The Writing Process – Get To Know Your Own

By Bruce Holbert


I am more than a little hesitant when someone bitten by the bug asks for advice about writing.  Having myself read several books and articles on the craft/art/process that, though well-meaning, strike me, as often as not either semi-vapid generalizations anyone with a tertiary knowledge of the craft would have either already gathered or intuited from his or her own reading or simply wrong-headed for anyone other than the person composing the piece or those whose gears turned in a very similar direction.

But I held the Teaching Writing Fellowship at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and have taught high school for 25 odd years before or since and have maintained a group of friends who look to me for critical input (as I do them).  So I’m either paid or duty-bound to offer such advice.  How to do so without slipping into hypocrisy or sophistry is the trick.

The first piece of advice I can offer has to do with process: get to know your own.  Elizabeth McCracken (In the Giant’s House, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination) can write a book in six weeks.  Once she arrives at that point, she shuts the shades, turns off the phone and says goodbye to her husband and kids and disappears into her book.  But her process requires a few years of simmering to get to that stint. Another writer and friend, Max Phillips (Snakebite Sonnet, The Artist’s Wife), makes painstaking outlines and spends weeks on research and then begins to write, but does not do so linearly.  He will hop through the outline to where he feels the most compelled to work and spend his time there.  As for myself, I don’t want much idea of what happens next.  I need the mystery and the faith that goes with writing in such uncertainty.  I want a source of tension and some notion of the people in the scene, but I also want the flexibility to change a character’s gender or sexual preference if it seems to steer the work into a place that will challenge my expectations of the story.

Though these methods appear diverse, they share much.  First, each contains an element of discovery.  Elizabeth simmers not to plan her books but to know their context, their characters, their places, both geographically and historically.  She wants to argue and laugh with them and when she writes, she writes from that acquaintance, though events remain up in the air.  Max needs to have the events laid out in front of him.  His mode of discovery is his character’s subtle response to them.  Chris Offutt, another friend and a fine writer (Kentucky Straight, The Same River Twice, and screenplays for True Blood, ‘Treme) relies on place, the smell and color and sounds and people, especially their intersection with place and their histories in that place.  His sense of discovery comes from the imposition of the reader viewing such a private knowledge of people and place.

Another commonality is a love of sentences: the sounds of them.  Each carves, shuffles, shakes, shapes sentences into a sound that anchors their work.  Max’s language is tight as a drum; Elizabeth’s turns quirky when you least expect it: Chris’s colloquy as sharp and original as Twain.  Sound suits process, as well; they can’t be separated; it is speaking the language of one’s perspective.

Finally, one should write often, every day, if possible.  Inspiration is a cold and bitter mistress and must be coaxed and seduced into showing herself.  Elizabeth, who takes years to get to her novelistic bursts, is constantly writing stories, articles, reviews and commentaries to keep her language sharp.  Max keeps a journal.  Chris is always in the middle of a screenplay, stories, a novel and various articles.  As for myself, I am a fan of Hemingway’s advice, which strikes me as the best if only because it is the most unassuming: write one good sentence.  Even if teaching and coaching my kids and the daily lifting of one’s burden and carrying it throughout the day exhausts me, I try to write one good sentence.  And then another.

Bruce Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the University of Eastern Washington. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Other Voices, The Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, The West Wind Review, and Cairn. His recently published western novel, Lonesome Animals, has been praised as “a brilliant debut” by The Seattle Times and Publishers Weekly called Holbert “a master storyteller of formidable skill.” To learn more about Bruce Holbert, visit: