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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?

And yet.

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.


  • ed finman says:

    I’m a messy reader. Haven’t been able to focus long enough. Being a visual learner allows me to think pleasantries about your mother & aunt, & so many more folks that crossed the threshold at Leo’s. Tried to write about some of those experiences, it’s fun.

    I’m waiting to see a response from my K-5 art teaching daughter in Chapel Hill who does read.

    • Judy Goldman says:

      Ed, thanks for your note. Focus! Write those stories about your wonderful parents and their place where so many Jewish and non-Jewish people gathered. You’ve got rich material!

  • J Mitchem says:

    Great post, Judy. I followed a similar path with my book, going in only with an ending. After reading Pressfield’s “War of Art” I decided to trust the process (muses) and it guided my way.

    I like what you say at the end. It reminds me of the Flaubert quote about being orderly in life in order to be violent and original in your work.

    • Judy Goldman says:

      Thanks for your note, Jim. Laurie recently quoted from that book; I’m glad you reminded me to get it. If messiness produced your novel, then stay with it. You’ve got a winning process. Yes. Flaubert. Love his quote. Hadn’t thought about it till your mention.

  • Brenda Graham says:

    I so enjoyed reading this, Judy! It made me realize how my ego tries to box in my poetry, and how I rip it apart to shape it into being what I want it to be, without letting it flow freely in the first place! Great eye-opener today; however, I must clean up my desk, or I won’t be able to even find those little quirky beings (poems)! Thanks