Non Linear Writing: Undoing Doogie

The older and more brain-conscious I get, the more I feel that non-linear writing is helpful to my ADHD brain.  Trying to fit my writing process into boxes that someone else created finally ended when I learned to blog. I’ve learned to write my prose piecemeal and fit the parts together later, sort of a collage approach that I’ve been using in poetry for awhile. (Poets have the advantage of being able to work in smaller chunks at the outset.)

Good prose writers create “flow” on the page where one sentence and one idea leads naturally and inevitably to the next.  Having read on the order of 50,000 student papers in my career and churned out a few words of my own, I know that’s not an easy state to achieve.  “Flow” is one of those ideas about writing that is important hard to point to exactly in a piece of writing.

Novice writers usually know two things about flow; it’s good and they don’t have it.  They’ve been told a million times: improve flow.  Us writing teachers sometimes joke over beers about the things we write on papers when we get tired of grading papers:  awkward phrasing, use a stronger main idea, use more detail, use a more logical organization, improve the flow.  (That’s why I started grading papers during conferences; students rightly want to know how to do these things.)

Flow is an illusion, though, a parlor trick that good writers perform which inspires the Doogie Howser theory of writing process.  At the end of every episode of Doogie Howser, M.D., young Dr. Howser would sit at his computer and write in his journal accompanied by melancholy theme music.  He’d turn out perfectly pithy observations of that episode’s events without so much as a typo.  And because good writing seems as though it is produced that way when you are reading it, when it doesn’t happen, a novice writer gets frustrated. When perfectly crafted sentences do not immediately spring forth, they think something’s wrong.

The Doogie Howser theory of writing process is engendered when teachers present writing process in a simplistic way, in any way that suggests the paragraphs are written in the order that they will appear in the final version.

When students in my business and technical writing classes write workplace-style reports, they get hung up on the introduction.  The introduction contains statements of scope and limitations, among other things.  The thing is, you can’t write those statements until you’ve written the report.  You don’t know the precise scope of the report or until it’s at least in a fully rendered draft.

For most students, writing the introduction as a later assignment from the body of the report solves the issue.  But some students have a real hangup about writing any sort of narrative without an introduction. It runs so counter to their instincts and experience that it is nearly impossible.  (I tell them to write a placeholder introduction to delete later. Also a problem for some writers, though subject for another time.) The idea that you write the introduction last, even though it’s the first thing the reader reads, is utterly foreign.

The best advice I got in graduate school was “research is messy.”  Conducting and writing research is supposed to have false starts, backtracking, more material than you can use, etc. That’s not apparent if you only read finished research. I did not learn this lesson when I learned to do research writing in high school and college.

process writing

In high school, I learned to write research this way: we brainstormed a topic, gathered research, wrote a thesis statement, used note cards to organize our research, wrote an outline, then wrote a paper.  These are all things that make sense, but I experienced them in a lockstep fashion. There was no backtracking.

The fatal flaw with this method: the thesis statement is locked in before the research is done.  This is ass-backwards.  I am bemused by college writers who write research proposals for my class that offer the solution to the problem they are planning to research before they have done any actual research.  That kind of research is what political campaigns do.  It’s justification for existing positions.  It’s crap.

I just finished writing an essay (of the memoir variety) about an experience I had backpacking in 1994.  I went out on my first solo trip in Nordhouse Dunes on Lake Michigan and got swarmed with blackflies on the first day and nearly passed out racing back to my tent.  The incident is more of an anecdote, but I thought there was an essay there about expectation and reality.  I had considered becoming a nature writer before that trip, for example, and soon after abandoned that idea. (Though writing an essay about a bad encounter with nature is still technically nature writing, but I digress.)

I had been trying to write about this experience on and off since.  A few poem drafts and a couple of prose pieces have been lingering in my files for nearly twenty years now.  I have a reasonably good poem, I think, and I read it at a local event recently that got me to thinking about trying an essay again.

For the past couple years, I’ve used Scrivener to write. You can go look at it online to see all the features, but the key feature for me is that you can write in chunks and then manage those chunks easily.  In Scrivener, one main file is called a project. To that you add folders and documents and it has several choices for the interface of looking at your work.  It has loads of features for managing the work: tags, status labels, a research database, statistics, color coding, notes.  Far more features than I can use.

Scrivener makes it easy to work on a narrative in piecemeal fashion and then move the pieces around.  When I tried to write essays on the blackfly thing before, I got bogged down with chronology: I started the story at the beginning and worked my way up to the climax of the swarm incident and tried to end (unironically) with a Doogie Howser moment.

