Monday, July 30, 2007

Fearless Writing

Over at CopyBlogger, guest blogger, Michael Stelzner of Writing White Papers posted a simple question: What Keeps You From Writing? While there were a great variety of answers, one common answer that showed up several times was "fear". Since this blog deals with ways to keep you writing whatever it is that you write, I thought addressing this common issue would be beneficial.

As a former college writing instructor, I've seen fear manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes it's the fear that a blank screen presents. Other times it is the anxiety that what we write will not live up to the standards we set for ourselves. Either way, approaching writing as a process rather than as an activity can help quell fears and get keys moving.

Too often, we are motivated to write by good things we have read or by witness remarkable events that move us to express ourselves. What is especially helpful to keep in mind, however, is that the OVERWHELMING majority of well-regarded works of writing are the products of extensive editing or rewriting that occurs after an initial draft is completed. Ulysses wasn't built in a day, nor will your most captivating work be.

Realize that 50-90% of your initial draft will be rewritten or thrown out during the editing stage, and you should feel a tremendous weight lifted from your shoulders during the drafting stage.

Drafting stage:
This is the stage where you get out shreds of ideas . You jot down thoughts. You pour collective brain drippings onto the page. These thoughts will come out in varying degrees of order: and that's okay.

Editing stage:
After you have put the words on the page, the editing stage is where you begin to shape them into the story you wish to see. During the editing stage, you'll discover that some thoughts need filling in, some need to be rewritten to portray a more accurate account of your creative vision, and some need to be reordered for maximum impact. Depending on the length of your work, the editing stage can often take 20 times as long as the drafting stage. That, however, is why writing is a process, not an action.

Additionally, the best way to reduce fear of writing is to write as much as possible. Create a journal and feel free to post even the most mindless things in there. Try writing a poem. Scribble ideas on sticky notes. Don't think. Just write. This practice will reduce anxiety and usually uncover themes from your own life that you find important and worth writing about.

In the end, however, I find writing is a mode of self-expression that should satisfy our basic desires to express ourselves. If you get something brilliant, that is a bonus - one that can certainly be worked toward, and even achieved - but not necessarily the most realistic motivating factor.

If you are looking for ways to be fearless in your writing, I might humbly suggest my book: Tapping Creativity.

Related Posts
Fearless Writing Part II
Fearless Writing Part III

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Writing. Exercise.

Today we are going to talk about a non-obvious practice that can help you when tapping creativity in your own writing: exercise.

Sure, the physical benefits of exercise tend to get all of the press. And that alone should make you want to lace up some shoes and hit the trail. Still, when it comes to writing, exercise offers many benefits that might not seem so obvious.

The first benefit is basic stress relief. In a very unscientific study of one person (me), the ability for exercise to help relieve stress usually means I sit at the keys with a mind that is free from distraction. This helps to cut down on instances of writer's block, foster more organized thoughts, and get more out of the time I spend writing.

Next, when I run, I throw on some headphones and got lost in my head. It's these times that I'm able to get my best ideas. Why? Because when I run, it's all about me. I don't have to answer to anyone else. I can just think, and often something worth writing about will usually pop into my head.

Since I run with headphones, I can catch up the music that I review for my other blog: Blog Rockin' Beat. If you find yourself pressed for time, you can use supplement your workout time with podcasts or books on CD, to learn something new or get inspired for your next writing session.

Not all writing happens while you are at the computer. In fact, I had a conversation with Joyce Maynard at a Walloon Writer's Retreat a few years back. She was working on The Usual Rules: A Novel at the time. She told me she prefers to ruminate on an idea for a long time, then sit down for a six-week stretch and hammer out the first draft.

The immediate lesson was, of course, that writing doesn't always happen at the computer. For me, it often happens when I'm running. In my experience, a writing exercise isn't nearly as useful as writing and exercise. So lace 'em up, get sweatin', and see what you get!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Don't Think. Just Write.

