How to be a Great Writer

How to be a writer. Not just a writer; a great writer. Two easy steps.

  1. Sit on your butt.
  2. Write.

Beverages and music allowed.

That means you don’t dodishescheckemailmakecallsbalancethecheckbookpaybillsdochoreswatchtv or blog.

I’m writing this waiting for the tea to boil, so I’m claiming the beverage exception.

Don’t tell me how busy you are. It implies I’m not. I am. If you want it, you make the decisions you need to make.

But yes, sometimes you need to stop to clear your head, and yes, once you’ve written, trying to sell that writing kills your writing time. That’s truly the worst.

Tea’s done, time to stop.

P.S. Vinyl is better than CDs.

Kicking the Bucket in Academic Writing

I think that when students (at any level) are given a writing assignment, they sometimes think of the assignment as if it were a bucket. So a ten page paper is a bucket of a certain size and a twenty page paper is a bucket that’s exactly twice as big. In this way of thinking, academic writing consists of pouring words into a bucket until the bucket fills up, and writers get in trouble if they run out of words before the bucket is full — say, at page fifteen of a twenty-page paper.

I think that’s a painful way to think about writing, though. When we think this way about writing, we’re writing in order to meet a page requirement, not writing because we have something to say. I think it’s better to think of academic writing — or any kind of writing, really, even creative — as if it were a piece of architecture. We should think of our writing as if it were structured like a building. Bigger buildings have more rooms in them and are differently organized. And, bigger buildings with more rooms have more room for different functions, and these different rooms relate to one another sometimes in very specific ways.

So when we first get married, we might live in a one-room apartment. There’s a kitchen with a linoleum floor, a little metal border, and then carpet, and you’re in the living room. The bathroom connects in there somewhere. The couch folds out into a bed. But if you move into a bigger apartment, you might have a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom. A bit bigger, maybe a house, and you’ll have a living and a dining room, maybe a breakfast nook, maybe a study, and maybe a bathroom that opens up to the backyard if you have a pool.

Similarly, a two page paper might have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But a ten page paper might have an introduction, a literature review, a section of the body that reflects on the literature review, a section of the body that argues a new thesis out of the literature review, and a conclusion that develops the thesis in a more complex form and considers its significance. It might have subsections within each section that alternate evidence with reflection. It might have a section that addresses counterarguments and, as it does so, modifies its thesis. This paper would have many more rooms than a two page paper, and the paper is the length that it is because of the number of rooms that it has, not because it’s being written to meet a length requirement.

When we think this way about academic writing, we lose concern with page count and start being concerned instead with the size of our idea. How many different parts does our paper need in order to present, explain, support, and develop our main idea? My dissertation was 300 pages in a Word file when it was done. At the time, it felt like one continuous essay with section breaks. But really, when you consider the section breaks, it wasn’t 300 pages. It was six forty-five page(ish) chapters (with a 25ish page bibliography at the end plus front matter). Each of those chapters were usually broken down into three fifteen-page sections. And if you look closely, each of those sections were broken down into three to five page increments. So did I write a 300 page dissertation, or did I write 54 five-page papers — which could be further broken down into paragraphs serving different functions?

Since I had no specific page length in mind, I wrote to the size of my idea. Now of course we don’t want to write 300 pages when only twenty pages are due, but maybe we can think that part of planning and research is developing a ten, or twenty, or twenty-five page idea.

So the key to writing is not writing to fill up a bucket, but writing to develop an idea. In practice, writing to develop an idea might look like this:

  • first you have an idea,
  • then you think about its parts,
  • and you think about how its parts relate to one another,
  • and you think about what each part contains — what kind of evidence, reflection, or explanation is needed in each part.
  • Once you start writing, you rethink each part of the process as you go, as needed.
  • Once you’ve finished writing, you rethink each part of the written product in the light of its conclusion.

I think we can turn this idea around and let it guide how we think about reading too. Do authors put meaning into books the way we might put something into a bucket? In that case, authors put meaning into a book and readers take, hopefully, the same meaning out. Or did they create a structure of some kind, a patterned object, and our acts of reading involve different kinds of pattern recognition? I think the latter is a better approach. It helps us comprehend not only the parts and a central idea, but how the parts relate to one another. It also allows us to ask different questions about the same text, so that we can carry out different pattern recognition activities to draw different meanings from the text.

So I think the best thing we can do is kick the bucket in our academic reading and writing practices. The mind is more complex than an empty container.

On Being Creative

NewyorkstoriesThis is a somewhat modified repost of an entry originally published in September of 2014. I thought I’d revisit and update it because I’m teaching an introduction to creative writing course this semester, and my class and I have been covering the creative process over the last couple of chapters.