This time, I told the story in the first couple paragraphs and then thought about different ways to think about the event.  In fact, the essay is more about different ways I’ve thought about the experience through time as I understand more about myself (or different ways of thinking about myself).

Composing it was fun.  I created a different Scrivener document for each idea I had and banged away. I then read through the results and moved the documents around until I had an order that worked for me. I compiled it and printed it out and then read through to think about transitions.  (Another great feature of Scrivener is that you can quickly export a bunch of its documents to a single Word document. [And no, I am not a paid endorser for Scrivener, but I am saying Scrivener a lot.  Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener.  What a a strange word.])

After a couple re-orders, I went back and smoothed out the jumps between my original sections.  Working on those transitions triggered a couple new ideas and made some other ideas seem irrelevant, so I added and deleted.  After a couple more times through with smoothing and changing and I had finally arrived at a good insight to end with, which made the whole piece cling together, so more work on ordering, transitions and refining happened.

The whole way through I was working on editing language and proofreading, but I did a couple more editing and proofreading passes and then submitted it to a literary journal for publication.  That last step is a breakthrough for me.  My very slow writing career in terms of actual publication is due to this lack of finishing projects.  (A recent change in my meds has made it much easier; the ADHD brain likes all the ideas and possibilities, but you need Mr. Executive Function in order to do anything productive with said ideas and possibilities.)

The end result is an essay about the blackfly thing that has a clear flow and builds up to a final statement.  You would never know that I didn’t set out to achieve the ending by reading it now. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Blogging is similar.  I have a Scrivener project for my blog and I keep a folder of drafts, and bang away here and there at this and that and move around ideas until something feels finished enough to edit and post.  But not always.  “The Umbrella Story” occurred to me as a nearly complete idea and I churned that out in an hour or so during lunch.

I have no idea if this is true, but once someone told me that the novelist Thomas Wolfe used to sit on top of his refrigerator and scrawl out his writing on legal pads and toss the pages onto the kitchen floor and his editor would pick up the pieces and make something out of it. Though I have no editor at present, a more controlled version of this process seems to work for me.  I’m both the refrigerator sitter and the cleaner-upper.

Doogie Howser, M.D.


I’ve had a bit of the doldrums lately.  I’ve got lots of work to do, lots of work that I need to make progress on, and I’ve had enormous difficulty getting started.  I read an apt description of my current state of mind in an essay by Tracy Kidder called “Courting the Approval of the Dead.”  He’s recalling his experience researching for Old Friends, his book on nursing homes, and coming to the realization that a fate worse than a painful death would be to spend one’s final days “bored and inert”:

What  meaning could life have, I’d find myself wondering, if the best of the last things people get to do on earth is play Bingo?

I’m certainly far removed from nursing-home existence, but “bored and inert” seems to be the curtain that has been drawn over my window recently.

A couple of weeks back, I hurt my back.  Kneeling on the floor putting my son’s shoes on as he readied for the bus to take him to kindergarten, I felt a strange twinge in my back, just above the crest of my pelvis on the left side.  That’s odd, I thought.  I stood up, felt a little pain,  not too much, and sat on the couch with my son.  We played with Talking Larry on my iPod until the bus came.

When I heard the bus rumbling up the hill, Alec stood up and I bent over him to put on his backpack.  I found, though, that I couldn’t straighten to an upright position, so I limped bent over to the door to let him outside.  I told him goodbye, watched him climb the stairs on the bus, and then collapsed to the floor.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up, I thought.

I stayed on the floor a good twenty minutes.  I didn’t feel pain as long as I laid there, but trying to get to a standing position caused deep pain in my lumbar area; if I tensed my hamstring in any way, my back hurt. I used every yoga trick I knew, rolling, using my hands to assist, to eventually get to a standing position.  Standing was fine; walking was the next trick.  Any forward motion of my leg on the left side caused the pain to return, so in a sort of zombie shuffle, dragging my left leg, I made my way to the couch in the family room.

I knew that getting up would be hard after I sat down again, so I made sure to visit the bathroom and then gather my laptop and the phone and TV remote and a glass of water before I sat down.  I put all the items within reach and then carefully sat down and set about the business of cancelling my classes and conferences for the day.

The pain started to subside in a couple of days, and actually moved to my knee and shoulder blades as I compensated for my back.  Today I feel nearly fixed, more of a tightness in the region than anything else.  But this injury interrupted my practices and I am now feeling the results.

