“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.
If you have been reading this blog,
if you really LOVE me, then you know that I have written a book. I am currently working on my second novel while begging pathetically enticing agents to help me get the first published.
As I write, I have realized that as far as plans go… I’m like Scooby Doo and the mystery team going to arrest the villain.
It’s not that I don’t have a plan, only that I never follow it. I plan as well Harry Potter did before attempting to track down Lord Voldemort’s highly elusive horocruxes that could be hidden in literally any normal-looking object around the world or George Bush before he sent America to war.
Frankly, I don’t have much of a plan. Much like George Jr, I have the intention to “finish at some point,” but how that ending will go down, no one knows. But I feel that in novel-writing, unlike war, it is a good idea to have only a vague plan.
If you plan too concretely, you lose the fun of writing. Part of the greatness of writing is the same as reading which is that you get to be shocked. Sometimes, your characters do something that really shocks you… like, AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Planning too far ahead, you know what’s going to happen, which means you will subconsciously implant foreshadowing too soon in a story. The major problem I have with most foreshadowing is that it’s too obvious– foreshadowing should be the clues that readers pick up perhaps on only the second read-through. If a reader knows already what will occur, why continue reading? If the authors implies that the main character will die, why keep reading? Death seems like a pretty finite ending, no matter how it comes about.
I do start with an inkling of what will happen. I especially know what might happen in the next few chapters and where I want the characters to end up by the close of the story. I generally pre-write various scenes in the novel that have a lot of impact, but the small scenes… the little digressive forays into satirical depictions of the public school system and a scene concerning a secretive Ku Klux Klan meeting where the hooded members discuss allowing a black member into their clique… those are generally made up as I write. There’s nothing that boosts creativity like spontaneity.
It’s just like how I plan to get my hair cut but never do. But when I do, eventually… I’ll stop looking like Mick Jagger and have a realy cool hairstyle that doesn’t touch my shoulders. I feel so much like an eighties rocker.
It’s just like….. life, because that metaphor hasn’t been beaten like a dead cliche that happens to be ride-able like a horse.
I have plans, sure… I have dreams. I just don’t have very detailed plans. These plans do not involve explicit instructions with sub-points A, B, and C underneath I., II., and III. If I really planned so heavily, I’d be boring.
This post is especially devoted to you Nanowrimers out there who are plotting away your 50,000 masterpieces
of crap and must plot on-the-spot. Don’t worry too much about a roadmap or plan. Just…. write. Surprise yourself, then surprise your readers. All the rest will either work out or not work out, either one; I don’t really know, since I have yet to plan that far.