Nearby where I live in Portland, Oregon, is the Columbia Gorge, a canyon of great beauty carved by the mighty Columbia River. All along the rim of the gorge flow an abundance of waterfalls and throughout this green, mossy area, there are a series of interconnected trails that are great favorites of people from the city. Each discrete trail leads to a certain waterfall or a specific outlook, and yet the last time I hiked the Gorge this past summer I was fascinated to stop and study a map, etched into a wood sign at a fork in the trail. I could see how the trail I was on intersected with numerous other trails that would lead me to different waterfalls or a new campsite. Separate trails, specific destinations, yet all interconnected.
This is my image of what it takes to master the craft of writing: Every writer sets off on a path that eventually branches into three forks. Each of these forks, or aspects, of writing is a separate discipline, but they are all interconnected. We must explore all the branches of the path in order to become great writers. I define these three paths as story, style, and creativity.
When I originally conceived this article I thought to spend an equal amount of time on each path, but as usual, my ideas morphed as I went along. And so today I’m going to briefly talk about style and story and spend most of the lecture on creativity. Let me start with style. By style I mean all the technical, craft aspects of writing that we must all understand and master: description, viewpoint, characterization, dialogue, scene, etc. The best way to master these techniques is to practice them, of course, but it is also helpful to read about them.
To master craft you choose to read any of the five million books which are written on various aspects of writing. Better yet, just read novels, or short stories, or screenplays, whatever it is that you desire to write. In this program, and in most MFA programs, we require students to write essays on various aspects of writing gleaned from their reading. I think this is an excellent way to teach oneself craft. This may sound really dorky, and it probably is, but to this day, despite the fact I graduated from an MFA program four years ago, I still sometimes do this. If there’s an aspect of craft or technique I want to study further for use in my own work, I sometimes write an essay about it. Or you can just write about it in your journal. You do keep a journal, don’t you?
When I was pulling together my ideas for this talk, I went back and listened to a lecture by one of my former mentors, Melissa Pritchard. She made a great remark about style: “Don’t be cowed by technique. It exists to serve the authenticity of the story.” I love that comment and I think it’s very important to keep in mind. We’ve all had the experience of reading the work of a great stylist, while being bored to tears because of the lack of a story.
So it will come as no surprise that of far more interest to me is story. I consider story to be an element of writing that you must master, even more important than mastering craft. Let’s face it, you can be a master storyteller and a shitty stylist and make buckets of money and if you don’t believe me go talk to Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code. Other examples abound, and you know who they are—all those authors whose books you see on the bestseller list and wonder how they got there. They got there because they are excellent storytellers.
Story is more ethereal, less mechanical than style. If we could bottle the precise components that make a great story, we’d be rich from selling the formula to movie moguls and publishing brass. That said, there are some universal underlying structures to a good story, and you can study and learn these theories of story, and I recommend strongly that you do. Study it, honor it, exalt it—story is your holy grail, your challis, your sacred object. Treat it as such. Some believe that stories are like trains, that if you miss one, its gone—and you’ve lost your chance to bring that story to the world. Melissa Pritchard says that stories come to us for two reasons: because we are the perfect vehicle for presenting them, or because it has something we need, something we must learn, an aspect that will heal us. In many cases both these reasons may be true.
How to learn story? I recommend reading books on screenwriting. Screenwriters are required to tell their story in such a spare, actable way, that they have distilled the art of story to its elemental bones. There are a number of excellent books on how to write a screenplay that will serve you in good stead no matter what kind of writing you want to do—just don’t look to them to teach you much about description. Concurrently, watch movies. Soak them in, look for plot points and mid points and how the filmmakers manipulate dialogue and background and all that. And of course, read. Read when you are on the treadmill, when you are waiting for the soccer game to be finished, when you are in bed at night. Read on the bus, or when you are stuck in traffic, or for an hour in the afternoon when you’d rather zone out and watch TV. If you can’t find time to read, then listen to books on tape or subscribe to Audible.com and put books on your Ipod. You must find a way to be constantly absorbing stories so that when it comes time to write them, you have already absorbed their rhythms and structures in your bones.
