Step 2

This is going to be my room in about a year. 

Any writer will tell you that the process of writing something involves very little writing. I mean, yeah, eventually you do write things, but that only comes after a lengthy period of nonwriting and moderate to severe emotional anguish. Everybody approaches it differently, but my writing process is something like 2% writing and 98% lying facedown on my bed hating myself and everything I’ve ever thought of. Don’t worry; it’s natural.

The facedown self-loathing step in the process isn’t particularly enjoyable, but it’s the most important. Between Steps One and Three – “Thinking of something you want to write” and “Writing that thing” – is Step Two: “Figure out how you’re going to write what you want to write.” And that’s where the creative sausage really gets made. Step 2 is why there are more people who talk about wanting to be writers than there are writers.

It’s not that Step 2 isn’t fun. Step 2 is fun – eventually. Whenever you figure out how all the moving pieces of some portion of the idea you’re working on are going to fit together in a seamless and elegant way, you feel like the smartest person in the world. At the very least, you feel like you’re making progress. But when you’re struggling to put everything together in your head, you just want to throw in the towel on the whole writing business and go drive a garbage truck for a living instead.*

*With all due respect to the sanitation workers of the world, who I appreciate every time I throw something that has been in my nose into the garbage.

What makes Step 2 especially grueling for me is that even though I’m working, I don’t have anything to show for it. I’m basically just sitting completely still and thinking about stuff – and not just any stuff, but stuff that only exists in my mind. Even though winnowing through all the wrong ways to write something is about the only way to find the right way, it’s hard to feel accomplished doing it because you can’t just look over next to your desk and see a pile of discarded ideas lying there.

Wow, look at all the bad ideas I had today! I don’t know how many more bad ideas I’ll have to have before I get to the good one, but it’s at least nice to know that I’ve had this many so far and I won’t have to have them again.

I’ve tried working around this by outlining ideas on notecards, which is too much work and feels environmentally unfriendly. I also do some outlining in spiral notebooks, but that just makes me feel like I’m writing a manifesto.

For as long as I can remember my preferred method for dealing with Step 2 is just not writing anything – because you can’t be flummoxed by something you’re not thinking about. The fact that I get anything done at all is only because I spend a couple of minutes a day struggling to come up with something before immediately giving up. It’s like emptying the dishwasher by taking one plate out every night. The job will get done, even though it takes about a month longer than it should.

Unfortunately, this option doesn’t really fly at work. My office – by which I mean the four person cubicle of which I am currently the only occupant – has a whiteboard in it, and while jammed up on a video game trailer a couple of weeks ago I decided to start scribbling out threads of ideas on the board, if for no other reason than to look busy if my boss glanced in my direction. And then, miraculously, I raced through Step 2 in record time and was back at my computer writing again.

And I haven’t looked back since. I now spend most of my day at the office pacing back and forth holding a dry erase marker, periodically rushing over to the board and writing fragmented ideas down in squeaky block letters. Not only has made getting through Step 2 a lot easier, it’s also kind of exercise in a really broad sense of the word.

Eager to replicate this success on the homefront, I picked up a whiteboard and easel at Office Depot two weeks ago, and since then I’ve been uncharacteristically focused and productive. Now instead of coming home from work, taking my pants off, and mindlessly surfing the Internet until I fall asleep, I come home, take my pants off, and pace around my room, outlining things on the board as ideas come together. When the board gets full, I take a picture of it on my iPhone, erase the board, and keep going, referring back to the pictures later as I write at my computer.

I realize that writing everything down on a whiteboard, photographing the board, and then more or less transcribing the photographs into my computer is arguably the least efficient way to go about this process, but I can’t argue with the results.
It’s a lot easier to organize my ideas when they’re all staring me down from the same board instead of floating around in my head. Pacing stimulates the imagination. And when all else fails there’s the powerful chemical odor of the dry erase pens to get the creative juices flowing.

But honestly, I think the inefficiency of it is the biggest benefit. Because even though programs like Microsoft Word and FinalDraft make the writing parts of writing considerably easier, they make the non-writing parts a lot harder because they’re on my computer and are thus one click away from the Internet. My gut instinct response the second I run up against a brick wall in my writing is, Maybe checking Facebook and Reddit will help, and even though it never does I still try it every time.

My white board doesn’t have the Internet. It’s merely a blank surface where all of my bad ideas can exist just long enough for me to feel productive for having had them before wiping them away as if I’d never come up with something that stupid.

Truman Capps briefly gave some thought to painting his room with the paint that turns walls into dry erase boards, but realized that would probably make women even less likely to come in here.