Meta-writing

I’ve been experimenting recently with a technique I call “meta-writing,” by which I mean shifting to another level of writing while I continue to write in order to break through logjams, overcome resistance and maintain momentum. (I specifically don’t mean the sort of pre-writing, or para-writing, of notes, outlines, character bios and so on.)

When I write, I try to stay focused on actual writing (i.e. typing) and not on thinking about writing. I prefer to keep that a separate, well-delimited activity. My reasons are twofold. First, I only have so many hours in a day to write. This is more of an energy budget than a time concern. Regardless of how much unscheduled time I have in my day, I can’t write effectively for more than three hours. [1] I don’t want to “waste” those hours on an activity I can squeeze in while I’m walking, driving, doing chores, etc. [2] Second, and more important, I’m prone to letting my mind wander. If I allow myself too much space to think while I’m writing, a few minutes can easily turn into an unproductive hour or more. Thinking about writing is fun—which makes it an insidious productivity trap. It feels like progress, but it often isn’t.

Before I continue, let me say—every writer is different and no one is wrong. If you’re, say, a discovery writer that spends more time thinking than typing, I’m okay with that. If you want to tell me that thinking is writing, I believe you. If you can’t continue until you light on the perfect word, whether that takes two minutes or two hours, I’m not trying to fix you. If that works for you, if that’s what makes writing worthwhile for you, then great. Everyone has their own process. This is mine.

The idea of meta-writing is something I stumbled on during NaNoWriMo. I didn’t think of it in those terms then; I just thought of it as “word count.” As in, I only have an hour to get 800 words, and I’m completely blocked. I started having my main character keep a journal so I’d always have something to write. Stuck on a scene? Have the MC babble away about their day in their journal and get back to the scene later. At first, these journal entries were completely disposable. As time went on, I started to make discoveries about the character and the story through them—solutions for problems in earlier scenes and ideas for future scenes. Eventually I realized I could work out the details of the scene I was stuck on by having my character journal about it, looking forward in anticipation or reflecting back. The disposable nature of the journal gave me a sandbox in which I was free to experiment without consequence and the character’s voice leant itself to a quick, informal style that freed me from getting hung up on word choice and grammar. It meant I could create quick, super-rough draft of the scene I was stuck on. It allowed me to think about my writing without stopping my writing to think.

Lately I’ve been writing more non-fiction, which is a different challenge from fiction. I take advantage of the usual tricks to maintain momentum. If I’m uncertain of a fact or need additional research, I’ll use ALL CAPS as a placeholder or drop a parenthetical note, e.g. “Star Wars was the first film to gross over $100 million, racking up BOX OFFICE in just TIME FRAME (true? what about Jaws?)” I don’t think of this as meta-writing, but it’s related.

Closer to what I’m talking about is “scaffolding,” a parenthetical remark that props up an incomplete sentence or paragraph, allowing me to defer extended thinking till later, e.g., “Often labeled as science fiction, Star Wars is more properly considered an adventure story that (something about The Hero With a Thousand Faces and why it resonates with audiences).” I know the Hero’s Journey was important to Lucas, and I think there’s something to be said about how Star Wars was one of the first successful films to model it explicitly, but I don’t want to get bogged down in exactly how to express that. With scaffolding, I create a placeholder with enough information to fill in the gap later.

More properly, meta-writing is an extended riff, intended to be deleted, allowing me to consider a number of ideas in quick succession, or just capture the essence of what I’m going for in a more casual style. So, for example, in trying to come up with an opening for my hypothetical Star Wars article, I might write, “Begin with a personal anecdote, what it was like to see it in the theater as kid, what the wait was like, because it didn’t open wide and took a year to get to my home town after I saw the trailer in LA, god, that was interminable. Or listening to the soundtrack after my dad got it for my birthday, memorizing it before I ever got to see the film.”

You get the gist. I’m not trying to write the introduction, I’m writing about the introduction, hoping I’ll stumble on something I can use. As you can see, a lot of this is stuff that would occur to me if I just took the time to think about how I want to begin the article. The difference is I’m less prone to distraction because I’m physically engaged in writing, and I have something concrete to refer to if I do hit on something useful.

Another thing I’ll do, if I’m failing to capture a specific tone, which can be tremendously dependent on word choice, is to just be explicit about what I’m trying to do using meta-writing. E.g. “Create a sense of wonder. CGI epics are a dime a dozen these days, but Star Wars was something special, something new. Set up the world: pre-internet, so no clips on YouTube, and if you wanted to see the trailer, you had to physically go to a theater and buy a ticket for another movie;  pre-CGI, pre-computer, for fuck’s sake. Refresh the memory of everyone who’s old enough to remember a time before sci-fi and fantasy were mainstream. Make the younglings understand. 2001 was recent, but that was an intellectual’s movie; Star Wars was D&D in sci-fi clothing (and D&D wasn’t even close to cool yet either).”

Well, that went a little sideways, but again, you get the idea. When I’ve used it, meta-writing has been pretty successful for me. What’s surprising is that I don’t turn to it more quickly or more often. That’s a function of Resistance, [3] which I hinted at the beginning, but I’ll have to address another time.

[1] This came as a complete shock to me when I was working on my MFA at Stonecoast. After suffering through a hectic and split-focus summer juggling writing with the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival, I imagined I’d be cranking on my novel eight hours a day all winter long. Nope.

[2] Just to clarify, a lot of what I call pre-writing, especially outlining, is hard work, harder, sometimes, then “actual” writing, and has to be scheduled and budgeted the same way. The “activity” I’m referring to here is that sort of idle thinking about a piece of writing that I tend to do anyway, usually about an upcoming scene or chapter.

[3] Yes, that’s a reference to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. If you haven’t read it, read it. 

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