Artists and their Art

I’m going to start by illustrating my points from two films: New York Stories and Bullets Over Broadway. I won’t be discussing it here, but I would also recommend the film S.O.B.

New York Stories is an anthology film featuring three short films by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, respectively. Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films aren’t at all characteristic of their usual work and are wonderful, magical, and worth watching. Allen’s contribution is a hilarious abstract of his entire life’s work. If you can pick up or stream these films, don’t pass them by.

Scorcese’s short, Life Lessons, is about New York artist Lionel Dobie (perf. Nick Nolte) and his much younger live-in protégé and lover Paulette (perf. Rosanna Arquette) immediately before a big opening for one of Dobie’s shows. They have become estranged but are still living together. Dobie remains sexually obsessed with Paulette, while Paulette continues living with Dobie to be mentored by him, and to receive some confidence in and validation of her work as an artist from him.

He continually withholds his praise, however, always coming back to, “Well, what do you think?”, which increasingly frustrates her. She, in turn, teases him sexually almost to the point of torture while still withholding herself from him, largely as punishment for his refusal to validate her work. I think she would even have been happy with a clear invalidation, for that matter — so that she could know she was wasting her time. But she didn’t get anything from Dobie either way. This dysfunctional dynamic, combined with how difficult it is to live with Dobie (he can only paint with his music on at almost concert level volumes), ultimately drives her away in a rage right before his show.

But what’s particularly interesting about the film is its depiction of the artistic process. The more tense, dysfunctional, and intense this dysfunction became, the better Dobie was able to paint. Her screaming and their shared frustration seemed to fuel him creatively. On the night of the show, he attends alone, and at the end we see him recruit a new young female protégé, one clearly hoping to be mentored by him, and for his part clearly intended to serve as his perverse, dysfunctional inspiration for his next project.

Now just hold this picture in your mind while I move on to the next film: Bullets Over 220px-Bullets_over_Broadway_movie_posterBroadwayBullets is about young, idealistic playwright David Shayne (perf. John Cusack) who seems to be seeking fame with marginal talent. He cuts a deal with a mob boss to get financing for his play: in exchange for financing, the play will star the mob boss’s girlfriend, Olive Neal (perf. Jennifer Tilly). To both keep her safe and to make sure that David lives up to his end of the bargain, the boss assigns hitman Cheech (perf. Chaz Palminteri) to attend rehearsals.

In the course of rehearsing the play, however, David’s bad writing is confronted by the professional actors he hired. Cheech, sitting in the position of the audience and the critic, virtually rewrites the play with David as it is being rehearsed: Cheech has a talent for character, narrative, pacing, and lines that David doesn’t. In short, Cheech is a real writer.

When the play goes to performance, it is universally praised, with the exception of Olive’s acting. Olive is not only a bad actress but something of an idiot. When that becomes apparent to everyone, Cheech does what needs to be done: he drives her out to the docks and shoots her, dumping her body in the water. Olive’s part is then played by a professional actress and the play goes on to be widely acclaimed and to a national tour.

What I’d like us to consider here are two characteristics of the artist beyond talent:

1. You’re willing to kill for your work. Short of that, you’re certainly willing to do anything else. It’s the work that matters.
2. What you think about your work is what matters. You know that because you’re the artist. You may listen to others, but in the end, it’s what you think that matters.

Now, you’re reading this post to learn how to develop your creativity. I have two questions for you:

1. Are you willing to kill for your work? What are you really willing to do to create something great? For anyone with any kind of moral compass, the answer is always “No, I’d never kill anyone,” so let me follow up with another question: If it really came down to it, would you at least be seriously tempted?
2. Do you think external validation for your work is irrelevant, at least while you are creating it?

If you don’t answer “Yes” to both of those questions, you’re not really an artist yet, and your creativity will be hampered. You’re in the position of Paulette, who wants to please an audience and get praised for it (in this case, Dobie), or David, who wants to get famous. But you’re not focused on the work itself. You’re focused on drawing external resources inward (which is narcissism) instead of projecting internal resources outward (which is creativity).

Both films affirm this answer in their own ways. Dobie’s refusal to validate or invalidate Paulette’s work was actually the best thing for her, the thing most likely to transform her into an artist. Asking, “What do you think?” directed her to the only question that matters, at least during the creative process. He was trying to get her to fall back upon her own resources, to exercise her own critical judgment of her own work, to act and think like she knew what she was doing.

Everyone wants a great review: don’t get me wrong. But while you’re creating, what you think is what matters. Getting feedback on the finished product — if the feedback is professional, good, and focused on your intent for your work — that helps too. But in the end, it’s what you think that really matters. But do you know what needs to matter even more than your opinion of the work? More than anything else, in fact, even more than you yourself? The work.

