe it was eighth. I can’t remember. What I do remember is that I sucked at it. I haven’t gotten any better in thirty years and my bad back screams after I’ve hacked out a measly five hundred words. I also hate being stuck indoors. The distraction of things around me helps me forget that I’m typing, so I prefer being on the porch or at a coffee shop. Still, I do get the typing in and it’s ready for more revision, which I do on paper as well only this time it’s printed.

When I believe I have what I want how I want it the piece finally goes to my three favorite editors, the girls. It’s important to me to have people I trust to help with the editing; people who won’t sugar coat it and praise me when it really is several pages of printed crap; people who aren’t afraid of hurting my feelings. Enter the girls.

While many of their likes and dislikes are the same, they each read things differently. This is proven by sending each of them the same text and getting three separate responses, but that’s another essay for another time; perhaps Halloween. Still, each one will read it and catch a different twist of prose that may trip up my readers. I know that if it gets past all three of them then it is in decent shape. And, trust me, they are not afraid of hurting my feelings.

With the final polish it is time to find the piece a home, whether it’s my blog, a magazine, or possible inclusion in a collection. My writing is never perfect. No one’s is, but sooner or later, like kicking children out of the nest before I reach retirement, the writing has to be sent out into the world. That doesn’t mean I won’t revisit it later and see about some extra polish, but eventually it has to leave the revision stage.

This is how all of my rabbit trails become smooth traverseable paths that, hopefully, my readers will enjoy having traveled. Some may feel it’s a lot of steps, but whatever helps me bring order out of the mess that is me is what matters, and for now this is it. Of course, that may change next month and then I’ll need an idea for all of those index cards I bought on sale. Any suggestions?

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