I'm sitting in the Houston airport, on my way home from Nashville, pondering the past weekend of the Writer's Loft orientation.
I did a workshop for the orientation called Jump Start Your Book with a Vision Board (soon to be an ebook available right here). In the final hour of the workshop, we all made vision boards having to do with our books. But in the first two hours, we wrote. And wrote some more, and more and more.
Basically, I took the group through a series of free writing exercises based on the elements of creative writing: character, conflict, setting, plot, symbol and theme, and style. And we talked a lot about the writing process in its most basic form:
Glumping it all on the page (also known as a Shitty First Draft)
Rewrite some more
Revise (which is the final step, concerning yourself with grammar, word choice, etc.)
The workshop broke open lots of ideas for people and I accredit it to going back to the basics. Because here's what happens: we decide we want to write, then begin a regular writing practice. And because a regular writing practice makes our writing better, pretty soon we're getting good. And when we get good, we start to think that we don't need to follow all that beginner stuff of the writing process, because we're good. We should be able to just whip out a first draft that doesn't need rewriting or revision. And then the writing becomes stilted and stiff, because we're not allowing ourselves to write from our heart.
So ponder where you are in your writing life and experiment with going back to the basics. See what happens if you find a prompt and set a timer and just write without stopping, really without stopping, for 15 or 20 minutes. The prompt can and probably should be related to one of your current writing projects. Or do what I do and choose a prompt while keeping your current project in mind.
Try it. And report back. You may be amazed what happens if you go back to the basics.
This is the first post of a projected very long series and future info product whose name is still under consideration (hence the dual titles above). For background on what's going on, read my post from yesterday. You might also want to read about the Writing Abundance system that this series is going to cover in depth. You can do that here. All of the posts will be readily available in the sidebar to the right, at least until I introduce it as an info product. And now, with all that being said, let's get going:
Starting With Tools
To begin, we start with tools. Now, here's the deal: the best thing about writing is that all you really need is paper and pen. The worst thing about being a writer is that all you need is paper and pen.
Why do I say that? Because sometimes I long for a profession that has more tools to it. Think of all the great equipment painters get to play around with. Or architects. Or construction workers. Sometimes I think that if writing required more tools, it would make it easier. Then if the words didn't come, we could blame it on a rusty saw instead of an addled brain.
Alas, such is not the case. All we really need is paper and pen. Or pencil. Yes a computer is pretty good, too, obviously, but its not a technical requirement. And for me, when I'm flailing in my writing, I return to the basics of paper and pen. Which is why I choose my few tools carefully, and you should, too.
I have a thing for pens, for starters. Have to have just the right one, the one that feels right, or the words won't flow. The pen that feels right varies from day to day, too. The one that is perfect on Sunday may not work for me at all by the next Friday. But most of the time I go on pen kicks. I've been on a fountain pen kick for quite awhile now. But sometimes I find a pen at the grocery store I like and use that until I get bored with it. The point is to find a pen or pens you love and buy them by the bushel because you'll need them. Pens have an annoying habit of running out of ink. They also disappear. I'm convinced that somewhere there is an alternative universe built entirely from lost pens, the stray socks that the dryer eats, and all the Legos my son lost when he was a little boy.
And then, of course, there is paper. Ah, journals. Just when I think I'm totally in love with Moleskines and will never, ever, ever use anything else, some lovely flowery thing presents itself to me at an office supply store and I buy six of those. And then there are legal pads. And notebook paper. I love it all. But what I choose to write on at any given moment has to be right for the project I'm starting. (I'm really not quite as neurotic as all this sounds.) Sometimes I want to keep all my notes and ideas together in a journal and sometimes I want the space a legal pad provides.
All this is by way of saying that the few tools we get are important. So treasure them. And choose them wisely. Buy a journal and pen that you love. Or if you adore writing with pencils, do it. Get the pen that has the right heft in your hand so that you pick it up and just feel like writing. Because now it is time to….
