Writing, it seems to me, is a lot like running. It comes naturally to almost everyone (assuming an education that includes reading and writing), although abilities – and desires – vary widely and wildly.
We’re each of us an experiment of one. What helps me as a runner may or may not help you, and what works as a writing process for me could be the opposite of your process. My process more than likely is minimally helpful to anyone else because it involves lots of time alone (with dogs) in the forest seeking inspiration and insight, and is very, very slow to reach fruition. But my story, my journey to a writing process that does work for me, might relieve some writing anxiety for others. So, for what it’s worth…
I spent years doing research for my first book, Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter. I had no doubt that I was in a unique position, privy to private stories shared by my father and his colleagues that needed to be recorded, preserved and shared. I started the project in 1999. Over the next few years I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with and recording those stories, shared by the pilots and engineers my father listed as having valuable input and interesting experiences. I knew I wanted to write a book about these stories, but I struggled – mightily – with how to do that, what format it would take, what its structure and focus would be.
I bought and read countless books about how to write nonfiction and memoir. I took nonfiction writing classes. I started writing articles, first for The Bark magazine, then others. I learned about how to outline a book, write a book proposal. I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference for several years, sitting through seminars hoping to learn how to write my book, how to navigate finding an agent, an editor, a publisher. (This was before Amazon started its publishing arm, and while there were a few self-publishing options available back then, the thinking was no bookstore would carry your self-published book so it wasn’t a realistic option if you wanted a wide audience.)
I’ll never forget participating in one of those writing conference lures: pitch your story idea to an agent! This was around 2002 or 2003. I read up on how to pitch your book, how to create the perfect “elevator pitch.” I practiced ahead of time. I was nervous. After sharing my pitch, the agent showed interest in the topic – test pilots – and then said, “Have you thought of writing it as fiction?”
The agent ended our brief session by asking me to send him a detailed book proposal. With nonfiction, you could potentially get a publishing contract to write the book before it was written based on an outline and proposal, unlike novels that are considered only after the manuscript it done. But I figured he asked everyone who met with him that day to send him a proposal, and his question about telling the stories as fiction threw me into a tailspin. I wondered if I knew anything, if my gut instincts about the viability of the book I envisioned as nonfiction were totally off, if I could ever create the book saw (vaguely) in my mind.
By 2005, when I moved to Idaho, I had probably 100 hours of interviews, many of which still needed transcribing. (Talk about a horrible, time-consuming job.) I managed to write up a couple of the more dramatic stories, one obtained only after an engineer asked me if my father had ever told me about the 727 test flight where he nearly died in a deep stall. (Um, no!) I sold that story as an article to an aviation-themed magazine in late 2008, much to my and my father’s delight, giving a much-needed boost to my confidence that I was on the right track. My father was my technical editor, but in 2009 he faced a series of health challenges, and in August of that year, he passed away.
In my grief, I set the project aside. For years. Finally, in late 2012 I kicked myself in the butt, reminding myself how much time my father and the others had given me, their best stories over decades of flying, all because they trusted me with those stories, believing I would use them to write a book. How could I let them down?
I couldn’t. By this time, self-publishing via Amazon was a real option, but not without expense. I knew this project would be of interest to lots of folks at Boeing, especially retirees, so I took a gamble: I created a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for writing, editing and self-publishing the book. To my surprise, thanks in large part to those Boeing retirees, I reached my monetary goal.
Even better, though, was realizing that people believed in my project – in me – enough to put up some serious cash. They wanted to read the book I described in my Kickstarter campaign. Talk about motivation!
I piled my three dogs in the car and we left Seattle for Idaho for the summer of 2013. (In late 2008, to ride out the recession I moved back to Seattle to find full time work so that I wouldn’t lose my Idaho house. I didn’t move back to Idaho full time until May 2014.) My focus was to write my book by the end of summer: three months, after which I’d have to return to work. Three of my father’s colleagues, all retired Boeing engineers, became my technical editors. They became my friends, too, over the course of that summer’s hundreds of emails, reviews of drafts, and phone conversations, relationships I treasure. They kept me motivated. And I finally, after so many years of avoidance, listened again to my tape recordings of interviews with my father. He was right there with me that summer, helping me write.
I found a writing groove. I was having so much fun! I would frequently forget to eat until my growling stomach could no longer be ignored. Hours would pass quickly. I was in the zone, that place where ideas flow and it all feels easy, something I had experienced a few time when running. Which, upon reflection, was amazing because that summer was also full of sorrow: I said goodbye to two of my dogs. First my Alaskan Malamute Maia, age 14, in June, then her sister Meadow, age 12, just six weeks later in July. Maia’s passing was expected; 14 is old for a Mal. But I learned Meadow had bone cancer; that was a shock and so, so difficult. My writing about the past and happy childhood memories, and my Aussie Finn, were my solace that summer. Finn and I spent healing time in the forest most mornings, sometimes taking the girls’ ashes to place under a cairn built near trails we had run in years past.
Here’s what I learned that summer of writing: it is possible to write a book without an outline. I did it. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy worrying that I needed to outline, a book proposal and an agent, before truly diving in. I’m sure some people rock outlines. I’m not one of them. Do what works for you. Follow your gut, your muse.
