I was asked recently to make a 5-minute vodcast for Superstition Review's "Writers Talk" series about my writing process. Specifically, about my process writing "Axiom of the Empty Set," which appeared in SR's May 2015 issue. It was... well, revelatory. The first thing I realized is that I need to jettison most of my writing process, as it involves elaborate procrastination ponzi schemes; the whining/moping/hand-wringing trifecta; multi-tiered structures of self-loathing, marshal punishment, and fruitless comparison to my peers, punctuated by the odd unproductive spate of smug superiority.
So once I got done being horrified at that, I did stumble upon two components of my writing process that I like, that are important to me, and the further development of which might actually help my writing in the future. The first involves the nerdy and intellectual. In order to write, I need an intellectual seed, usually relating to something I'm reading about, learning about, thinking about in my master-of-none way. This is how I act as my own fluffer: "Hey, you—taking Latin? Hide five of Ovid's Metamorphoses in the text of a story ('The Earth Falls to the Apple')! Teaching a class about postcolonial theory? Write a story whose subtext engages, without ever mentioning it explicitly, with Edward Said's Orientalism ('Parting Shot')! Learning about physics? Make a character also studying physics so he can find physics metaphors wherever he looks ('A Succession of Nightingales')! Obsessively reading King Lear? Rewrite a scene from the point of view of Goneril (what is her story?) in which she's a titan of modern industry having been given controlling shares of the company by her aging father ('Serpent's Tooth')!" Wheeeee! Nerd heaven.
I do this in order to trick myself into writing. More often than not, this nerdy seed gets entirely excised by the end, because there's no there there; it's just me showing off to myself. But thank you, nerdy impulse. You got me started. "Axiom of the Empty Set," as the title suggests, was inspired by math. Axiomatic set theory and modal logic, to be exact, neither of which I'm even what you could call conversant in, but which intrigue me nevertheless. As metaphors for other things. My husband is a lot to blame for this. I have several emails from him, written at the time I was writing the story, about set theory. I was in New York and he in San Francisco, and at my insistence, he outlined several of the axioms, their meanings and their applications. Various axioms can serve as metaphors for exploring other, more metaphysical concepts, such as God, morality, and paradox. These emails read like love letters to me.
Modal logic became another metaphor I felt I could harness. The Stanford University definition of modal logic explains that, "a modal is an expression (like ‘necessarily’ or ‘possibly’) that is used to qualify the truth of a judgement." Great place to start a story, right?! What is a story but a qualification of a judgment? I wanted to provide vignettes that qualified the same judgment in a variety of ways.
So, yes. I started with a marginal axiom: the axiom of the empty set, which many believe should be excommunicated from set theory due to redundancy. I imagined this marginal empty set as a place, part graph with X-Y axis and part United States desert wasteland, and that weird superimposition pleased me aesthetically. I peopled this marginal place with marginal people; pimps and exotic dancers and treacherous businessmen. I used X and Y as both placeholder names, and (I couldn't help it! The story made me do it!) as the "origin" at the center of the character's lives, the place, the emotional empty set, where something terrible happened, something crucial was lost; the X-Y intercept to which the characters are pulled back again and again. Love it!
But, love it though I may, this is all flourish and no substance. So here's the other part of my process, without which my work suffers: the deeply personal. Let me be clear. I do not write memoir. Yuck. Whenever I try, I absolutely hate the character me, at least how I write her. She's painfully hipster; she's nerve-wrackingly maudlin; whatever. I just can't get the tone right. All the same, whatever I'm going through at the time of writing tends to bleed into whatever I write. This happens in all my successful stories, and hasn't happened yet in my unsuccessful ones.
The story in question is haunted by what I was going through at the time: fears about infertility. They weren't unfounded fears. The doctors told me I was unlikely to have my own children, and that was my first introduction to those things in life we can't control (death being the other big one: things we can't work or buy our way out of). I was haunted, and in the story I made the haunting literal: there is a child who is abandoned and dies, and then speaks to its mother from the grave. In a sense this child was the death of the idea of children, or my attempt to grapple with that possibility. (As it turns out, that modal was a "possibly," not a "necessarily," because after a struggle, we ended up with a wonderful son. So happy ending. In life, not in art. Never in art). Other personal fears—loss, in an abstract sense; guilt and redemption, fantasies of revenge—rear their heads in the story, but they were all, at the time I was writing this, subordinate to the other anxiety.
This story came out whole. I hardly edited it. That never happens. I blame the fertility drugs. I've never written so much in such a short span of time—and so much of what I wrote was experimental. Indeed, instead of getting rid of the nerdy seed, as I often do, I kept the math framework in this story. For better or worse. Somehow the math got fused with the emotional, and I couldn't tease them apart.
And that's actually the final component to my process. The mystical. Somehow, a story shows me what it wants to be, and I need to listen to it. I don't think I'm as good at that as I need to be (not yet), but my most inspired writing comes from somewhere that feels outside of myself, that comes out of spiritus mundi, and just uses me to get out into the world. The best writing feels like "automatic writing," in 19th century spiritualist parlance, but damned if I understand it. So. Step One: nerdy inspiration. Step Two: injection of personal. and Step Three: let the story take over. These sum up the most adaptive steps in my writing process. The rest can go. I hope to further refine my process as I continue to write. I hope that further refining my process will allow me to become a better writer. Thank you to Superstition Review for asking me to think about this, and thank you, whoever you are, for reading this post!
Garson, James. "Modal Logic." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab, 27 May 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.