I have been posting my writing word counts to Facebook lately, and people ask me about the process. Here's an explanation and an example from my own recent work. The piece is a written response to an essay I published two years ago called "Heartbroken for Lebanon."
Peter Elbow is a famous proponent of the freewriting technique, which most writing teachers accept as a good way to generate first draft material and ideas for revision. His book Writing Without Teachers describes the method; you could also read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.
The method: write any old thing for a certain period of time. Don't correct, don't stop to think, don't plan, don't worry, just spew. Get loose and see what comes up.
Much of my fiction and non-fiction starts out as a kind of freewrite; I do edit a great deal but only after I have a good chunk of first draft material out on the page (or the screen) where I can see it.
Two weeks ago I read at Mills College as one of the contributors to the Homelands Anthology. My essay was written in July of 2006, as Israeli bombs were falling on my home village and my father was dying of cancer in California. In it I wrote of our family property which is now a Palestinian refugee camp, and also that I was heartbroken because I would never return to Lebanon. I was in utter despair when I wrote that piece.
Now more than two years later, having just returned from a trip to Lebanon, I'm in a completely different place. Lebanon is in a different place. I am living with metastatic breast cancer and I can't afford despair. I didn't want to read the same essay again. So a couple of hours before I was supposed to read, I did a freewrite on the subject "Heartbroken." I edited lightly, stood up, told the audience what I had done, and read it. This is the piece:
Was my heart broken
or was it my liver
What broke during the war, the war of '06, of 82, of 85, the destruction of Jenin, the invasion of Iraq, the war against the poor,
did my heart break or did my faith break?
Did my hope break?
I didn't write of my father, cancer eating him, resentment, fear and anguish killing him, a month after the bombs stopped that summer. Nor did I write of my cousin dying too, cancer too, that summer too.
I refuse to read that essay
I am tired of reciting the laments of the broken hearted
The world is full of suffering
if you can walk through the suffering you can sometimes return
to a place that has been broken and yet mended.
I returned to Lebanon last month, my breast gone, my liver scarred, my bones sclerotic, the lung healing from the node that spread somehow, despite all the poison, the treatment, the hope.
I returned to Lebanon and the roads are rebuilt, and my body is mending, and I am blasted and bald and hobbled by medicines, by the war against the cells that seem to be at war against my body
and despite my despair
despite travel warnings and land mines and motorcycle bombs
I returned to find
my cousins still harvest olives, my uncles still twirl their worry beads and drink coffee in the garden.
The friend of thirty years ago appears, gray-haired now, veiled wife in tow, bringing his photo album, pictures of all of us when we were young. As if thirty years of war never happened, as if the only war is time ravaging our skin, our teeth, our hair, unseen organs of our bodies pumping secrets, ticking.
New olive tree saplings grow next to the old. New apartment buildings eat the orchards. New garbage mountain rises next to the sea. I have two homes, maybe three, I have many homelands: Brooklyn, Mieh-Mieh, Oakland.
I go down to Sidon with my uncle to sign papers with the notary, in case they declare peace, in case the Palestinians leave the camp, in case I can claim the land my father left me in his will. It's worth two hours and some change for the meter, a peasant's bet, my precious time and fifty cents wagered against a big fat chunk of money, against UN resolutions, and forced migrations, and negotiations I try to ignore. What are the odds after sixty years that the Palestinians will find justice?
What are the odds that I would return to Lebanon after that war, after a year of weekly poison drips, of Pet Scans and MRIs and blood tests and stern-looking oncologists? I used to say I would not live to see that land returned, the Palestinians returned. That was when I was sure I would live to ninety-six. Now my uncle thinks they might give our land back to us in two years. I plan to live that long, and longer; I don't know, but I don't give up hope for anything. Not anymore.
After all these wars, three thousand years of history, countless destructions of the city, they have installed parking meters in downtown Sidon; we find a place for my dad's battle-scarred Mercedes and I drop in a 500 lira coin and we go up to the office. The lady prints an Arabic affidavit from a Hewlett Packard Laserjet and I sign my name, in English: one more improbable mark on a ballot for hope.
The photo at the top of this post is of me in my ancestral home, writing on the balcony. Yes that's "our" view of the Mediterranean. The photo at the bottom is of a parking meter in Sidon. (not ours, I drive a 78 Mercedes in Lebanon, not a Beamer)