What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”


Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”

Rate This Article

A Self-Interview Guide for the Writer

A Pen In Each Hand

By harpspeed

Over the years, I’ve been asked some interesting questions about the writing life. Attending social gatherings can be fun but they can also feel more like a job interview than a party. I personally try to avoid the subject of writing especially when in the company of strangers. Yet, sometimes the questions cannot be avoided, especially when I am introduced as “my friend, the writer.” So, get your pens out and whip up some quips for the next holiday gathering—interview yourself. Keep in mind that you never know whom you may meet at a backyard barbeque. Here are some questions to get you started. Feel free to leave a comment if you would like to share any additional writerly questions.

  • Are you a “real” writer?
  • So what exactly do you write?
  • Where can I read your work?
  • Do you have a day job?
  • Have you published anything?
  • Don’t you want to be published?
  • Does your family know you do this?
  • How do you find the time to write?
  • Where do you write?
  • Are you one of those people I see at Starbucks?
  • What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
  • What is your creative process?
  • Do you have a good luck charm?
  • I got this great idea for a novel. Maybe you could—you know—ghostwrite it with me?
  • Do you write about people you know?
  • Can I be in your story?
  • What writers do you read?

My Writing Space

“My Writing Space” is a series about writers and the places in which they write. To contribute, send a photo of your writing space along with a paragraph or two describing it and its influence on your writing to beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line “My Writing Space.”

Been meaning to send in a photo of your space, but haven’t got around to it yet? Now would be a great time to do it. You could see your space featured here next week!

My Writing Space: Carole Snow Smith

“My Writing Space” is a series about writers and the places in which they write. To contribute, send a photo of your writing space along with a paragraph or two describing it and its influence on your writing to beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line “My Writing Space.”

Stark and meaningful. I write flush against a beige wall next to the front door of my urban apartment. I don’t know if I am in line with the tenants of Feng Shui, but I recall something about having your desk face the door in alignment with being open to opportunity. I am indeed open as I will cash in any straight navigation through a five year plan, in favor of the ten year plan that leaves you eating flat bread with strangers in the alleys of the world.

Six, suspended objects that accompany me when I write taut defiance, instability and loyal memory. Moving clockwise, we start with the skewed still life from my now passed-on grandma, Daisy. She was Cumberland Plateau stock with a prolific catalog of mediocre paintings. Most  were Tennessee landscapes in the Appalachians, but on the day of her funeral, my cousin and I took this off the hooks from her secretary desk in the attic workspace. I like it because it appeared dark like the attic space and the pencil jar and faint plate in the background existed in a vacuum.

The next item, my framed diploma from some elite night school. I’m also sheepish at the thought, but single moms who take the backwards route and ten years in undergrad need a gold star too. So it sits and I have yet to make more salary than my tuition to that school. When the alumni office calls at the end of the year, I chuckle and wonder what it’s like to buy something at the mall, full price.

A wooden plaque with Anne Lamott’s famous warning, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” is anchored by twine, words etched with a wood burner. A gift from my friend Ben Smallwood, Colorado artist who for my birthday wanted me to have permission to write freely.

In the rustic frame sits a page from an old college Blue Book exam where I have written out the definition of “cognitive dissonance”. I say in parenthesis that I like this theory because I’ve been pissed off all my life. My professor writes back, “me too!!” And to think, he gives advice on marital communication on PBS sometimes.

Above that in the ornate, teal frame is a print of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz. I appreciate her, by proxy to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know in my own life how tragic the muse figures can be, but aren’t they fun for a moment to drink and adventure with?

At the top, a Nepali mask. I have no idea what it means or why it’s significant. I like that it was a spur of the moment gift from my friend Rabindra as my airport cab pulled away from the American Alpine Clubhouse in Kathmandu. I said, “Rabindra, what is this?” I think he gave the classic it keeps the spirits away response—but I could only muster in return, “it looks like my mother,” and blew a wild kiss as the car moved down the cobbled back alley.

The 2014 A Midsummer Tale Writing Contest is OPEN

A Midsummer Tale is a summer-themed narrative writing contest open to non-genre fiction and creative nonfiction.

The theme of the 2014 A Midsummer Tale writing contest is: Song of the Summer.

Deadline for entries is June 21, 2014.

Get all the details here. (Don’t forget to read the general contest guidelines as well.)

Questions? Ask away.

