Arrives around midnight, an itch on the inside of the skull. A nag– a voice of a friend or professor, perhaps editor if you’re lucky. “You should be writing.”
So you drag your sorry corpse from the sheets and sit before a blank screen, fingers poised. Wait, you need to drink something, not anything too caffeinated. You still must work tomorrow, the “real work,” whatever that means; you feel less as if you’re producing anything there than spinning your wheels, making enough money to rent an apartment where you may write. Where you may store the books you buy and never read, neglected friends forlorn on the shelf. But of course it is past midnight, and the story or the novel or the poem remains unfinished. An aching empty, a white space suggesting brilliance but yielding nothing.
David Foster Wallace once said, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” (Wallace interview here)
You worry about what it really is. Just words, your words even. A sad attempt at magic. You keep pulling rabbits from the hat, but they come out limp, dead. You envy the authors who make these tricks appear so easy, how they talk of their work as something natural. In their wizard presence, you’re a squib. But Ira Glass said something very similar about this terrible self-expectation.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
This sort of thinking lends me hope. When I was a younger, I was too stupid to question the validity of my work: of course I was a writer, destined to be a writer. I wrote a novel every year since the age of eleven, and while writing each manuscript, I never doubted it would be published. Now that I have my first novel published and some poems in journals, I am immobilized by the fear of not being good enough. My expectations for myself have drastically changed because I have the ability to perceive the gap between where I am and where I wish to be.
Sometimes the excuses come easy. I worked five months as a busboy in a fine dining restaurant following college graduation. I worked more than forty hours a week, often returning home exhausted. I would sit at the bottom of the shower, rubbing lotion on my calloused feet at one in the morning after working sixteen hour shifts, then wake up early again for another double. While I imagined this fast-pace life might have conjured stories, I became bloated with self-doubt. I didn’t write. I began and halted a few pieces. I gave up all summer revising my second novel, its direction unknown, the genre flip-flopping between magic realism and literary drama. I spent my days off in the library, typing at a school computer. I wrote first drafts for six or seven different stories over the summer, but still I could not forgive myself for not pushing myself further. After all, I had only become a busboy to create free time to write, to produce a schedule that would give me mornings to myself. And yet I found myself so often sleeping in, shirking all responsibilities.
When I quit being a busboy and began instead working at a used bookstore, I still didn’t use the free time wisely. Unlike in a typical job or even while at college, there were no concrete deadlines dangling over my head. It feels awful to be unable to recapture the productivity I embodied as a teenager or while I was in university; but I am learning too to forgive myself.
I am reading again. Mostly short stories. Returning to stories that shocked or changed me, stories that dug under my skin and remained with me. I sought out novels that had done the same. I have been spending entire afternoons on the Edge of America at Folly Beach, reading poems aloud to the Morris Island Lighthouse. I have spent entire days discovering discographies of jazz musicians to whom I’ve never before listened. I am unwrapping the world, and I can’t get it all down. Not all at once.
But I’m still trying. I have found a good new direction for revising my second novel and needed time away from it to figure out what to do. I am piecing together a poetry collection, which my publisher is currently reviewing. And I’m writing. Not always something I consider good or brilliant. I close my eyes and conjure something incredible in my head that never translates to the page. But I forgive myself for what I could not do, for what I could not write when I could not write. I forgive myself for waking late and sitting too long before blank pages before going to wash the dishes. Because it comes in the middle of the night.
I climb out of bed, something bouncing in the back of my skull. Insistent. An idea. A notion of where to take the story next. I sit down, and I write.
“Art is craft, not inspiration.” —Stephen Sondheim
“Sometimes you’re writing to learn how to write a book.” -Julia Fierro
Somewhere in the center of a dark forest stands a cauldron bubbling with black-tar potion. Magic-muse juice percolates within the cast-iron bucket, fumes of inspiration rising toward the night sky. Writers-become-pilgrims trek through this forest every year in search of creativity, the end-all-be-all-cure-all medicine for frustrating writer’s block.
Or perhaps we might imagine creativity in a lighter setting, a golden fluid imbibed by the gods of Olympia. The mind’s ambrosia. Perhaps a secret, clear formula hidden in the storage cache of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory.
When writers converse about creativity, we tend to mythologize the trait as something almost-unattainable, as something holy—manna falling from Heaven. Words dangling like strings from the fingers of God, alighting like snow on the tongue of a poet or novelist. We tend to engage with hefty, lofty metaphors in order to ensure others that creativity is a sacred attribute.
