When I a piece of narrative non-fiction I always begin with a general idea that, though vague, seems to have potential. It may center on a poignant moment, when my concept of a part of the world was altered or clarified. When the idea occurs to me it is amorphous, it could be pulled in this or that direction. For example I may have a moment in my life in mind, and I could write about it from so many different perspectives, all of which are still my own. I experienced and then remembered every moment on many different levels, and I have to choose the ones to include. At this point I also have to focus on the audience of this piece. This is what I call the So What? factor. Interesting to me does not automatically mean interesting to anyone else. The story has to be a message, to have a point, to have an end that is more substantial then the chronological end. Whatever I decide is for the audience, that element becomes one of many filters I put my thoughts through before I decide what qualifies to go into my paper. It is also handwritten, boxed, and there to remind me that as much as I enjoy a thorough exploration of this particular feeling, if it has no relation to the message then it is self-serving and should be cut.
After coming up with a general concentration, and why it can be entertaining and engaging, I quickly jot down facets of the experience. This is always in freehand, and includes people that were there, and the elements of their character to include. I also focus on the physicality of the experience, the internal dialogue during the scene, and the exposition that I will include that branches out before the experience. These are points that prove or focus my narrative. Many of this points end up getting crossed out as it is through the process of writing them down that I can tell their validity and relevance. Occasionally a whole side of my final paper emerges while writing these notes, the sort of “fell out of the sky” idea and I block out a phrase or sentence followed by a few words that will hopefully remind me of my thoughts on it. I feel like during this whole stage I am chasing my thoughts, and if they are not down on paper fast enough the clarity and certainty that I fleetingly grasp will escape before I can nail it down.
Other times while I write out points I am surprised by when I have written, and unimportant exposition reveals a whole new idea to me. I look at the words on the page and realize that they could say much more than I intended, and through them I can find a much more complex and interesting argument. Then I’m back to chasing the thoughts with my pen before the words can revert back to their original unremarkable meaning.
After my handwritten notes are completed I mark up the page with all sorts of corrections and clarifications. I decide on the order of the different subtopics, figure out if they fit, and if so, where. When I transcribe my notes on the computer the rush is all out of the process. I start with my briefly scribbled note and type it out into my word processor, referring to the bare frame of the content on my page and fleshing it out so that the articulation of that point has some style and voice. Inevitably some of my “brilliant” moments of handwriting fall to pieces when I try to expand them in this process, and I cannot put together why I felt that they said so much.
This is the process I go through when working on my first draft. I need a bare bones handwritten outline that is completely structural before I can begin to add style and tone at a computer. If I try to bypass that step then I have style, voice, but no content of interest beneath it. After the first draft I must take a step back from the piece to revise it. I know that a revision may include a rejection of a whole area of my piece’s foundation, so the first time around I want to be sure that the draft of my work is strong and that any shortcomings of style will not sabotage a solid foundation and trick me into questioning the core of the piece.