March 2014
Daily Writing Prompts

A Pen In Each Hand

  1. March comes in like a lion.
  2. Missed chat? Get today’s prompts at Twitter.
    1. Use the following words: decision, season, worst, unlike, another.
    2. Write about preparations for a storm that didn’t come.
    3. A character has a conversation with him/herself.
  3. You disconnected just before I said ____
  4. Use these words: detour, lists, memoirist, routine, suffer.
  5. There’s no time to procrastinate.
  6. Eavesdrop on people on transit; write down dialogue to use later.
  7. Change something important about a character & rewrite the scene.
  8. A dinner party where every guest has a special request.
  9. Missed chat? Get today’s prompts at Twitter.
    1. Use the following five words: battered, through, sputter, silent, eaten.
    2. Fill in the blank: “I remember when you used to _____.”
    3. Write about trying to impress a mentor.
  10. Begin with: “We are excited to announce…”
  11. “It’s too late to change it. We’ll find out…”
  12. Use these animals: lizard, turtle, fish, cockroach, bird.
  13. “Where did the computer put that?”
  14. Write about a meteor shower.
  15. Write about lost medical paperwork.
  16. Missed chat? Get today’s prompts at Twitter.
    1. Use the following words: involved, subsequent, overall, world, point.
    2. Write about something growing from a seed.
    3. Write about something that’s too small or too large for its purpose.
  17. “Wow! The gadget is doing something!”
  18. Write about a memorable food from your childhood.
  19. Lonely in no-man’s land.
  20. Begin with: “We are building…”
  21. Invent a perfectly cromulent new word.
  22. Write about a spring snowstorm.
  23. Missed chat? Get today’s prompts at Twitter.
    1. Use the following five words: gloves, eaten, built, stained, agony.
    2. Write about something that’s a clone, copy, or imitation.
    3. Fill in the blank: “We’re off to see the _____.”
  24. A recipe plays an important role in your story.
  25. Write about a guess that turns out to be wrong.
  26. Use these words: apprenticeship, journey, talismans, sanctuary, cage.
  27. “It’s not doing what you said it would.”
  28. Begin with: “I have my doubts about…”
  29. Use the disembodied voice of a GPS as a character.
  30. Missed chat? Get today’s prompts at Twitter.
    1. Use the following words: millions, apart, departures, promising, close.
    2. Compare two incomparable things.
    3. Something moves to the top of the list.
  31. March goes out like a lamb.

My Writing Space: Lynda Chambers

“My Writing Space” is a series about writers and the places in which they write. To contribute, send a photo of your writing space along with a paragraph or two describing it and its influence on your writing to beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line “My Writing Space.”

mws_chambersI have two favourite writing spaces. In the winter, I’m in the solarium with the heater going and the rain dripping all around me. It’s like being outside. The light is bright even with cloud cover and the air has a green quality because of giant hemlock, fir and cedar that loom just beyond the glass in all directions—even up. The trees are taller here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. It is a quiet place and invites contemplation and creativity. Sometimes the cat joins me and sleeps on the table next to my notebook computer. His contentment convinces me that all is well and I give myself over then to writing, ignoring for the moment all temptation to be somewhere else or do something else. That’s the hardest part about writing—the discipline to just do it. So this ritual and this special place help me.

In the summer, I am in the gazebo. It’s warm there and, on weekday mornings, quiet. I use an old pine table for a writing surface and sit in a cheap plastic chair. It’s OK. It works. Writing by hand comes more naturally in this setting so often I leave my computer behind and head out with only pen, paper and a glass of water. The wood chip trail that leads to the gazebo is just long enough to give me the sense that I have left the “everyday” behind. That’s a priceless feeling. I find my imagination kicks in more when I feel removed from the ordinary—as if existing for a time on a different plane.

I’m looking forward to writing outside again soon, sheltered from the sun under the gazebo’s cedar shake roof. For now, though, I’m still confined to my glass world and resigned to the sound of rain. It’ll do.

The Spring 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Writing Contest Weekend has begun!

Three Cheers and a Tiger is a writing contest that challenges you to write a complete story on a specific topic within a single weekend (48 hours). The spring contest is for MYSTERY stories. The contest guidelines are HERE.

The Spring 2014 contest starts NOW (5 p.m. ET, Friday March 21) and closes at 5 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 23.

  • ETA: Due to the delay in the posting of the topic and word range, the deadline has been extended to Sunday, March 23 at 6 p.m. ET.

You can find the topic and word range for this year’s contest at Just the Place for a Snark.

Now, go! Write, write, write! You can do it! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! GRRR!

My Writing Space: Lynn Bauman-Milner

“My Writing Space” is a series about writers and the places in which they write. To contribute, send a photo of your writing space along with a paragraph or two describing it and its influence on your writing to beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line “My Writing Space.”


I waited for almost ten years to have a dedicated space to myself, a Woolf-esque room of my own. During that time, my space has shifted from the kitchen, to the dining room, then finally to a shared office with my husband. But now, I have this lovely conservatory all to myself. When the door closes, no one is allowed in (except for the cats, of course). The windows look out onto my back garden here in West Yorkshire, which is much nicer to look at since having it redone. I can stare out the window, and watch the grass blow in the breeze while I work out a scene. Or (more likely) fixate on how long the grass is and I should really get out there and mow it, thereby avoiding the plot-knot snarling up my brain.

mws_bauman-milner_2This room has been the focus of all my writing activities—from short stories to longer projects to lesson plans and resources. The desk was a gift from my parents, purchased from a charity shop on one of their very rare visits to the UK. This desk has seen me through at least three different computers, five broken printers, two houses, eight years of teaching, and one novel (with two more on the way). Both the desk and the room have acquired a fair amount of clutter, but it is organized and out of the way. And it’s my clutter. So there.

As long as there is space for a coffee cup, a clear path to the keyboard, and a box for the cat to sleep in (not on my hands while I’m typing), I’m happy.