But creativity is a myth, indeed, if we cannot discuss concretely what we mean when we utter the word. Where does one acquire this magic muse-juice? Give me coordinates, longitude, latitude.
Maybe creativity is not a secret at all.
Creativity is a muscle.
Creativity is a habit that must be cultivated, strengthened through continuous use.
Much like the formal tools of writing—syntax, spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.—one becomes better at using creativity the more one engages with its practice. Practice being the operative term here.
I mean not to malign certain would-be writers, but I have encountered again and again English majors (with creative writing minors) who proclaim their intentions to float into the hallowed halls of author-hood post-graduation without having ever truly written anything. Maybe a story or two, a half-finished manuscript, but nothing more. They harbor the belief that one day, with degree and good juju, they will emerge as writers like a butterfly from a cocoon. Except that they never built a cocoon in the first place.
One must practice a craft in order to learn the craft. Creativity works the same way. I should preface also that “being a writer” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve published a book or will publish a book; publication is merely process validation for story-slingers, not the goal in and out itself. Writers write. If you write, then you are a writer.
When learning about writing—whether that means taking a creative writing course, interning at a publishing house, or reading blog posts like this one—one becomes aware only of the craft’s silhouette. This is akin to reading the autobiography of Michael Jordan in preparation to become a basketball player; a more playful analogy—a man reading the Kama Sutra so that he may become a master lover without ever having had sexual intercourse. Learning craft from a source outside yourself is merely supplementary education: writing will teach you to write better. Editing others’ stories, that’s even better.
Often, the first novel you will write is only going to be practice. Maybe you’ll get lucky and publish the novel, but this will be still practice for the next. I was about eleven or twelve when I decided I want to become a writer. On that day I sat down at a computer and wrote a book. Took about a year. A horrible, short, badly-plotted, cliché book, but hey, I was twelve! I forced my mother and fifth grade teacher to read said book, and looking back I can imagine their horror at the violence and pessimism of the story. A year later, I was bored with the manuscript, as children may be, so I wrote something longer, more complex. Still childish, but nevertheless, book-length. Ninety-thousand words or so. In about two years.
This trend of writing sloppy manuscripts continued throughout my adolescence. I was singularly determined to be published before the age of sixteen, and of course I’m overjoyed that I was not published. During that time, however, I learned about craft; I learned about characterization; I learned about the economy of words. I even learned to write query letters and write a decent synopsis. Although at the time my purpose was only to publish these stories, I realize now that these experiments informed my later writing. Even now, I recognize that I am still building up toward something better, a story more precise and beautiful than anything I could create now.
Around the age of sixteen, after having penned six or seven bad novels, I began The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (which was, I should mention, my first foray into realistic fiction after a string of fantasy and super-transgressive noir-crime). This novel too was a sloppy mess, and I spent about two years editing and re-writing before I began sending it out to publishers.
Three years later, I finally got the “yes.”
The above anecdote is not designed to brag on my adolescent ambitions, but only to provide a point. One must write to learn to write. Of course I took a few classes and workshops during these teen years; I scribbled notes while listening to panels at book conventions. But the experiences of story-telling, the ritual of always working on something new, created a habit of writing: now I write almost every day, clocking in particular hours of writing or editing to get the work done. Since writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I have written three other manuscripts (two of which are serviceable and that I’m currently whipping into shape). Through this, I mean to infer, I’m still writing. I’m doing work.
Naturally I still encounter “writer’s block” or a lack of inspiration, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my work done. Like a runner straining through the pain on his final lap, a writer can be creative without feeling any special inspiration. Therefore, the myth of creativity and the muse, of stories-come-God—I don’t buy it, not one bit.
Writing is hard work. Yes, it is an incredible fun, eye-opening, soul-searching experience, but at the same time, it’s work. The writer must first practice his free throws before he becomes Michael Jordan; for the record, I’m still trying. For the record, I’m still on the community court throwing free throws. Dear aspiring writer: you are too.
There is no secret to creativity, then. There is only sweat.
You want muse-juice? Drink some coffee, some green tea. Chew gum. Crack your knuckles. Then get to work.
Is there something intrinsically different about the way a poet lives versus other people? Do they carry around magical golden powder they snort up their nostrils so their creative juices flow? Perhaps a Grimmorie inscribed in a foreign, forgotten language reminiscent of the clichéd hieroglyphs featured in The Mummy trilogy.
