Monday, December 10, 2018

Camille Acker on an Individualistic Writing Process

In the 31st in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Camille Acker, author of Training School for Negro Girls (Feminist Press), looks for but doesn't find a writing formula.

As a younger writer, I wanted to be given the secret formula for writing a book. I would go to talks of some of my favorite writers to hear how they did it, ready to take notes so I would remember how I could do exactly what they did.

One favorite writer said he got up every day at 5 a.m. to write and didn’t leave the chair until late afternoon. I tried early rising a few weekend mornings, until a couple of weeks in, I turned off the alarm and never turned it back on. Another favorite writer worked at a full-time job and stayed after work hours to craft stories. I tried staying later than even the cleaning crew at my corporate office job until I could no longer bear to be at trapped in my cubicle for 12 hours.

I felt ashamed of my writing habits. I must be lazy if I couldn’t sustain the early morning writing. I must not really want to be a writer if I couldn’t make the sacrifice of staying a few late nights at my job. I berated and bullied myself for years.

Then, I went to workshops and grad school where I began to find my true voice, telling stories set in my hometown about the diversity of the black female experience. I weaved in 1980s and 1990s popular culture, wrote in the wry and wise voices I heard from the women in my family and made no apologies for reckoning with race, class, and gender in the everyday lives of my characters.

Just as I came to embrace the individuality of my perspective, I began to accept the individuality of my writing practice. I realized that everyone pursues their craft differently and that the only thing I need have in common with the next writer—even the writer I greatly admire—is that we both kept writing.

I used to envy friends who were lawyers or in finance who knew that A Higher Degree + Years of Work = Success and Money. Creative careers follow no formula and neither do daily practices to produce creative work. We want so much to be given a game plan, a step by step, “Ten Easy Steps for Becoming A Writer.” The work challenged me enough, why wasn’t there a way to make the process easier?

Excavation: Digging deeper
But when we write, we are excavating, digging deeper into the way we experience the world, are other matters entirely. I learned to be open to even the fallow places in my practice when the words would not come and my characters were tenacious in remaining one-dimensional. I learned to allow the rhythms of my writing time to vary rather than laboring to match the movements someone else makes in their writing life, to twist my creative self into unnatural postures.
chipping away at our curiosities, and mining personal, familial, or cultural pain. Our tools for the excavation are the same: time, persistence, courage, and an open mind. How the dig will go and how primed the ground is for it

That doesn’t mean the work is easy. When I reach the midpoint of a story or the scene in the novel that must be written but I'm not quite sure how to write it, forcing myself to stay put can yield a breakthrough. I know that if I work past the thirty-minute mark in a writing session, I’m likely to discover a way into the story that I hadn't imagined when I sat down.

I’ve added to my creative toolbox over the years. Sometimes jazz fuels my writing sessions and other times, punk is what I need. Occasionally, I chant to myself as I write or type at the top of the screen No one else is reading this in order to get past the imaginary criticism I can hear in my head before I even hear the voices of my characters. I have a home office but sometimes the only way I can see my way through the writing is at a cafe surrounded by other people pecking away at their laptops.

I discovered no secret formula, but the closest I’ve found is to be gentle with yourself and to be the writer you are.