Not your reputation, your praise, your recognition, your self-image as an artist, your theory of art, your ideals about art, or the politics or beliefs underlying your art: just the work itself. That’s why Scorsese’s representation of the true artist was someone willing to kill to perfect his play. It was easy for him because he was a hitman, but I think the artist part of him would have been just as willing to kill himself for his work if, somehow, that is what it took to perfect it. At least in theory: in reality, that’s never the case. Suicides for art are generally committed by pseudo-artists seeking fame.

If you know what it’s like to selflessly love your children, I think you know what I’m talking about, but I only say that with the caveat that to develop as an artist you need to understand that your work really isn’t your baby. That means you’re willing to sacrifice anything within the work itself to perfect the work. The real killing takes place during the creative process, a sacrifice made within the creative work itself.

Creativity vs. Narcissism

rawmaterialNext, I’d like to return to the idea that creativity is the act of projecting internal resources outward. It’s not unusual, of course, to see an artist’s work as a representation of his or her experiences. Perhaps the best statement to this effect is Wordsworth’s 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. But that’s only partly what I’m talking about.

What I really mean to allude to here is the artist’s management of emotional resources to create art (also the subject of Wordsworth’s Preface, by the way). When you create anything, you’re usually going to have to tap in to some reserve of emotional resources that allows you to create, or to some defining experience that has somehow created the person that you are, or to a compelling emotional need. Whatever that emotional core is, you will draw from it to create, and your creations will somehow be reflective of that.

Now I’m not talking about “writing what you know,” and I’m not claiming that all art is autobiographical. That is dealing with art in the realm of fact: character, plot, setting, etc. Content is interchangeable: the emotional core of a work is what I’m talking about. What makes Stephen King keep writing horror? What makes Nicholas Sparks keep writing romance? Why did Zane Grey focus on adventure and the west? In each case, the author’s creativity comes from some kind of inner emotional core, but that emotion varies widely by artist. It may be fear in some people, anger in others, romantic love in others, sex in others, or depression, or joy, or politics, or God, or just one specific woman or man… all of these result in very different creative products.

Now I’d like to add a caveat here: not everyone writes like this. Some writers (let’s just talk about writers for now) — and these are among the most productive professionals — see writing as a bag of tricks that they can manipulate expertly to any effect. But this meme artmemehere exists for a reason: talking about your art is a seemingly narcissistic enterprise. That’s why I started this post with a longish discussion of two films. It’s too easy to spend too much time talking about yourself when writing about the subject of creativity.

 

When I am able to write something, I have to manipulate emotional material. And that emotional material has to be linked to a word, an idea, or an image. But once I have distinct emotional material linked to a distinct image or word or line, I can write. I usually think next of poetic form — which poetic form is best suited to this content — and then I write.

Art and Its Sources

My history of creative writing began in a small way in high school, but in a much bigger way in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I started publishing poetry. And then I started graduate school in 1999, and my creative writing stopped almost completely. Around 2009 I started teaching 200 level creative writing classes, so I started writing again, and then in 2014 I hit some inspiration yet again and started writing poetry much more prolifically than I had in the past. In every period in which I wrote, I found some emotional content, latched onto it consciously and deliberately, found words for it, and wrote. But I’d like you to consider the variety of emotional content that we experience every day: it ranges from deep, long-term commitments to fleeting thoughts. However, when you turn any of those into a creative work, they all develop the same profile: they seem big and important.

10644949_713856375336016_5831366228878047703_nThat’s just not always the case subjectively, though. On more than one occasion during these writing spurts, I’ve had people close to me ask me some specific questions about my personal life because of the poems I’ve written. Are you okay? Need to talk? Alright, who is she? I totally understand that: the questions always reveal the insights of a friend who knows me. And if every poem that I wrote had the same emotional profile, particularly the one implied by the poem, I would need friends asking those questions.

Furthermore — and here we’re getting into territory that helps us interpret as well as create art — whenever I grab an emotion and turn it into a poem it becomes something else. Whatever the emotion was that I first relied upon to create is transformed in the creative process, so that the emotion communicated through the work is in somewhat different form the emotion present in the finished work. T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” has become for me, therefore, more than a significant theoretical work from the early twentieth century. I now understand it as a personal statement with some applicability to me.

