The Art of Prewriting

I majored in English literature in college because I wanted to be a writer.  I thought it would be the best way to learn how to write well.  It wasn't, but I did learn one particularly useful thing about writing and creativity at my university: the art of prewriting.  

One of the required classes for my degree was Victorian literature.  It was taught by a vivacious woman with a sparkling sense of humor and a double PhD in Victorian Lit and Women's Studies.  She lectured for both departments; we were lucky to have her for a core class rather than an upper-level elective.  I don't think we ever had a dull lecture for the entirety of the term.  Like most of my professors, she assigned a term paper at the beginning of the quarter.

In the second or third week of the quarter, she addressed the class before starting her usual lecture.  She asked us an odd and terrifying question: had we started writing our final essays yet?  

She was met with silence.  It was quite obvious that none of us had done such a thing.  But what was she thinking?  That we were only enrolled in her course, rather than three others at the same time?  That we had the luxury of starting a paper due at the end of the term in the third week, just because she had given out the requirements for it during the first lecture?  I would wager that all of the essays would be started the week they were due; most would be written the night before.  It was the reality of being a college student.  There was never enough time.  

She smiled as the discomfort grew.  We really should have started our prewriting by now, she said.  

Prewriting?  What was that?  

Her smile widened; she knew she had us hooked now.  

"Oh, you know. Prewriting.  It's a necessary and important part of the writing process.  It's that point where you have a free moment, and you realize that you really must refold your socks or wash the dishes that your roommates left in the sink at the start of the quarter--basically anything besides work on your essay, because you haven't the faintest idea what to write about."  

That drew a few laughs from the classroom, and a collective exhalation as most of us realized we'd been holding our breath.  The sense of relaxation in the air was palpable.  Yes, we'd all done that.  

She smiled again, this time a knowing smile at our reaction, and wished us clean and tidy houses while we worked on our prewriting, before launching into the lecture.  

Of course, prewriting isn't only relevant to college students.  I think it affects any type of creative work--it certainly seems to plague most creative people.  My best friend Dado went to see Rachel Maddow talk about her writing process during her book tour.  Apparently while working on her PhD, Maddow would alternate writing and research days.  Research days were always easy for her, but whenever it came to a writing day, she would realize that it had been quite a long time since she'd done a deep cleaning of her sock drawer . . . Dado wanted to tell her that it was alright--she was just prewriting. 

And it's not just Rachel Maddow.  Orson Scott Card has an infamous pinball machine he plays when he's supposed to be writing.  My bandmate, Warrior Bob, goes on long walks whenever he gets stuck on his music compositions.  

It always surprises me how much time it takes to write—and how much of that time is actually spent thinking, rather than typing.

Once I started working on my own writing, I noticed myself prewriting again and again.  It always surprises me how much time it takes to write--and how much of that time is actually spent thinking, rather than typing.  I noticed that I would often get stuck when I wrote regularly, rather than if I wrote just when "inspiration hit.”  At first I attributed it to the dreaded curse of writer's block.  When I caught myself alphabetizing my spice rack rather than writing, I would blame procrastination.

But sometimes you have to give your brain time to come up with a solution.  Sometimes that process involves alphabetizing your spice rack, or watching an entire season of a bad soap opera in one sitting.  The question you have to ask yourself is this: am I prewriting, or am I just procrastinating? If you're prewriting, then you're doing some of the hardest work that you'll ever do: you're thinking.  You're letting your subconscious mull over the problem.  

A few words of caution: this is all dependent on the fact that you truly don't know the solution, and are not just procrastinating. If you're avoiding doing work, then the best and only thing to do is to put your ass in a chair and write.  Don't let prewriting become an excuse to not actually write.  It's up to you to keep yourself honest on this, and it can be difficult to both allow yourself to prewrite while strictly guarding against procrastination.  I've noticed that it can also be difficult to switch from prewriting back to a working flow state, so be especially vigilant during transition periods.

I've been prewriting the list of scenes for a novel for five days now.  I've spent the last week catching up on emails, cleaning, and watching bad tv (but I'll never tell what--*cough*--Vampire Diaries).  I've been doing basically anything that will keep my hands busy while giving my brain time to think.  I've even written a blog post about the process--very meta, no?  There's a few things I've realized in the meantime, while my brain was hard at work.  

First, writing isn't just typing, and you shouldn't feel guilty about the time spent on the thinking part of the process.  It does no good to vilify it and call it writer's block (see, doesn't it just sound better to say "I'm prewriting" rather than "I'm stuck?").  

Second, sometimes you're working hard, even if it doesn't look like it or you don't have anything to show for it.  You cannot always be making something.  Watching soap operas really can be you hard at work.   

Sometimes, you have to prewrite.  It's just a necessary part of the creative process.  So if you're stuck, go out and clean your sock drawers, play that video game, or pull those weeds.  Let the well of your creativity recharge and fill up again.  Take that next step on your creative project.  I wish you all clean and tidy houses.