I had been riding my bicycle regularly for exercise, going to a yoga class once a week, and holding conferences with my students to keep up with grading papers.  All of those things got disrupted.  I’m not high energy kind of person (unless it’s something I’m really into like a video game) and all the painkillers I took were sapping my reserves.  Even the over-the-counter stuff I take gives me side effects; I couldn’t imagine doing anything prescription.  Needless to say, the bike and yoga class weren’t happening.

Putting things off is nothing new to me.  The things I am putting off today I put off when I felt better and more energetic.  It’s just now they are ganging up on me.  And even the pleasurable things have started to lose their luster.

Like this blog.  I feel like it’s been successful.  I’ve had as many as 65 hits on a single day, and a number of comments and a few subscribers.  In the two months I’ve been working at it, I’ve made 30 posts, and half of those are considerable, more than 1,000 words.  It’s been a fun project, and I feel like at least someone is reading my work, which makes me feel like some kind of writer.  I’ve felt as though I’ve had a couple of really good moments of discovery in my writing as well.

But now my blogging is starting to feel, for lack of a better word, “tainted.”  A project for me gets tainted when some kind of negativity or problem gets attached for it that I can’t seem to resolve.  When I get going on a novel manuscript, everything is new and shiny and exciting, and I really believe that I might finish it this time.  Then I run into some barrier, such as a scene that I am not happy with that I know needs to be different, but I’m not sure how, and then I stall.  After a couple days, I start to lose the thread of the story, and have to backtrack and re-read in order to refresh my memory.  It’s difficult to come back to and the longer I am away from a manuscript, the stupider the whole enterprise seems to me in the first place.  Similarly, I fall in and out of love with my poems.

This ebb and flow is not unusual, from what I’ve read of writers on their own writing.  Tom Perrotta, for example:

I have to send the kids out to daycare and then drink a pot of coffee and play my guitar until I get so disgusted with myself that I have to write.

But the point for him is that eventually he does write, and has experienced success.

Anyway, this blog project became tainted in several ways.  First, I started out way less than serious about blog writing, but now do take it seriously, and am reading my reference books on memoir, and am now starting to apply a higher standard (and more pressure) to myself.  Second, I started out in a David Sedaris writing mode, having just finished reading a couple of his books, but am now rereading The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, and am feeling more serious and less silly about my condition and don’t want to be pegged as a funny writer anymore (at least today).  I often get seduced by what I read in the sense that if it moves me I want to emulate it.  I read a lot of things and can’t decide who I want to be.  I have a hard time saying, “that’s really great writing, but I’m not that kind of writer,” unless it is something extraordinarily erudite.

Finally, and this is the hardest hurdle, is that I feel like I’ve been investing time in this blog at the expense of The Things I’m Supposed To Be Doing, and therefore it is an instrument of avoidance.  That’s the humdinger.  The whole enterprise seems a waste of time, then, a deliberate waste of time, the wost kind.  I developed this kind of Protestant work ethic idea of what a good person ought to be, and though I cannot live up to it, I nevertheless constantly compare myself to it.  Good people are dependent and reliable and productive and hard working, like Boxer in Animal Farm.

“Why are you writing?” you may ask.

I had a good chat with my wife over this state of blah I’m in and mentioned feeling like this blog was a waste of time.  She disagreed.  “If you want to be a writer,” she said, “you have to practice.”  She’s right, as usual.  One makes time for the important work, and finds some way to do the rest.  I am grateful for the insight, and it helped me get started on this post today.

I can almost forgive her for sleeping through my back injury.

Writing’s the Thing

I’ve had this idea, since I was about ten, that I had to find my Thing in life.  I had to find the role that would define me, that I could settle into, that would make my name known to the world.  All through school I had the label “gifted.” I always took advanced classes, read at the top end of the highest reading group, had special classes and groups designed for the gifted and talented.  From age ten on I knew that I had to do something in life, and that I would succeed at that choice, fill my special role in the world.  I just had to choose what my Thing would be.

I thought it might be computers.  Inspired by the TV series Whiz Kids and the movie War Games, when we got our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, I set out to learn everything about programming in BASIC, and eventually write my own computer games.  I bought books and graph paper and came up with lots of ideas (trying to create War Games on the VIC-20, for instance) but it proved too complicated and I gave up.

Commodore VIC-20 Computer with later revision ...

1980's awesomeness!

