Pre-Writing: Real Work or Daydreaming?

“My mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often my most profitable way,” observed author Virginia Woolf in a diary entry. Ms. Woolf, certainly no lightweight in the literary output department, was remarking on a writing habit that I have often thought about – the practice I call pre-writing, or letting stuff percolate in your brain before you commit it to paper.

More recently, Edward P. Jones said in an interview about his latest novel All Aunt Hagar’s Children, “I like to work things out in my head first…I thought about it for 10 years,” He was referring to the writing process that led first to his award winning novel The Known World, and now to this much-anticipated work.

Thought about it for 10 years. Now, if you are not a writer, your immediate reaction might be what a slacker!

But that statement was pure music to my ears. The very process Mr. Jones describes is what I have always referred to as “pre-writing.”

Pre-writing may seem to others to resemble any of the following states of being: slacking off, staring into space, puttering, watching television. The writer may appear to be doing any or all of these things, possibly even all at once. What may not be obvious, however, to the casual observer (family member, boss) is that you are thinking deep thoughts in preparation for the work to come.

Does anyone think, for example, that Melville wrote Moby Dick off-the-cuff? That he just sat down one day and started writing? On the contrary, Melville most likely had to think for a very long time about whales, and boats, and man’s relationship to nature. Only when all of those separate threads of thought came together was he ready to actually sit down and start writing. What if Mrs. Melville had said, “Herman, I wish you would quit staring into space and go chop some wood.”

Pre-writing looks deceptively easy. In reality it takes tremendous self-discipline to think the deep thoughts you need to think about your work, and not allow trivial, non-essential thoughts to enter your brain. I am constantly trying not to think about things such as, “Why would any woman in her right mind go on The Bachelor? or “How come I hear cicadas all summer, but I’ve never actually seen one?”

Once you have managed to clear your mind of annoying distractions, it is important to stay focused on your deep, writerly thoughts. You cannot allow others to divert you from pre-writing. Be prepared for such shenanigans as your spouse placing the full kitchen garbage can next to you as you sit on the couch, with or without the remote in your hand, in deep thought. Or a friend who waves a hand in front of your eyes as if to say, “Hey, is anybody in there!” What if John Steinbeck had been asked to take out the garbage, just as he was thinking, “Hmmm, apples, pears or grapes…grapes might work…and anger…apples of anger – no, grapes works better…there must be a better word for anger, though…” Great thought, interrupted, gone forever.

I find that it helps to spend some time before pre-writing (sort of pre-pre) getting everything in your house and life arranged perfectly so that you won’t have to worry about such things as, “I wonder if we are out of nutmeg,” or “Maybe I should go over my cable bill to make sure I’m not being overcharged.”

Just don’t let these projects overtake the task at hand, which is to keep thinking deep thoughts re: your novel, memoir, or play. Two years maximum should do it.

And when your spouse/boss/parole officer questions your distractedness, you can reply, “Oh, sorry, I was just working through the opening scene of my screenplay in my head. I’m on the verge of a major breakthrough. Now do you still want me to mow the lawn/collate those files/fill out these forms?”

Although I am a firm believer in and practitioner of the art of pre-writing, I still have trouble justifying my periods of what looks like inactivity, even to myself. I know that if I take a long walk I will be able to work through the plot problems of my short story in my head. So, in reality I am working. I am pre-writing, so that when I do sit down at the computer I will have worked out the details already, and I am mentally prepared to write. If I skipped the walk, and sat right down to write, it might look more like I am actually working, but in reality I will be thinking about everything else but what I am supposed to be working on. I’m not ready yet – I haven’t done my pre-writing. (Just don’t let pre-writing turn into its ugly step-sibling, procrastination.)

Several years ago Edward Albee gave a talk about his work, and he shared with the audience some of his writing habits. He said that he often thinks through an idea for a play – the characters, the story, the conflict, everything – for years before he puts anything down on paper. Then when he does sit down to write, it is all there, and the writing comes out as a piece. When I heard that, it freed something up inside me. I’m still thinking about what he said. Really, I am – I’m not just sitting here doing nothing.

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