The poetic life, though it inspires poetry that we read and enjoy, does not exist under mystical circumstances but rather a set of principles with which to live according to. And not so much principles in the way of a stringent constitution—these ideas and methods have worked for me, so if they fail to work for anyone else, then that isn’t exactly because they don’t work. Ultimately, no one can really criticize or teach life or poetry or anything else because no one is an expert—we are allowed only an intimate case study from which to draw from.
Don’t look at this like some poorly-wrought constitution, but instead a personal manifesto, if anything only a written reminder to myself of how I should live. Not just in a moral sense, but in a poetic sense—is there such thing as a poetic life? These things I’ve been considering for many weeks, reading books on the idea including Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Rilke.
The philosophy of psychology and the psychology of philosophy come to very much the same conclusion: humans have an innate desire to understand themselves, their world, and how they interact with the world.
Each day, I will post something new, a short essay or explanation of a facet of the poetic life, something I think everyone should strive to understand. Because a poetic life does not only help the poet produce decent, sincere poetry, but it also allows a man to live a sincere life. He constantly thinks.
That’s the first challenge—to think. Not just in class or when in times of turmoil, but every day, all of the time, to the point that thoughts become exhausting. Concentrate on your life, on your actions. Do not act on impulse, but instead consider each action individually. Develop ideas from everyday experiences. Why can’t a trip to the bathroom or a morning shower or a walk downtown inspire?
We have familiarized ourselves with beauty and no longer recognize it’s beautiful. We fail to learn from aesthetics, as beauty too is a type of knowledge. Contemplate all things, every stray word, every gesture, as if the world is a narrative to deconstruct—but never say a shallow thing. Never read from the script of preconceived ideas, of things you repeat, you rehearse, you eject constantly.
For the next week, maybe two, I will contemplate these ideas and share my thoughts with you. If you have more to say on the subject, comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts. What does it mean to live a “poetic life?”
The librarian here in Aiken lowered her glasses and pursed her lips (in typical draconian/librarian style) as I jigged through the lobby, hopping on one foot, leaping into the air to complete graceful ballet turns, and waltzing all by myself. I waved a magazine like a banner as I pranced outside. Why? Because my first feature article was published on December 1st. If you don’t live in the CSRA area, you can check it out here. Page 19, not that I memorized that or anything.
I will know be able to boast as a professional poet (since I’ve had poetry published) and a working journalist. Now, just to get that novel published. Speaking of which, I sent loads of query letters lately. Spoken to many, many agencies. Statistically, I’m sure that if I have sent my novel to over 200 people, one will be bound to like it. Just one is all I need.
The feature story I published for Verge concerned NaNoWriMo. I felt a certain elated pride in seeing my name on the byline. It gave me a peculiar feeling; there is an other-worldliness with having your work out there. While I know people read this blog, I don’t feel that it’s quite a same. Though I’m extremely obsessive about checking view counts, I think of a feature article in a different way.
You see, there’s not me there. In a blog, I inject myself into each post so that it froths over with my personality. Like when you put Mentos in a diet coke bottle.
But a magazine type story, that breeds a different readability. You are being read by many, many people, most of whom you’ve never met. Not many of them will give you feedback on what they thought. There is no comment section for a newspaper. Not really. So instead you’re consumed by the anonymous masses. Unless it’s a column, it’s not you, either. You can’t convince people to like you based on personality. The writer needs to be able to write. Except for that byline, a newspaper article can’t really represent you. The reader can’t see the writer behind the work, as much as they can when they read a poem or memoir.
The best way to relay this is to give the explaining away to a higher authority. By that, I mean, Chuck Palahniuk. This is a story he tells in his essay (13 tips): http://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/stocking-stuffers-13-writing-tips-from-chuck-palahniuk
Almost every morning, I eat breakfast in the same diner, and this morning a man was painting the windows with Christmas designs. Snowmen. Snowflakes. Bells. Santa Claus. He stood outside on the sidewalk, painting in the freezing cold, his breath steaming, alternating brushes and rollers with different colors of paint. Inside the diner, the customers and servers watched as he layered red and white and blue paint on the outside of the big windows. Behind him the rain changed to snow, falling sideways in the wind.
The painter’s hair was all different colors of gray, and his face was slack and wrinkled as the empty ass of his jeans. Between colors, he’d stop to drink something out of a paper cup.
