Non-linear writing

While I was drafting this post, my son peered over my shoulder, and said, “Mom, TL:DR: too long; didn’t read.” Haha. OK, here is the TL:DR version. My writing process is messy and scattered. Nonlinear. How’s yours?

Last week I began drafting a sermon I’ll give at Ginter Park Presbyterian on August 28th when our pastor is on vacation. I’ve never preached before. The text is Exodus 3—Moses and the burning bush—a story as ancient as it is rich. A fire that burns without consuming. The removal of shoes on holy ground. The plea, “Who am I that I should go…?” The promise, “I will be with you.” The name, “I am who I am.”

A wonderful text. But so many possibilities! My notes are all over the place. My process in writing this sermon reminds me of my struggle to write a critical thesis when I was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor that semester, Uma Krishnaswami, author of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, read the first draft of my thesis and said, in so many words: Anne, which point do you want to make here? Do you want to explore X (she articulated one of my concepts), or are you arguing for Y (and she floated another), or do you want to focus on Z (a third thread that I’d inserted). Anne—this is a master’s thesis, not a PhD dissertation. Rein it in!

And I did. My thesis even won an award. But I didn’t learn a better way to approach my writing. What I’ve learned (thank you, Uma) is that my process includes scattered thinking. Brainstorming. Nonlinear processing. For better or worse, it is what it is. I can despair, or I can accept it.

Whether I’m writing an essay, a sermon or a novel, in the early stages, my writing is all over the place. In fiction, new characters pop up, as do unnecessary scenes and random threads. Somewhere in the mess is a theme, a desire line, a plot begging for structure—and in the first draft, I’d be hard pressed to identify any of them. Only in the revision stage does my writing find its form.

I used to think that I couldn’t be a writer because it wasn’t easy for me to sit down and write a coherent piece. Now I know that I need the incoherent stage—that it’s part of my process. Later, I revise. What’s your writing process like?

2 thoughts on “Non-linear writing”

  1. Fat and fast, that’s how I’d describe my writing process. There’s usually a lot of trimming involved later. And Anne, while I’m also usually nonlinear, I’m trying out plotting before I begin my most recent venture. I’m finding that I’m chomping at the bit to get at the page, but making myself wait until I know what’s going to happen and my major threads. While I know all this may change once I put pen to paper, I hope that the planning will help me direct my creative energy in fruitful directions. Here’s hoping we both end up in good places in The End, and best of luck on the sermon. I’d love an audio of it!

  2. “Fat and fast” – that’s great. Reminds me of Kathi Appelt’s advice to “write like your fingers are on fire!” I’ve never been able to plot, but sometimes I’m able to envision an ending scene, and I draft that scene first. Then I go back and write toward it. Good luck with making yourself plot your next story before writing — and let me know how it goes…

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