During my day job, a very talented and intelligent co-worker was struggling with a piece of writing she was working on. She knew the material. She knew where she needed to go with it, but she was at a standstill in trying to get it there. And the more she got frustrated with the situation, the further down the spiral she went.

Anybody who writes enough understands this phenomenon. It's the point when the editor on your left shoulder is trying to butt in when the writer on your right shoulder is working. This sort of situation requires a different approach to tapping creativity. By remembering that the barriers to our own productivity are most often matters of the mind, we can overcome this type of barrier by following this most simple rule: Don't Think. Just Write.

In my experience, sometimes taking too much time to figure out how to write something leads you to lose sight of just what it is you are trying to write in the first place. Trust yourself to know what it is you want to write, then just write it. Once the words are out, you can go back and make adjustments to how you think the piece should flow.

Another short cut in this type of situation is to simply say your thoughts aloud. Often, when you actually speak the thought, the words you are searching for come more naturally.

Sudden writer's block in the middle of a piece can be crippling. Trusting yourself to know what you are writing, however, and just getting the words on the page are enough to get you through, and build your confidence for the next time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Showing Up Isn't Always Enough

Going out to eat is one of my favorite things to do. It's not so much about the food as it is about the social nature of eating in public. People watching is a habit all writers should nurture. (Disclaimer: Please keep it to public places.) This past weekend my family and I went to eat at a local chain restaurant. My first inclination is to always grab the seat that offer the widest view of the room. This time, however, my four-year-old daughter insisted I sit by her - facing away from the room and out the window instead.

I tried not to let it bother it bother me. I mean, seriously, how much could really be going on behind me? And it wasn't until my lovely wife started talking about all the things that were happenin that it really got to me. Kids falling off of chairs. A trio of girls singing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow". A man vividly telling the story of being chased by a large snake, with his arms flailing and vivid facial expressions even. I was missing it all!

I had shown up, but that wasn't enough. I found myself in a position where I was missing all of the goings on. It made me think of an article I'd once read wherein Flannery O' Connor mentioned that she usually doesn't know how her stories are going to end until she gets to that closing moment and stops to take a look at what is really going on with her characters. Only then does the picture become clear.

Fiction writers will sometimes have a sense of where they would like their stories to conclude, yet - and I speak from experience here - when they get to that point, they get stuck. They have focused so much on getting the story to that point that sense of "what now?" happens. Most often this is because writers are sitting on the wrong side of the table, so to speak. By turning around and look at what is really happening, the results start to come into focus.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Creativity Transcends

It has been my observation that many creative people dabble in more than one art form. In addition to being a writer, I am also a musician. This month I've done a lot of writing. On top of whipping up an extended marketing study for my employer, I've start and maintained this blog and started working out another blog that should be launching soon.

Today, I switched gears and sat down to work on some music. The result is a song called Solar Flare. I noticed how change from writing to music allowed me to also tap other aspect of my creativity that my writing perhaps doesn't. As a result, I'm reminded how good it feels having an outlet that lets me escape my normal medium of creative expression, yet still be creative.

So the lesson, I guess, is this: switching mediums helps in tapping creativity. And if you don't have another creative outlet aside from writing, maybe you should find one. Who knows? You might have some hidden talent you never knew about?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tapping Creativity by Embracing Barriers

In my last post on rutbusting, I talked about ways writers and other artists can turn to different resources to shake up their routines and help break through creative block. This time, I'd like to talk about a closely related idea: self-imposing limitations and intentionally creating barriers in your own work.

At a previous stage in my career, I worked in-house on the creative team of a Fortune 500 company. Like most big companies, they put a lot of stock in the idea of branding. As such, they had rigid graphic design standard. Certain visual elements had to go in the same place on every piece. Headers, subheads, and fonts were all accounted for.

New designers groaned. Designers who had been around for a while, and had a chance to work with the guidelines, loved them. For them, knowing right away what they could and could not do eliminated the fear of staring at a blank page. Further, they felt that being forced to work within barriers forced them to reach deeper than normal and create new concepts they would not have if they were given free range. In essence, these barriers forced them out of comfort zones.