Watching him from inside, eating eggs and toast, somebody said it was sad. This customer said the man was probably a failed artist. It was probably whiskey in the cup. He probably had a studio full of failed paintings and now made his living decorating cheesy restaurant and grocery store windows. Just sad, sad, sad.
This painter guy kept putting up the colors. All the white “snow,” first. Then some fields of red and green. Then some black outlines that made the color shapes into Xmas stockings and trees.
A server walked around, pouring coffee for people, and said, “That’s so neat. I wish I could do that…”
And whether we envied or pitied this guy in the cold, he kept painting. Adding details and layers of color. And I’m not sure when it happened, but at some moment he wasn’t there. The pictures themselves were so rich, they filled the windows so well, the colors so bright, that the painter had left. Whether he was a failure or a hero. He’d disappeared, gone off to wherever, and all we were seeing was his work.
I hope you can glean some perspective from that story. Blogs give us unrealistic expectation of reader feedback. One day, I’ll just open a newspaper to read a review and there would be any option to “accept” or “deny.” It shall just be.
When you’re writing a story for a magazine or newspaper, you have only that by-line to represent you. That’s you in three words:
By Derek Berry
When I first started out, the advice I got the most was, “Write what you know.” This did not make much sense to me, since I was in fifth grade, and I wanted to write fantasy. And it’s a good thing I started out writing fantasy because it forces you to figure out the “rules” to your world, which, even if you’re writing a novel set in reality, you still must do.You still twist reality enough to constitute the need for rules. But here I was, 11, writing fantasy, yet people told me to “write what I knew.”
I thought that meant people wanted me to write about my life,which was boring. I might only be able to describe the highlight of my week as a Pokemon card game. Nothing major was happening in my life at the time, nothing I wanted to write about or felt comfortable writing, anyways. But now I see the purpose of the rule. It provides a sort of practice.
If how to describe something mundane, like a cookie or the scenery of a room, you’ll be better at expressing the minutiae of life. Which will make it much easier when you try to tackle larger ideas, you can write them better. When you conceived an immensely complicated but significant idea, you’ll know how to put that idea into words. But you have to start with describing the concrete before you can the abstract. From the concrete, you learn stylistic techniques that will help you in the long run.
The same rule goes for stories. If you begin writing stories about your day, your daily routine– how you bush your teeth and wait for your dog to poop in your neighbor’s lawn during your morning walk– it’s not a waste of time. Not many people many want to read such tedious chronicles of the most basic activities, but this will train you to be able to describe big-set scenes in the future.
Now, if you want to ever get published, you will one day have to write something someone will want to read. When writing without the intent of publication, however, you needn’t worry about the fickle tastes of the readers. Instead, do you. Write about whatever interests you, even if it’s butterflies. Spend pages describing a tin roof or the bark on a tree. In a published novel, this might not fly.
But the honest truth is, you’ll need to write thousands and thousands (hundreds of thousands) of words meant for fiction before writing anything “good.” This is not to demean you. It’s just a fact. Writers must write for a good long time before finding their voice. It’s a sort of writerly puberty, if you’d like to think of it like that. Sure, for a while, you’ll speak high-pitched, but then eventually you’ll get some hair on your chest. You know who had a lot of hair on his chest? Ernest Hemingway. No, seriosuly, he did.
So you spend a lot of time honing your craft, writing whatever you’d like. You must do this before attempting to write for the market or else you’ll start copying others’ styles and stories. You’ll be the writer writing paranormal romances and stories called The Boy with the Penguin Tattoo.
You have to find your voice before really delving into the selling part of writing. And that’s just if you want to get read. But if you’re just starting out, write for yourself, then focus on others. Write about the little things that worry you, then you’ll have practice to tackle the huge existential questions you might face in the future.
For the record, I would definitely read The Boy with the Penguin Tattoo.
Whenever studying classics, I notice that authors of centuries past went on symbol trips. I’m talking, symbol-overload. Everything symbolizes something about the rest of the story and furthermore, it becomes super obvious what the symbols are and what they symbolize.Some like Herman Melville do this with finesse: the white hale in Moby Dick encompasses so many different symbols, means so many different things. Remember, though, that some symbols are universal.
It’s nighttime and raining. It’s midnight on the Ides of March. Will something sicked go down? *Cue black cat and witch, cackling while she stirs her bubbling cauldron.*
While two-hundred years ago, this was acceptable, don’t place these overused trappings into your story, cause you’ll be headed straight for Clicheville. When writing in contemporary times, you need to use symbols more intelligently.
