My creative process, and other myths
Special to Stars and Stripes September 1, 2023
Sixteen years ago, I had a eureka moment. Military life, overseas tours, deployments and raising three children had rendered my legal career not only stale, but practically impossible. I worried that I’d never earn income again.
However, when a relative commented on how funny my annual Christmas letters were, it came to me in a flash of genius. “I’ll become a writer!” I thought, envisioning myself happily tapping away at our home computer (back then, a behemoth, dust-gathering Dell), earning a tidy second income along with international prestige while the children played in the yard and pot roast simmered in the the oven. Writing was the perfect work-from-home military-spouse career!
I had no clue how to be a writer, much less a paid writer. But ignorance is stupidity masquerading as bliss, so I started immediately, writing humorous commentary from our powder-blue Formica kitchen desk.
It took two years to get columns published. Another year to learn blogging. Two more years to get paid for columns. Three more years to land a decent column contract. And four more years to publish a book.
My plan to become a legitimate writer took more than a decade to implement, and even then, I hardly earned enough money to break even on printer ink.
Throughout this endeavor, friends, family and readers have often asked me, “What’s your creative process?”
They expect me to describe being ensconced in an Irish sweater and vintage Levi’s, sitting before a classic Smith Corona typewriter with a sticky “e,” in a charming shed-turned-writer’s-retreat adorned with flower-filled window boxes, sipping Earl Grey tea while channeling Hemingway, Austen, Dickens and Dostoevsky.
Instead, I admit the reality of my writing process: I’ve scribbled most of my column ideas willy-nilly on crumpled receipts, torn envelopes or my hand while driving to piano lessons or sitting in orthodontists’ offices. I’ve never had a writer’s retreat, or vintage Levi’s that actually fit. When I write, I procrastinate by searching Etsy, watching dumpster-diving hauls on Reels, balancing my checkbook, painting my nails or doing anything else BUT write.
Through writers’ groups, I’ve known other writers who proclaim, “I write, therefore I am.” Or, “I live to write, I write to live.” They portray themselves as artistic scribes, burdened by their gift with words. Their inspirations fuel their innate drive to put pen to paper, else they shrivel and die without their “craft.”
I still have a lot to learn, but one thing I know for certain: Writers who say those things don’t have a weekly deadline.
Don’t get me wrong; I love writing. No matter how many or how few people read my work, I find great satisfaction in seeing my work in print.
That being said, there are days when I’d rather chew my own arm off than muster the brainpower required to write my column. Writing on a weekly deadline is hard work that hurts. Seriously, I’ve felt actual, physical pain while trying to write.
Occasionally, my friends and family offer to help. “I’ve got your next column!” they’ll say, and bestow their brilliant cultural observations on me like precious gifts. What these well-intentioned people fail to understand is that ideas come easy. But when I’m required to extrapolate an idea out into a well-written piece with a compelling story arc and a logical conclusion before my Thursday deadline, my brain bleeds.
Syndicated humor columnist Erma Bombeck — who wrote three times a week for 31 years, the last written five days before her death — referred to her creative process as “giving birth to 450 words.” Other than there being no stitches, stretch marks, sagging breasts or 18 years of parental responsibilities involved, Erma’s description is spot-on.
Just as a person who touches a hot oven will flinch, my brain recoils from deadline writing, and steers my subconscious toward soothingly menial tasks like cleaning the dryer lint trap. It’s simple human nature.
It took me 16 years to learn how to write columns each week. I have no lofty creative process. It’s real work, and it hurts. But when the task is done, and the blood is all mopped up, the feeling of accomplishment makes it worth the pain.
Read more at themeatandpotatoesoflife.com and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org