The concept of messy writing doesn’t make any sense at all for me, because I’m probably the world’s neatest person. My desk looks like I never go near it. My closet could be on display on a float in a parade. One of my favorite things to do is put like things with like things. I can spend hours sorting and organizing. Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know about me?
I like the idea of writing out of confusion. I even like the feeling, early in the process, that the whole book is close to collapse.
For example, I never start with an outline. And I never know how any book I begin is going to end. With my first novel, The Slow Way Back, all I had was the desire to write a novel. No plot. No idea what I would write about. Just motivation. With my novel, Early Leaving, I started with an obsession: How could the grandson of my mother’s best friend commit murder? My first memoir, Losing My Sister, grew out of the messiness of a relationship. My memoir-in-progress, What We Can Count On, is about marriage and identity, but the starting point is a medical error.
I rarely do research. I just make guesses — at least, in the beginning. Research, for me, would be a form of procrastination. I’m too busy getting started to try to locate all the pieces. I let the book meander toward meaning, keep myself open to various paths and possibilities. I trust that, as I proceed, the details will find a narrative.
I’m not saying you should do everything I do. I’m certainly not saying I know how to write wonderful books. Goodness, I have so far to go. I’m just suggesting that if you’re orderly and methodical like me, you might try being disorderly and unmethodical in your writing.
There should be something seriously wrong with a first draft of anything. It’s a sign that you’re pushing it. A sign you’re not afraid of the mess.