method writing

About a month ago, I gave my first book reading in an oddly-lit room at an otherwise gorgeous public library. It was, I hope, the first in a series of readings from said book, a book from which I finally feel a healthy sense of distance.

What I mean by that is this: there was a time when I had a hard time separating my imaginary friends (my characters) from my everyday life. I don’t mean that in a pathological way—of course I could separate reality from fiction, at least as much as anyone can—but I was consumed. Obsessed. I used to joke that I followed Stanislavski’s method, only I’m no actor; I’m a writer, and it turns out that method writing is great for the writing but less great for living.

Until graduate school, I was a voracious reader, and then I became a voracious writer, and then I got hired to teach writing at a major Midwestern university, and now I occupy some weird, liminal space, occupying a shadow somewhere between “writing professor” (my day job) and “writer” (my night job) and “reader” (something that my day and night jobs preclude, because sleep is necessary for normal functioning).

I do other stuff, too. I’m kind of a fitness junkie, and I love, in no particular order, food and wine and yoga and television, and my partner and I do things such as playing euchre with other people (wine) on the weekends and attending rock and roll shows (wine) and planning vacations (wine) that, if we’re lucky, we can afford to take. Method writing doesn’t lend itself to this; method writing must be something I did once but don’t do anymore.

I think my point is this: method writing got me to a first draft of a novel in less than three weeks. For the next three years, I revised that novel what felt like a million times, and now I’m in the final revision stage: I’m working with an editor who is going to publish my book. Editor, who deserves her own blog post, is fundamentally a teacher, and I find myself internalizing all kinds of stuff that’s going to make finishing the draft of book two both easier and harder.

It’ll be easier because I know my characters so much better, now that I’ve spent time away from them and returned to them with a sort of cold calculation that I didn’t imagine was possible, way back when. It’ll be easier because internalizing Editor’s voice is making me a better writer and a better teacher of writing, and I already see the fruits of that labor.

It’ll be harder because, ultimately, writing a draft is an uncontrolled experiment. It’s like playing with a chemistry set in a dark basement—it’s both exhilarating and terrifying, and too many internalized voices beget self-doubt and existential angst. It’s best to just let it happen and fix it later. If you want another metaphor, it’s like cleaning that same basement, assuming that the basement is a hot mess. One must make a bigger mess before one can put things in their right places. 

I should take my own advice, which I stole from Ann Lamott and dispense to other writers like it’s Pez candy. Just get the first draft out of your head and onto the page, and then you can make magic happen in revision.

Maybe, this time, I can do that without going bonkers. Time will tell. This summer is all about drafting book two. 

Here’s a Radiohead song that lends itself well to 1) this blog post, and 2) my general mood. Everything in its right place, dudes.

Published by kbirdsall

I write fiction, short essays, and the occasional academic article. I teach writing at a large university somewhere in the Midwest.

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