So, you’ve read this far: very far. I think you deserve to have it all boiled down to a few bullet points. So here you go. If you want to create,

  • Care about the work itself above all else.
  • As a corollary:
    • Forget about yourself: think only about the work.
    • Forget about being a writer or artist. Focus on writing or creating art.
    • Forget about being creative. Focus on creating.
    • Forget about what other people think. What does the work do for you?
      • And forget that self-conscious assumption that your work is bad, which is always just fear of rejection. I’m going to break up with him/her before s/he breaks up with me.
    • Do whatever it takes to grab that emotion that will allow you to create.
    • But don’t be a sociopath. People are always more important than things: “Every thing that lives is holy.”
    • Create. If you want to be creative, create.

10371963_649270955163324_8959216672163100761_nI’d like to conclude by articulating an unspoken assumption that’s been guiding my thoughts so far. You actually need to know something about your art. You need to know its history, master its conventions, understand the theories behind it. I’ve been able to refer to a couple of texts about creativity here only because I’ve read them. You need to train your knowledge of your art academically. By “academically” I don’t necessarily mean for college credit, but by studying the field systematically. And you need to train or develop your taste. If you don’t develop your taste, you’ll be one of the worst kinds of artists: you will believe that only your own opinion about the work matters, and your opinion will suck. You’ll be an idiot about your own work. Good luck with that.

Final bit of advice: quit thinking about being creative. Quit studying being creative. Quit reading about being creative. Go out and create something. Above all else, quit being such a coward. Create. Become a god.

The Art vs. the Business of Writing

The art of (creative) writing involves drawing on your emotional reserves to create something new. It requires an investment in imagination, emotion, and skill. It asks for the force of effort to get a work started followed by perceptive and collaborative resignation once the work starts to take on its own life. It involves a dialectic between the author as the creator of the new work and the author as the reader of his or her own work. The art of writing is a deeply personal investment in an outside thing in which you grasp at anything — any past experience, any memory, any fleeting thought or feeling — in order to fully realize something that you only imagined before.

The business of creative writing involves subjecting your work to editors who care about an audience who will be paying for your work. It involves subjecting your work to publishers who will own it — your work is no longer your own, or at least not exclusively your own — because they will have invested monetarily and otherwise in its publication. The business of creative writing often means trying to sell different revisions of the same thing over and over again, tediously, to different venues, or sometimes having your publisher do that for you. It often means paying close attention to the tedious details of specific formatting. It means subjecting your voice somewhat to a house style. It means, sometimes, working with editors and publishers who aren’t great readers. It means, sometimes, working with editors and publishers who are great readers, and then facing the facts about your own work from their eyes. It means reading and signing contracts, for better or for worse. It means letting go of that thing that you invested so much time and effort in making just right. When published, it also means letting go of it to readers, who will take it any way they want and say about it anything that they want.

The act of publishing creative writing involves both. From the artist’s or creator’s standpoint, the business end can be awful. But if you go into it accepting that once you’ve finished creating your work you have to adopt a businessperson’s attitude toward it, taking into account the point of view and interests of all constituencies involved in its publication, the business end may not be so onerous. Perhaps this is another form of resignation. But, I think, this form of resignation helps authors take control.

Intuition and Creativity

I’m fortunate enough to be teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing class this semester. Last Thursday was the first day of class. I encouraged my students to pay attention to the people around them: how they spoke, acted, seemed to think, as that will help them write characters. But that led me down a bit of a tangent about how intuition works.

It’s not uncommon for many of us to think we can know, or at least guess well, what other people are thinking. I don’t think that’s all that unusual, and I don’t think it’s particularly mysterious either. I suggested to my students that our minds are big pattern recognition machines. We pay attention to a variety of verbal and non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expression, body language, hand gestures, and maybe even scent — which would certainly be unconsciously registered for most of us — and filter all of those cues through our past experiences, our prejudices, and our expectations to figure out what’s really going on with the person in front of us.

I pointed out that because half of intuition is our own experiences and expectations, we need to be careful with what we infer about other people. Even if we’re reading them right, we’re still not really reading their minds, so we should never presume to know what they are really thinking. At best, we’re only seeing a little bit of them at that moment. Really getting to know what and how someone thinks takes time and honest conversation, and however often we think we’re right, I think the truth is we almost never follow up so that we can find out our real track record. As a result, most of us go through life trusting our intuition more than we should. Intuition is a valuable but very incomplete tool, so it’s a mistake to trust it exclusively.

However, what happens if we turn intuition on its head? Suppose we set it aside, momentarily, as a guide to external reality and use it instead as a way of creating characters? We could instead take that mental picture we’re building up of this other person — which is only partially correct at best — and use it as the beginning of a fictional character. Suddenly, our powers of pattern recognition feed our imagination as we use them to develop, in detail, fictional characters who have fully developed gestures, body language, tone of voice, etc. I think this way of using intuition can never go wrong, because while we may start with a real person as raw material, we don’t have to stop there. We can make our characters any way we want them to be.

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