As a writer, it is your duty to present a story previously untold. Readers look, however, not just for a surprising plot, but also surprises throughout the story. The best way to do this is to create surprises in description. Make will blow your reader away. So, what I mean is… don’t describe a street by looking at a street. A character knows what a typical street looks like. Don’t tell us what makes the street a street, but sets it apart
Similarly, don’t give your villain an eye patch and a East European accent. Readers see this and know what to expect. So give them the unexpected. When describing someone during winter, don’t bother talking about their clothing if they’re wearing normal clothing. If they’re sporting a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, that’s worth a mention.
Symbols work the same way. This age of colorism, where red= passion, black= death, and blue= the human psyche, is over. Don’t rely on past conventions. Instead, create your own. Let your symbols be more than just symbols.Let nothing merely symbolize something if it does not truly play a part in your story.
If your main character is the representation of the white male demographic, there’s a problem. that’s a flat character meant only to symbolize something. Don’t do that. I repeat, don’t do that. It’s fine if your characters do “symbolize” some things, but create real characters, not just manifestations of “the effects of drugs on society” and “father-son relationships.” People are more complicated than can be verbalized in a theme, so write people, not characters.
That’s all for today. While it’s important to study literature of the past, remember that you’re writing for a new generation of readers who may not be amused by you placing a large nose on a “nosy” character.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you notice a decline in apparent symbolism in modern books compared to books written one hundred years ago? Or has symbolism become more vague, suggesting rather “signifying” something? Share your thoughts below.
The problem with writing analytical essays on novels and short stories is that they generally suck. The problem with citing the text to support your theories is that sometimes it’s what the author leaves out that helps support your theory. Some feelings arise from what is missing from the story.
For example, names. If a character isn’t named, only referred to as “the construction worker” or “the boy,” that may mean
something. Either that the character is insignificant or is representative of a large group, rather than characterized as an individual.
Just how as a writer, by never using the word “utilize,” you prove that you’re not a total tool.
If writing had real rules (which is doesn’t, really) one should be to never used words like “utilize.” For some reason, every time I see someone utilize that word, I want to utilize a wrench to bash open their pretentious skulls.
Maybe I’m getting off topic.
Leave out some of the story—don’t feel the need to explicitly tell everything that happens. Allow your words to imply something. Now, don’t go James Joyce on us, writing like a grad student lovelorn with postmodern literature, whose sentences are merely labyrinths of confusing symbols and half-disguised political commentary. So, show us a little, but don’t overdo it. We want the woman showing just enough so that we can imagine what’s underneath without being able to see it. Meaning: Don’t wear a story burka.
Some writers explicitly explain the themes of their stories within the stories, and this could work, depending on how you do it. But don’t write the theme like that of a fable. In italics at the beginning of the story.
Everything is not what it seems.
That sort of overwrought explicitly is annoying. The writing comes across as didactic, as if you’re writing for children. Never underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Let them figure it out.
Here is an oversimplified explanation that might help.
Scene: two married people having a conversation.
Don’t write, “Mark was nervous.”
Write, “Mark wiped the sweat from his brow.” Write, “Mark picked his teeth.”
Have you ever been nervous? Then write that action that will convey to the reader nervousness.
Don’t write, “Mark had been unfaithful to Melinda. He had slept with his secretary.”
Write, “Mark pocketed his left hand where his wedding band should have been. It lay still on the corner of his desk in his office.”
These sorts of implications spice up your story, so that your reader makes the connection. The reader writes the story in his or her head, the story you do not need to necessarily write. Let the reader fill in the blanks. The best essay I’ve ever read on how to convey emotion through not writing something is by Craig Clevinger (I’m reading his first novel right now, and yeah, it’s good). He uses what he calls “Slot Machine Memory.” Feel free to read that here and abandon my advice forever: http://litreactor.com/essays/craig-clevenger/the-devil-in-the-details.
When every word counts, leaving some out is a good thing. There are some things authors include that simply are not necessary. Never write, “Travis is a jerk,” if you’ve just written a scene showing how much of a jerk Travis is. If Travis forces his employees to work through Easter weekend despite planning to plane it out to Jamaica himself, we understand the message: TRAVIS IS A JERK.
What do you think about this method of writing? Do you feel writers put too much in or leave too much out? I think it depends on the story. The find the right mixture of what to tell, what not to—that’s very difficult. Write on, writer friends. Write on.