I also learned that inspiration strikes at odd times and in surprising ways. That summer, as I was furiously writing about the test pilots and their stories, I was struggling with an overarching structure for the book. Chronological? By airplane model? Or something else? My father and I had talked about the book being a history of Boeing’s Flight Test operations. But that wasn’t as interesting to me; I’m not an engineer, I never worked at Boeing, nor am I into corporate operations. What I found fascinating were the human experience aspects of these stories, something that Boeing’s own historians and archives had shockingly never tried to preserve in any detail. Yes, Boeing manufactured airplanes, but someone had to be the first to fly them, then extensively test them to ensure safety. Who were those people, willing to risk their lives in such endeavors? What were their lives like at work and at home? How could I tell their stories in a unique, relatable way that would be interesting not just to Boeing engineers, but the general public?
Then one sunny summer morning, as Finn and I were running in the forest and I was struggling to find an answer to those questions, the book’s title – and within it the structure – came to me: Growing Up Boeing. My entire childhood was saturated with all things Boeing. Something I had avoided all along, inserting myself into the book’s narrative, suddenly made sense as a storytelling tactic. I had known most of the major players in the book my entire life, I had seen them and their families in settings outside work that shed light on who they were as human beings. They shared their stories with me when previously they’d kept them close, colleagues only, because I was Boeing family. Suddenly my nonfiction book about test pilots became a mix of memoir, biography and nonfiction. Crazy, but why not?
Once that revelation hit – and believe me, I chewed on it for a few days because inserting myself into the narrative felt so me, me, me at first that I resisted – finishing the book was easy. It flowed.
That September, manuscript finished, I found an editor and a book cover designer. The editor was also able to upload the book into Amazon’s publishing arm for me, paperback and digital formats (as well as a few other sellers, like Barnes & Noble, Draft 2 Digital, Kobo). The Kickstarter funds paid for my summer of writing (covering my health insurance, mostly), editing, book cover, and uploading for publishing. My book launched in February 2014. And I started to receive emails, so many emails, from people who said they related to the aspects of the book that were told from my perspective.
My gamble, my gut instinct, paid off.
Now here I am again, with a sense of deja vu as I struggle to write another book that I’ve been researching for years, trying to decide how to write it. From whose perspective? Another memoir? Or creative nonfiction? Or – something completely new to me – a novel, although admittedly inspired by my real life experiences?
For years I’ve wanted to write about wolves. I’m an unabashed wolf-hugger. That doesn’t go over big where I live (Idaho). Just a few days ago I had a local rancher ask me with a straight face and some fear if my dog Conall, an Alaskan Malamute, is a wolf. I’ve worried that if I publish a book that criticizes local wildlife “management” of wolves, and the ranchers that demand their eradication by Fish & Game and other government entities, I might put myself and my dogs in harm’s way.
One way out of that dilemma was to write a novel that dealt with the same themes, but in a fictional way. I might still ruffle feathers, but not quite so directly. Thus my NaNoWriMo goal this month: write that novel with themes about wolves and conservation and conflicts with ranchers and impacts of climate change and….
Over the summer I’d done some prep work for NaNoWriMo, some character sketches, some plot ideas. Two nights ago, though, I awoke in the wee hours, unable to get back to sleep because my mind was swirling with thoughts about this writing challenge, questions about whether a novel was really what I should write, and do I even have the wherewithal to create fictional characters out of whole cloth? I fired up my Kindle to read until I could sleep again, but first I wrote myself an email:
… pretending you’re writing a novel. Do the memoir you’re meant to write.”
Good advice. My gut instinct is rarely wrong.
Yesterday, while running in the forest with my dogs, I started composing a scene in my mind. I was thinking about the changing seasons and how wildlife make their own changes along with the weather. I thought how killing (aka hunting) season impacts wildlife in the autumn. Observing my dogs I know the effect of gunfire on animals. That evening, I wrote the scene, describing a wolf in the forest in autumn, avoiding the increased number, noise and stink of humans in the forest intent on killing them along with deer and elk, how that becomes woven into their survival strategy. And in writing that – and sharing the scene with a trusted editor friend who provided valuable feedback – I think I’ve stumbled upon the structure for my next book. A memoir, not a novel.
More psychic dynamite. You never know when your solitude and meditations create such dynamite. Just be open and ready to receive it when it happens.
So: to hell with what any locals think about what I write.
Screw outlines and other conventions of “the writing process.” Do what feels best to you, what makes your creative self sing. That’s when you’re on to something.
I’m going to keep writing throughout November, hoping to reach that 50,000 word challenge because I have much to say and want to write it down. But I’ll be writing a memoir. Working title: Wild Running: Meditations on the Natural World. (Thank you, Susan.)
And I’m going to continue heading out into the forest most mornings, hoping more insights arrive, deriving inspiration from what I see, hear and smell, composing scenes and stories in my head as I move through the landscape. All my best writing ideas come while running with dogs in the forest. My writing process probably would help only a few, especially because these insights can take years to percolate up through the layers of my (thick and stubborn) brain. But the underlying lesson is valid: do what works for you, ignore the rest.
In short: write on, in whatever way, and on whatever timeline, works for you. Just don’t give up.
I’m pleased to say that after five years on the market, Growing Up Boeing still sells several copies every month, worldwide. Publishing, and giving book presentations, has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. If interested, you can find out more about Growing Up Boeing here. And if your interest leads you to purchasing a copy, thank you, I’m grateful, and would appreciate a review! Rebecca