My mom bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest, so as a thirteen year old I started reading about agents and crafting dialogue and how to research markets.  I read lots of J.R.R. Tolkein and Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and I imagined penning my own novel, how I would appear on the dust jacket photo in my pinstriped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a knit tie loosened at the collar, my hair adorably mussed and overhanging my smart glasses as I posed thoughtfully in front of my trusty typewriter.  But that writing never happened.  I read and read, preparing for the day that the great flow of pages would begin, but it didn’t happen.

So I decided that it was not my Thing, that instead, my Thing was just preparing to go to college while having as many hobbies as possible.  I built models, played keyboards, ran cross-country and track, got serious about bicycling for awhile.  Those were all diversions from the Thing I sort of resigned myself to do: become an electrical engineer.

I don’t know how I decided to be an electrical engineer.  I didn’t really know what they did, even after years of visiting colleges in high school.  My thinking was that they did something with electronics, which seemed cool, and they made a good salary, and you had to be good at science and math, which I was.  It made sense.  My Thing, then was just to get good grades.

But I did really well in my writing classes too.  I even went to a two-week-long summer institute in creative writing.  I kept getting invited to these academic summer camps.  I did one in biology and one in engineering, so I thought I would have a lark and do one in creative writing.  I had a lot of fun, but it didn’t change my life.  I had a vague notion about writing a book once in awhile, but like mullets and acid-washed jeans, that whim passed.

My senior English teacher, Mrs. LaMothe, took special interest in me.  We college-prep kids had a capstone class called Creative Composition.  Our special honor was that we could bring pop and snacks to class to help our process.  Some of us actually got to write on a computer!  (It was 1988.)  She said to me “I wish we’d discovered this talent sooner.”  I never thought I had a “talent” for English class.  I liked writing, but the literature classes pained me.  I could read faster than anyone, but had little patience for slowing down to tease the meaning out of a poem, or wading through page after page of the Elizabethan English of a Shakespeare play, both of which were litmus tests of the English student specialty.  I fit in more on the Math/Science side (Captain of the math team!).

Anyway, I went to college and met true failure for the first time.  After switching to creative writing as my major, and then earning an MFA in same, and teaching for 17 years, I still struggle to find my Thing.  Mostly I need focus, and cannot garner it, unless I am taking a class or workshop.  Today, for example, I woke up with the resolve to be a better poet, but I can’t decide how best to invest my time.  Write new poems?  Revise old ones? Prepare submissions? Read?  If I decide to read, read what?  Contemporary poems? Canonical? Literary criticism?  Journals? Poets & Writers? Should I network with poets on SecondLife and Facebook? Apply for funds to go to another conference?  Work on my oft-rejected book manuscript again?  All these things seem equally important to me, and I couldn’t decide, so I read political blogs and played Angry Birds until I got disgusted with myself and started this blog post.

The thing about ADD/ADHD, at least as I experience it, is that when you don’t know you have it, you can’t understand why you have such a hard time doing things that other people do easily.  Like decide what part of being a writer to focus on today, this minute.  Like how to plan something and then trust yourself that you will do it.

Another thing that happens is that you finally find your flow, and say, this is it, this is my Thing, this is who I am, and it works for awhile because it is a new project or new challenge or you have some structure supporting it because you started taking a class or a workshop or joined a group or something, and everything seems focused and clear until something happens, something that taints the new Thing, a problem that you can’t resolve easily, or a drawback that you never considered, and suddenly it’s not new and exciting anymore, it’s one of the five hundred old things that you’ve discarded, and you’re lost again.  The more this cycle repeats, the taller the pile of discarded selves weighing on your mind until it’s difficult to find anything to get optimistic about anymore.

So I write, and stow it away, and write some more, and stow it away.  Or I don’t write and I feel bad.  Writing is flow, forward momentum.  When I start a day by writing—and I mean composing words, not editing or submissions or whatever—the rest of the day seems a bit more workable.  When I go for a week or two without writing, I’m lost.  I start to think I’ll never write again.

The formula for feeling well is simple.  Do my work, write, exercise, eat well, take my supplements, meditate.  All these things are easily available to me, and yet, when I’m in a funk (I have often called it a freeze, because I feel frozen, unable to move) none of these things happen.  I do their opposites: stay up late, not working or writing, sit around, watch TV, eat junk.  The constant way out is writing.  When I’m dead and gone, if I have any sort of success as a writer, whoever’s left to examine my papers will surmise from my journals that I was an unhappy dude.  I always turn to the journal when things are really bad, almost never write, “Had a good day, did my work, got a poem accepted, and paid the bills on time!”  Mostly because good writing is about conflict and it’s hard to be both happy and interesting.