But important as style and story are, I believe that the third path, creativity, may be the most vital. After all, you can be the greatest story teller in the world, or a writer of stunning prose. But if you’ve not mastered the discipline of sitting down at the computer or pad of paper, if you’ve not devised a way to get your inner most feelings out onto that paper, than your words will never see the light of day. I believe that the ability to access one’s creativity at will is the bedrock, bottom-line requirement for all writers, and the single most important skill you can develop. And that is what I’m going to focus on today.
Have you ever fallen in love? Deeply, madly, truly in love? That’s what creativity is for me—falling in love with myself and the world over and over again. Creativity has become a sort of buzz word, co-opted by business or used as a catch-all so that you might hear the word and groan instead of giving it the respect it is due. It takes a fierce determination to master the art of writing, to master the commitment to it, and sometimes, for reasons which are unclear to me, such passion in people becomes mocked—perhaps because those without it are jealous. I fear that the whole idea of creativity has been relegated to the realm of the touchy feely, to women sitting around scrapbooking (which, by the way, I have absolutely nothing against), to some sort of weird woo-woo West Coast religion, or worse, something that business can quantify and sell. But nothing could be further than the truth, because the act of creativity, while admittedly mysterious, is also all about the nuts and bolts of getting yourself to just do it.
There are many theories of creativity, some of them so scientific as to make me crazy, others so, well, woo-woo that they aren’t of much use. And it is one of those topics to which you can devote a lifetime of reading and studying and still not master its essence. Because first and foremost creativity is active, not passive. Reading about it or writing about it is one thing. Doing it is quite another. The author Robert Ringer says, “creativity flows from action. Action stimulates your brain cells and gets your creative juices flowing. What actually happens is that when you take action, the atoms in your brain increase the speed of their vibrations, which causes your ‘mental paradigm’ to expand. And when that occurs, you begin to see new ideas, new concepts, and new possibilities that you might not have considered before.”
For me, the path of creativity has two main aspects: Commitment and revelation. The first aspect, commitment, is figuring out how to get your butt planted in the chair, every damn day. The second aspect, revelation, is finding out how to give yourself permission to reveal yourself—for creativity, at its essence, is about sharing yourself with the world.
Why is it sometimes so hard? Why do we desire more than anything in the world to be a writer, and yet sitting down to write repeatedly eludes us? One reason is that in making the commitment to sit down and write you understand that the process is by its very nature revelatory. And what is scarier than revealing oneself to the world? What if said world laughs or sneers or worse yet is indifferent? Adolescence, considered by many the worst time of life, is awful precisely because we are becoming aware of who we are, differentiating from our families, finding our way in the world, and realizing that adulthood takes, at least to a certain extent, being oneself. One must commit to becoming a doctor or an attorney or a writer or an artist and then figure out how to make one’s way in the world. The truly ironic thing, is that being in the flow of creativity, writing so deeply you have no idea how much time has passed, committing my innermost thoughts and ideas to the page, is, to me, the high of highs. It is being so totally in the moment that the moment is timeless and it is euphoric and ebullient—and the last thing in the world you are worrying about is what someone will think. This total absorption is what I crave, which makes it all the more ironic that I resist it.
But because I resist it, I’ve also come up with myriad techniques to help me get to the computer. One thing that is helpful is to identify your personality type. Oriah Mountain Dreamer, in her book on creativity called What We Ache For, tells the story of reading Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones, and being so impressed with the way Natalie goes to cafes and writes. But when Oriah tried it, it simply didn’t work for her—the people distracted her too much. Writing in cafes may suit you just fine, but for the next writer it may be yet another way not to actually write. The key is to experiment and find what works for you.
Another thing to look at is: Are you a procrastinator or are you driven? Creative cycles demand a mixture of focused work and down time, or gestation. This is a very passive state, in which you are marinating all the information in your mind. It is a place of holding the vision, a way of placing the intention that you are not just wasting time, you are germinating. But, if you are like me, this can quickly turn into procrastination.