All you really have to do is pick up your pen and write. Just that. Nothing more. It is that simple, and yet we make it incredibly hard. I know this, because I make it hard all the time. I think that I don't know what to write about, what I want to write about, or what I should write about. Sometimes when I pick up my pen and journal, nothing comes.
All you have to do is start from where you are now. Stop. Sit down. Pick up your pen and paper. Look around you. And begin.
What do you see? Write about it.
What do you really see? Write about it.
What do you really, really see? Look closely. Look at an object as closely as if you were drawing it. Write about what is right in front of you. All of it. Every blessed thing you see–the stain on the floor and how it looks like Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon, the translucent dried leaf on the potted plant, the elegant mien of the woman in the black and white striped cardigan at the table next to you. Or the way the sunlight strains through your studio window.
Geneen Roth talks about the state of being married to amazement, which is a line from a poem by Mary Oliver. And that is what writing about what's in front of you will do. Writing about the pattern of veins on that potted plant's leaves will have you gasping in awe at the beauty of this planet. Writing about what's in front of you will create amazement about every aspect of your life. Washing your hands, you'll note the feel of the cool water and the sweet smell of the vanilla soap. Writing this way makes you begin to notice things. And if you can begin to notice what's in front of you, you can begin next to put together a poem about it. Or a short story. Or it will lead to an idea for an article. Maybe even a novel.
In this way, we write. And all you have to do to get there is just begin.
On Thursday, we'll get into the first foundational practice that will turn you into a prolific and prosperous writer, connecting. So stay tuned!
Writers can always benefit by going back to the basics, right? Or not? And more to the point, if you've been writing for awhile, have you tried going back to the basics recently? It is not that easy.
Going back to the basics seems like a good idea. You get the desire to strip it down, make things simple, relearn from the beginning again. Except you are no longer the person that you were when you started out so very long ago. And it is hard to fit your expanded self into that smaller box.
What is called for is a framework.
I went to high school during the heyday of the Open Classroom movement. Education wasn't working and a new approach was needed. So, no, it wasn't back to the basics, it was the opposite–a very free and easy approach where students directed their learning to a large extent.
Consequently, I became quite the free thinker. But to this day, I have huge gaps in my education, particularly when it comes to reading the classics. (Ironic, no? Considering as how I am a writer.) Oh, I read some of them on my own, but when it comes to classics, reading in an educational setting is much better. I needed a framework. And finally I found it when I started working toward my MFA. (I won't call it studying, because it was so much fun. Two years devoted mostly to writing and reading. Heaven.)
Once I had the framework of writing an essay about my reading, with mentors responding to those essays, I could dip back into some of the classics that I had missed.
What got me thinking about all of this is knitting. I'm an off and on knitter and a terrible finisher. I love starting a new knitting project more than anything–choosing the yarn, casting on, seeing the work start to grow! But then I get bored and set it aside.
Lately, though, I've realized that perhaps I get bored because I don't know enough about what I'm doing. Despite the fact I've been knitting since I was a wee child, there's lots I don't know about it. I was taught by the odd 4H leader here, my aunt there. Much like my high school education, there was never a consistent framework for it.
This weekend I found the framework, a book called Fearless Knitting, written by a technical writer, bless her heart, who knows how to translate confusing information into plain English. The author, Jennifer Seiffert, had the bright idea to take a line of traditional knitting instruction, then not only explain what it means, but why you are supposed to do that. Brilliant. Each explanation illustrates a larger technique and you make a square to well and truly learn how to do it.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be such a framework for writing? An explanation of not only the how, but the why? Alas, I don't think it is possible, because the craft of writing is much more amorphous than the craft of knitting. Many of the why explanations would be something along the lines of, because you want to entertain the reader. Or, because you want to create an emotional response in the reader.
Or am I wrong? Can you think of any aspects of writing that could be explained in a succinct why explanation? What does going back to the basics in writing mean to you? Practicing writing exercises? Reading or re-reading books about writing? Are there any basics you'd like explanations of? Comment away.