How mystical is your writing process?

Mystical Sky

Photo by Rasmus Andersen.

When some people describe their writing process, I swear it sounds like they need to go back on their meds or something. “My character told me that he was ___. ” “My outline called for ___ to happen, but my characters decided to go do something else instead.” “She’s telling me she’s a lesbian.” “I feel like the story already exists somewhere and I’m just transcribing it.” “And that’s when my heroine surprised me by jumping out the window.” (That last one is honest-to-comma a true example of something I heard one author say at a conference.)

I never know how seriously to take these claims. Are these people’s characters really in charge of the story? Because let me tell you, I don’t feel this way. My characters don’t tell me things. All the stuff that happens in my stories? Yeah, I make that crap up.

I have to confess that my reaction isn’t usually altogether positive when I hear this kind of author mysticism. But I’ve run into this way of talking about creativity from all corners, from published, award-winning authors on down, so it’s at least as legit as any other approach. So I hope I can forestall anybody taking offense at this by coming out and acknowledging that my reaction is very likely fueled by jealousy and insecurity. When I people talk about what their characters say to them, what I hear, accurately or not, is that writing is easy for them. You’re just transcribing a story? Jeez, how nice for you—I have to freaking work to come up with mine! I wish my characters would whisper solutions to my plot problems in my ear! In my jealousy, it tends to sound to me like people are bragging.

I think on some level I fear that the fact that this sounds alien to me is evidence that I’m not a real artist, or that I’m not creative enough. Maybe if I were really meant to be a writer, writing wouldn’t feel like work to me. (Don’t get me wrong—it’s satisfying work. But it is work.)

On the other hand, maybe one person’s mysticism is another’s mundanity. It occurs to me that some of the things that I experience very likely can come across as that same sort of mysticism to someone else. For instance, I don’t agonize over what tense and point of view to write my stories in. When I get my premise, I’ll often immediately think of lines that I’d like to use to explore the idea, and whatever person and tense they’re in is generally what I’ll stick to for the story. A nice shorthand for all that? “My story tells me what tense and POV to use.”

Also, while I never feel like I’m transcribing, and while I claim to have sweated out every line and piece of plot, when I read back my stories later, I’m often surprised. That line’s nice—where the heck did it come from? What on earth made me morph this original story concept into this unrecognizably different plotline?

I can’t answer those questions. It feels like someone else wrote those things.

Does that make me a mystic too?

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13 Responses to How mystical is your writing process?

  1. laird sapir says:

    I have to admit, my writing process in not very mystic, either. Sometimes I get ideas from dreams, but just the beginning of an idea…not, unfortunately, an entire story ready to jump out onto the page, fully formed and grammatically correct. Finding the plot and the full story for me, takes work. But, more power to those with a different process. As long as the story gets written, something’s working!

  2. WHM says:

    I think they say that because it makes them sound more lofty than:

    during the course of engaging with the text, my creative process took a left turn either because I hadn’t been paying attention to the text and that’s where it was actually leading me or because my subconscious, which is fueled by all the narrative patterns that I’ve absorbed over the years, jumped in and saved my butt because I was floundering around.

  3. Joe Iriarte says:

    Laird, I always get like the beginning and the end, and no idea how to get from one to the other. Gah!

    WHM, I’m not convinced that sounds *less* lofty. 😀

  4. I imagine that if my characters would talk to me, I’d have ever finished a story, instead of having sat on a bunch of unfinished ideas for over a decade. Color me jealous, too.

  5. Joe Iriarte says:

    Damn straight! 🙂

  6. WHM says:

    Right. What I really meant was:

    I have an on-and-off again relationship with magic rainbow pixies who smell like cotton candy and sound like the tinkling of bells when they whisper plot points in my ear.

  7. Joe Iriarte says:


  8. I once tried to channel Agatha Christe but it didn’t work. It is nice though that as writers we can speak of hearing voices in our heads without being labeled as schizophrenic.

  9. Joe Iriarte says:

    Oh, I intend to milk being a writer as an excuse for all things–milk it for all it’s worth!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  10. I used to believe in “the characters writing themselves,” but I REALLY don’t anymore. In fact, when people say that, it’s hard for me to take them seriously. Everyone’s process is different, but to me the “characters taking control” means the author ISN’T in control, and that doesn’t bode well for craft.

  11. Joe Iriarte says:

    I just think of how many of my stories hit dead ends in the planning stages, and I have to spend days taking long walks trying to figure out where I went wrong and how to get things back on track. I hate to imagine what that would be like if I was talking about not an outline, but, you know, thirty-thousand words that I suddenly realized didn’t work anymore. Maybe those people for whom “mystical planning” works don’t tend to hit those snags . . . one more reason to be jealous, if so.

    Hey, thanks for stopping by! This has proven to be one of my more visited posts . . . I need to figure out who was nice enough to pass it along to people.

  12. Swati Chavda says:

    I’m so delighted to know there are others who feel the same disdain for these mystical claims! Anytime someone mentions transcribing existing stories and stuff, I have to struggle not to roll my eyes. More awareness of one’s own subconscious processing is called for, I suppose.

  13. Joe Iriarte says:

    Hi Swati–sorry your comment got caught in moderation hell for so long–somehow I never saw the notification that it had come in!

    I think for me it’s mostly petty jealousy, and I can admit that. When people start talking about characters who show up and start telling them stories, a part of me goes, “How nice it must be not to have to work for your fiction.” 🙂

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