Writing as . . . Composting?

Colorful tulips blooming in a field.

I write about the weather often because I live in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Extremes. 2019 has been full of them. February’s –30-degree temperatures (without windchill) burst pipes in a building on the college campus where I teach, requiring classes to be moved out of the building for an entire semester. In May, five inches of rain fell on an otherwise ordinary day. 

Minnesotans consider spring sacred because it’s relatively moderate. My favorite part is tulips that bloom outside my home’s back door. Their hardiness, beauty, and short-lived presence after long, dark, brutal winters never cease to inspire me. I obsess over them. Once their green leaves push through the soil—and sometimes through the snow—I check on them as if they were pets. When they bloom, I stare at them giddily for a few minutes every time I step outside. When fall comes, I buy and plant additional bulbs because some Minnesota winters kill even the heartiest souls. And because I firmly believe one can never have too many tulips.

Like a tulip, a student essay I graded this spring pushed up through final exams’ black stress and white blanket of papers to present a colorful bud. The student mistyped our textbook’s title, The Composition of Everyday Life, and Microsoft Word autocorrected it as The Composting of Everyday Life

Initially, I sighed with irritation. 

Then I giggled, amused.

But when I stopped to think about the phrase, I fell in love with it. 

Composting everyday life seems like a perfect definition of writing. Creative nonfiction, especially, requires cutting through experience to find its most colorful or flavorful elements. Reflecting on and working with those parts to create something worth consuming. Revising to eliminate waste. Celebrating the fruits of my labor. Allowing the waste and myself to rest. Using the waste to prepare the soil for future projects. 

For me, the hardest part of writing is eliminating waste—better known among writers as killing my darlings. I’m a teacher, so I overexplain everything in early drafts. Cutting passages I labored over hurts, but it’s less painful when I think of it as composting instead of throwing away. That mindset was especially helpful recently, as I wrote a book proposal. 

I’ll be honest: Creating a proposal was among the hardest and grossest things I’ve had to write, and that includes my Ph.D. dissertation. Aside from the strict format and application of phrases like “poignant but inspiring” to my writing voice (eeeww!), I resented putting so much work into something I might never need. There is no consensus among agents or publishers about pitching memoir. It’s narrative, so some want it pitched like fiction, which doesn’t require a proposal. But it’s nonfiction, so some want it pitched like a how-to or research-based book, which does require a proposal. Most don’t specify, leaving the writer to make her best guess. And forget about consensus as to what belongs in a memoir proposal. One thing all agree on, however, is the need for a chapter outline, and that was the toughest part to write. I had to summarize each chapter of a book I’d revised over and over to add layers of complexity and subtlety (I hope!) by boiling it down to one typed line per page. 

While painful, the outlining exercise proved (I grudgingly admit) informative. I began to see my book’s potential in new ways, to question links among themes that had previously seemed as obvious as rotting vegetables, and to identify weeds I’d thought were flowers. It made me want to revise my entire manuscript again (while also laughing with hysterical madness at the very idea). The proposal and the additional revision it inspired seemed like wasted time and effort, but in truth, it was composting: revisiting early drafts and remixing the book’s ideas to create a layer of nutrients that would feed the final draft’s blossoms. Composting makes the process feel more like pruning to make the bloom healthier than throwing away something nature and I worked hard to grow. So I cut, mix, rest, and then sift the draft, letting “dead” passages fall away, perhaps to feed future projects. If nothing else, the process creates improved writing skills.

I can’t say that revising will ever be as fun as watching Netflix or riding horses, but it’s certainly less malodorous when I think of it as composting rather than trashing.

Image by 1195798 from Pixabay

5 Ways to Get Words on the Page

a keyboard with the word "create" on one of the keysSometimes putting words on the page feels impossible. Like “I’m going to make out with Chris Pine” impossible. No idea why a kick in the ass is necessary, but the sad truth is, for some reason I need to get psyched up to do something I love doing. Despite this mysterious quirk, I try to employ a few techniques to get my fingers rolling:

  1. Outline, outline, outline. One of the most difficult things to overcome is the feeling that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but no dice. So I write a basic outline. Then I flesh it out a bit. Then I write a treatment (similar to a movie treatment) where I write it as a sort of story: Mike goes to the dentist and finds out he needs a root canal, but doesn’t have the money to pay for it. He argues with the dentist and they fight until the dentist knocks his tooth out anyway…. You get the idea. Then I know what I’m going to be writing, and the story is just needing the magic of the right words. I won’t be facing the page wondering what to write about, since I already have that figured out.
  1. Only write things that I am passionate about. If I don’t find myself working story problems out while driving to work in the morning, or staying up late thinking of the story line, this probably isn’t the project for me. I have to eat, sleep and breathe it. Writing is fucking hard. Writing a story that I only kinda sorta think is fun is not going to make it easier. And that obsession is what gets me to the computer every time.
  1. Don’t make a big deal out of it. My writing that is. They’re just words, after all. I love to pretend I’m being profound, but yes, even my words are just words. The world isn’t going to change, whether everyone or no one reads my work. So I grow a pair and go ahead and have the courage to write something, even if it doesn’t live up to my standards in the end. It’s not time wasted, it’s experience earned.
  1. Start small. It’s great to have goals like “I will write a novel.” Great. Wonderful. But then I sit down at my laptop and think “Fuck, a novel? That’s like, 100,000 words!” So I just start with something like, I’m going to write 500 words. Or I’m going to finish this chapter. There was a time when things got really tough for me. I was about two-thirds of the way through my first novel, and it just felt like it was impossible. Like, “I’m gonna hook up with Live Schreiber” impossible. I was never going to finish, it was too hard, I was a failure. Sure, I wallowed in bourbon and self-pity for a while, and then I got over it. I made my goals smaller. Write one paragraph. Still too difficult. Write one sentence. Most days that worked, but some days, I had to tell myself to just write one word. I can write one word. One. Shitty. Word. And I did. But the truth is, it was just getting to the computer with the attitude of “I can”. I never ended up writing just one word. Because one word leads to another and another, and that one word led me to write closer to 1000, and I eventually finished the book. One word at a time.
  1. I got a productivity app to help. I have tried a few, and the one I really have found success with is Productivity Challenge. You put your projects in, then start working. It times your work sessions, and it also tracks your work sessions so you can see what your work habits are on a larger scale. I tend to work more on the weekends, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But what is surprising is how much the time adds up, even during the week when I may only get one session in per day (if I’m lucky). It’s also got some obnoxious bells to remind me to work, but I need that. Lastly, it ranks me (not against others, but against myself). Right now I’m a “Persistent Slacker”, but hopefully with some more work sessions under my belt, I’ll move up. I’m motivated by spite, and when someone calls me a slacker, it lights a fire. Feedback loops don’t work for everyone, but they work for me.

One day, maybe I’ll find that magic bullet that will make words just appear on the page without having to put forth an effort, but until then, I’ll use these regular bullets instead.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3026190/