There Is No Process!

News Flash: I'm honored to a guest blogger today on my good blogger buddy Karen Walker's Following the Whispers blog. Click over and pay her a visit.

Yesterday I drove thirty miles to hear Tawni O'Dell speak at Westmoreland Community College. Tawni's first published novel, Back Roads, was an Oprah pick in March 2000. Tawni is a stunning speaker — funny, profound, intimate, and brilliantly articulate. I hung on every world for nearly two hours. Her long, face-framing mane of dark frizz gives the impression of an ultra-high-energy person attuned to other spheres, and perhaps she is. She told us that her characters "find her," not the other way around. She must write the books to get these people out of her head.

Being invaded by characters is not a situation faced by memoir writers, (though perhaps it isn't so different from being obsessed with how to tell our memoir story), but she did make some points I especially appreciated. One was to always listen to our inner sense of how to write. "You cannot learn to write a novel in a classroom!" she insists. "I don't have a process. Each of my books has taken a different path to completion. So I can't tell you how to write, how to manage the process." She does support taking classes, because you never know where you'll find an idea that clicks, and (she didn't say this, but it is consistent with things she did say), you can sharpen specific skills in classes and gain an understanding of the craft, if not the process.

I especially appreciated the reminder about the importance of finding our own way through our stories. She wrote five complete manuscripts and collected over 200 rejection letters before she made that breakthrough, that she should write her way, and write what she knows about rather than what she thought people wanted to read. That's when her writing because authentic. That's when Oprah found her.

I appreciated hearing it from her, because I was teetering on the brink of being pulled into writing a Formula Memoir, a process I discuss in my memoir blog, A Los Alamos Girlhood. I also appreciated it because four or five years ago while writing The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, I strongly emphasized that point, that you must discover and work with your unique writing style.

Driving home through the drizzly April day, appreciation of the fresh, delicate beauty of newborn spring vacillated with flashbacks to Tawni. Rounding a corner I became aware of a message bouncing around my head: Trust the process. Trust the process. Aha! If this isn't confirmation to pull a Sinatra ("I'll do it my way!") I don't know what is.

Back to Tawni's thoughts on taking classes, she considers reading to be the best teacher. She reads voraciously, for both story, and also to analyze what makes the book work. What does she like about it? What can she learn? That seeps into her subconcious, and looking back through past volumes, she can see her own progress and growth as a writer. So I'll keep reading, novels, memoirs, books about writing. I'll keep writing and practicing, and perhaps some will find inspiration in my outpouring. And I'll also keep teaching now and then, because some of us do need to hang out with other writers and get feedback on our work. And because it's fun!

Write now: jot down some thoughts about your way of writing. Are you following a formula, or writing from someplace deep within you? Do you let your Inner Critic warn you away from some innovative approach burning within you? What else may make you hesitate?


Karen Walker said...

This is so so true, Sharon. My writing coach says this in many different ways every time I see him. Trust the process. Trust the story. Trust yourself. Let go of controlling the story and let it emerge the way it wants to emerge.
Tawni's a very wise writer - and so are you!!

Sharon Lippincott said...

The fact that Tawni is so successful in her writing speaks volumes. I have yet to read any of her work, but it's high on the list.

Pat's Place said...

I LOVE the comment about letting the characters take over. Now if I can just get passed this strong LEFT brain of mine, I think I could do that. Any suggestions? I just had the same discussion with my art teacher yesterday. Seems my strong left brain is directing my painting too!

Sharon Lippincott said...


That's a great question. I have many flashes of brilliance in the shower, or when I'm driving, especially along the highway out of town. Journaling is helpful, specifically posing the "problem" in terms of a question, i.e., "What would Sheila have done in this situation?" And then start writing without thinking too much. One of the hardest things for me to do, at least until recently, is simply take several minutes to sit quietly and "center." Gosh, this could turn into a whole blog -- or a whole book.

I'm planning to order Mark David Gerson's book, The Voice of the Muse, based on Karen Walker's stellar success working with Mark David as a personal coach. I suspect it will have much to say about this.

You could also try Julia Cameron's six week journal cure, outlined in The Artist's Way. I didn't finish Julia's process, but I did get hooked on Morning Pages.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Sounds like a truly fascinating talk. I am thrilled to discover your blog as life writing is one of my "projects" and I particuarly love reading and thinking about memoir

A pleasure to discover you and happy thursday! Thanks for sharing


Sharon Lippincott said...

Hannah, I too am thrilled that you discovered my blog. If life writing is one of your projects, you may enjoy joining us on the Life Writers Forum. Find info and join at

Mark David Gerson said...

"I don't have a process. Each of my books has taken a different path to completion."

I love this quote, Sharon, because it supports my foundational thesis about writing, which is that there are no rules. Frankly, I don't see how there can be, when you're dealing with creativity, which is nothing if it's not about innovation, ground-breaking and authenticity.

Bravo to you for abandoning all thoughts of formula!!

(And as for letting the characters be in charge, I just wrote about that on my blog yesterday. The post is called "Free Your Characters, Free Your Story")

Mark David Gerson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharon Lippincott said...

Mark David,

Thanks for the additional vote of support for Tawni's words of wisdom. I always thought it was due to the way I was brought up -- to think out of the box and always look for a better way to do things -- I hardly ever read instructions, let alone follow them. Now I realize that I come from a long line of highly creative people, so it's not surprising that they discovered this secret and raised me accordingly.