A few weeks ago, I responded to a mass email I received from Webook.com, requesting "Writing Wisdom" for their blog. Whether I actually have any writing widsom is debatable, but I knew I still had the hand-out that I'd written up for the creative writing students I taught last year in Columbia's Artists/Teachers program. If you are interested, check out webook.com, and press the "blog" button. Or, you can also read what I wrote right here.
Something Has to Happen
Don’t kid yourself, anything we write/post/publish and offer to their world as our own combination of words ultimately has to be thought of as entertainment. If this makes you cringe, read on. Your writing does not have to make the reader happy, sad, angry or relieved, but it does have to take the reader somewhere and it does have to move the reader in some way. Your main character(s) have to move towards something. S/he can progress or regress but there has to be change. There can be movement towards birth, rebirth, revelation, disappointment, death or disaster, but the work must move in some way. Something has to happen.
It is possible that the essence of the work is a simple revelation: The character remembers something, or sees something, or does something, and it can be a very small thing, but the impact must be felt and it must lead to some kind of transformation, however minor.
We writers are selfish beasts, and of course, we write to express ourselves. But while our writing can be healing and therapeutic for us, we must remember that we are taking the reader along on our journey and s/he must feel stirred by what we write. You must always ask yourself, where I am going with this and why is the reader going to care?
Keep a spy notebook. Write down anything that inspires you or captures your interest. If it appeals to you, chances are good it will appeal to your readers as well. Don’t be afraid of copying out someone’s conversation word-for-word.
Let your unconscious be your guide. Sometimes, when you sit down to write, you have no idea where you are going. That is fine. Don’t worry about. Your unconscious has a plan.
Underline in books. Paste poems to your laptop. Inspire yourself whenever you can. Cut out little poems or interesting paragraphs from the newspaper, and leave them in your drawer. Writing is lonely work, and examples of other people’s great writing will keep you company.
Write every day and save some for tomorrow. Even email is writing. If you have no time to write creatively, write the best email you can. Be as funny or observant or as trenchant as you can in three lines. If you are working on a short story or a chapter, stop while the writing is good. And make yourself a list of one or two ideas to work on tomorrow. This way, you will always have something to look forward to.
Keep a “Save/Salvage/Use/Recycle” Folder. Sometimes we write a short story, a poem, a novel or an essay, and it just doesn’t work. But there are great lines in it----great, memorable, reusable lines. Sometimes, there are crystal-clear paragraphs, vivid descriptions, funny punch lines, clever puns---all sorts of wonderful combinations of words that you wrote. Save these. These lines/observations/thoughts will be your breadcrumbs on the path to writing. If a story/paragraph/essay/novel doesn’t work, you still have great stuff in it. Save that work and use it in something else. Either cut the good work and paste it into a notebook, or just highlight it and stick it in a folder. You can also paste it all onto a document and save it in the computer, but you are better off having it printed out. You will find a use for your good, unused work someday.
Wherever you go, take notes. Geography is key. Whether you go to the Jersey Shore, a strip mall in Pennsylvania, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, the rolling hills of Southern Vermont or a café in Paris, save what you see. Take specific notes on the light, the trees, the flowers, the mountains, the beaches, the ocean, the lakes, the animals, the buildings, smells, the roads, the food, the people---and keep these notes. You never know when you might need geography or topography to give your work a sense of place, and physical descriptions of places you visit now will be very useful for you, one day in the near future, when you sit down and try to describe a place that only exists in your imagination.
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