I procrastinate precisely because I am driven, because once the muse seizes me I want to do nothing but write. I procrastinate not because I fear I have nothing to say, but because I fear I have too much to say. I have a friend in Texas, a cowboy who writes outdoor columns and very, very male articles about hunting and the like. Usually he and I email back and forth several times a day, both of us being writer sitting at computers all day. But last week, we hit a long dry spell where he didn’t write. Finally, after many days of silence, he wrote and explained that he’d gone in, gone deep, and basically done nothing but write for days on end. Because he is a journalist he is used to just doing it, and for him, a days-long concentration on his words is what works. As writers, we all need to find the balance, and it will differ for each one of us.
Another thing that can help is to develop some sort of practice, or a rite, or a ritual or ceremony. Practice yoga, or meditate, or take long walks and ponder your writing. Meditate or pray, casting an intention to have a successful writing session. How can you develop a practice when you already don’t have time to write? These kinds of activities are much like writing—they seem like they are going to be awful, but once you get into them, they are great. They are path-pavers, ways to train your mind and your senses, ways to staunch the constant chatter of voices that tell you the house needs cleaning or the dog hasn’t been fed. Because cultivating stillness is crucial. How else will you hear the still small voice that whispers the motivation of your protagonist or tells you the secret your hero has been withholding?
And practicing anything regularly makes practicing writing easier, too. It’s about creating a mindset that will facilitate creativity, creating an underlying predisposition to accept the challenge of being present with your work. All we ever really have is the current moment. How are you going to spend it? On yet another mindless romp around the internet? Hopping in the car to buy a latte? Flipping through the cable channels? Or engaging with yourself, recording this current moment to share with the world. Remember, its all you have to worry about–this moment, this word, this sentence. “This moment in time when you are imprinting yourself on the page.” Now another and another.
Because expressing yourself on paper in an authentic way doesn’t happen when half your mind is composing a grocery list or worrying when your lover is going to call. To engage with your writing and go deep you need to learn the art of focus and concentration and find a path that will teach you these things. By quieting your mind, allowing the still, small voice to speak, you also afford yourself motivation, a reason to propel yourself forward to the work.
A couple of weeks ago, my hairdresser and I were discussing tattoos. I was telling Sami that my daughter gave me one as a present two years ago, but I’ve not done it because what if I don’t like what I choose five years from now? She told me something that applies to stories, too: she considers her tattoo a reflection of who she was in the moment when she chose it. And even if five years from now, she isn’t over the moon about the image, she can look at it and think oh yeah, that was when I was in my fairy stage. It’s important to remember that stories are a reflection of who we are when we write them, that moment of time when you decided to sit down and share a part of yourself, to create something that didn’t exist before. Think about that—by the simple act of sitting down and putting pen to paper, you create something that didn’t exist before. You create a record of you in the present moment. What more powerful, important act can there be in the world?
Now that you’ve made the commitment and gotten yourself seated before the computer, the blank screen or blank page yawns before you. Perhaps you are not sure what to write. Or perhaps you begin to write and the words feel stilted and superficial.
There are many ways to goose the muse to create ideas. Writing daily in your journal is one. I’ve spoken before about Morning Pages, writing three pages first thing upon rising in the morning before the brain turns on, before the critic engages. Another thing to do is make lists. You can brainstorm, play word games, or do a writing exercise. Don’t sneer—there are many stories and novels alive in the world that started as a writing exercise. I recommend that you collect exercises that work for you either in a file on your computer, or as an ongoing list in the back of your journal, or both. It’s also a good idea to keep lists of topics that you might want to write about some day when you are stuck, and add to it often. See something interesting when you are out walking? Note it in your journal. Hear an interesting snippet of dialogue? Again, write it down. Add to it later. Hear a character name that intrigues you? Write it down. Invent a persona for the name at your next writing session. The best way to approach these writing exercises is the old tried and true free writing—set the timer, move your pen across the paper and don’t stop. Its old, its trite, it’s a cliché, but it works.
Bear in mind that musicians practice scales, artists create mock-ups, architects make models. Every creative activity requires practice and tuning up to stay sharp. Writing exercises are how we writers stay tuned up. Most of the time in my writing life my exercises of choice are journal writing or morning pages. But if I get stuck or feel in a rut, I assign myself writing exercises and do them regularly for awhile until I am back in the flow again. I believe that journal writing, morning pages, or writing exercises are much like practicing meditation or yoga—they keep you limbered up for your “real” writing. And, by the way, I do have a hand out of a variety of exercises and techniques that I’ve collected over the years. Some I’ve made up and some I’ve gotten from books or adapted. Use them as is or adapt them yourself.
The next issue that you might face is the ever dreaded going deeper. (Those of you who have been students of mine have grown familiar with this exhortation written on their manuscripts—go deeper here.) Last week I was having a conversation with a friend who is a poet. We were actually talking about a reading he’s going to be doing and he told me that his challenge is this: How do you continually find the emotion in a piece? He was talking about finding emotion in a poem that he’s read to people many, many times. But this comment struck me because it’s the crux of the matter in all writing. How do you continually find the emotion in a piece?
A CD I was listening to while writing this lecture contains the song, Breathe, by Anna Nalick. As I was writing one day these words jumped out at me: “And I feel like I’m naked in front of a crowd, cuz these words are my diary screaming out loud, and I know that you’ll use them however you want to.” This is the goal of all writing—to be naked on the page and release your words so that the reader can do with them what they will. But being naked requires courage in any situation. It requires that you face the truth about yourself and your imperfections (or maybe even your perfections). It requires going deeper.
To go deeper, start asking yourself questions. What drove me to write this story? Have I faced that yet? Have I developed the courage to really look at the secret that underlies this piece? Is that really true? Is that something I know or imagine or hope to be true? Is that the whole truth? Am I hedging at all? What am I holding back? What don’t I want to write or paint or explore? What am I refusing to risk?
I urge you to compile your own list of questions to continually ask yourself about your writing. Keep it in your journal with your list of topics. But should none of these techniques work and you find yourself really blocked, what do you do then?
I am a great believer in stealing whatever works for my own use and I have a huge weakness for self-help books. Sometimes I also read business books, anything that promises to help me. One of the most recent I read is called Power of an Hour by Dave Lakhani, which attracted me because it promised to teach me the secrets of Fearless Focus. Though I’m not sure that happened, I did glean a good system for dealing with obstacles from the book.
He recommends a four-step process: identifying the obstacle, clearly defining the outcome, creating a road map, and taking action. So, as an example I’ll apply this to a recent block I had. The problem was I knew I needed to write a scene about an argument between a husband and wife, but I didn’t know what the scene should focus on. The outcome I wanted was to create a scene that would show what happened while covering new ground for the reader. The road map I created was to write a list of possibilities of subject matter and taking action was actually writing the scene. I think this works because its like brainstorming, only more structured. Often I come to a block in my work because I sense something isn’t working but I’m not sure what it is. Having a structured process to apply is useful at rooting out what the problem actually is.
Finally, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to find things that sustain you over the long haul and avail yourself of them. When you are in the midst of a long project such as a novel or screenplay, it takes a lot of focused energy to maintain your commitment to it. A helpful notion is that of the Artist’s Date or Mental Vacation. Periodically go off and do something that replenishes you. Visit a gallery, browse in a bookstore, swing at the park. Buy crayons and color, cut out paper dolls, make jewelry. The key to this activity is that it must be chosen with intention. You’re not going off to idly flip through a magazine or see what’s on TV. You’re not going to play five round of Spider Solitaire to see if you can get your stats up. These are what author Jennifer Loudon calls “shadow comforts.” We’re looking for real comforts here, for activities that relax you or inspire you, or maybe both. You are consciously choosing an activity that will allow you to take a break from your work and come back refreshed, perhaps with a new perspective.
In closing I’d like to share a final quote, but first I want to remind you all that all creativity is about sharing who you are with the world. And I want you to start right now, right here, to make a commitment to that. I’d like everyone to take a minute or so and think about what it is you want to write when you leave here today. Take a minute, and write down two or three things. Do it now. Okay, your assignment is to go forth and write. But first I want to share one last quote with you. This is from Melissa Pritchard. “I think this …process of creativity demonstrates how taking your self seriously, and I don’t mean self-consiously or egotistically, by showing commitment and the courage to speak your truth with whatever techniques and tools you’ve acquired to help you shape and manifest, result in a precious gift that heals the receiver as well as the giver.”