For writers, there are many possibilities for self-imposing barriers:

  • Fiction writers can limit story length to 500 words or write in haiku.
  • Non-fiction writers can write without using the word "I".
  • Advertising writers can limit headlines to three words, one of which must be a verb.
  • Journalists can be forced to use two-sentence quotes only.
Next time you are stuck looking at a blank screen, make up some outlandish rules like alternating sentences of seven words and 13 words; then start writing.

I often turn to form poetry such as sonnets and sestinas when I get stuck or simply want to write from a different creative mindset. Sometimes the final results aren't always usable. What is usable, however, are the ideas that often come from writing in this new way embracing barriers. Who knows? You might even be able to frame a familiar idea in a whole new way.

Check out my book, Tapping Creativity, for a more detailed discussion of form poetry as it relates to tapping your own creativity.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Rutbusters: Busting Through Creative Block

Like it or not, it happens to all of us sooner or later; creative block. In some circles, it goes by writer's block. In addition to being a writer, however, I am also a musician, and I can tell you from experience that creative block happens to all artists, regardless of the medium.

Tapping Creativity, as a practice, is perhaps more valuable in breaking through creative block than it is in any other area of artistic productivity. What follows are some of my rutbusting quick fixes.

Rutbuster #1: Alternative Search Engines
Most users rely on Google, Yahoo, or MSN to do all of their searching online. For one week, try using some alternative search engines like Ask, Hakia, or Mahalo. They present results differently than The Big Three engines do and encourage you to search in a different way. When you are rutbusting, any break from the norm helps. When you change how you search, you may change what you find.

Rutbuster #2: Read Something Different
My favorite genre is literary fiction. After awhile, however, my own writing has had all the DeLillo, Joyce, Pynchon, Rushdie, and Faulkner influence it can take. By breaking outside of my main influences and venturing to read material I usually don't, I gain a wider perspective and learn a few tricks along the way. A few books that have helped me in the past include:

  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is a completely different look at narrative structure and book layout. It's about as postmodern as you can get.

  • Why Not Me? by Al Franken chronicles his fictitious run for president in 2000. The only time I put this book down was to give my sides a rest. It was that funny.

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker. It's classic horror. And it's haunting in a way contemporary horror isn't.
Rutbuster #3: The Tried and True
As mentioned, I'm also a musician. Some artists inspire me constantly. When I'm rutbusting, it often helps to throw on some musicians who touch a creative nerve in me, changing my frame of mind. Personal faves include:

  • Bjork always offers a creative and unique approach to each album. In the end, however, when I listen to her music, I feel like the world is a million miles away.

  • Peter Gabriel has an honesty in his music that, opposite of Bjork, makes me feel in touch with the whole world at once.

  • The Beatles. As I mentioned in a previous post titled Write Like The Beatles, their ability to tie together meaningful narrative lyrics with great rock songs is the best of both worlds.
These approaches are far from the only ways of getting through creative block, but they are the first ones I usually turn to. If you have any stock rutbusters, please feel free to share.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Write What You Know? Not Always.

Tapping Creativity BookI learned several very valuable lessons in grad school. Aside from learning how to survive on essentially NO money, I also learned how to focus my writing by finding my motivating force. One old adage is to write what you know. For many writers, young writers especially, knowing enough about anything to compile it into a book or book length collection is no easy task.

For my master's thesis, I was hoping to do a compilation of short stories. The stories I'd been writing were a mish mash of ideas and themes. When put together, they seemed even more out of sync. No university would ever let me slap them together like that. Fortunately, my thesis adviser, Kate Myers Hanson was not only a great teacher, but an amazing writer whose collection of short stories, Narrow Beams, is an ideal example of what a short story collection should be.

Her advice was this: Write about what interests you. In some instances, this is the same as writing about what you know; in some instances, it isn't. For a young writer, the latter is usually the case. She had me make a list of my favorite books. The list included: The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and The Stories of John Cheever. The idea was that all of these books were favorites of mine because, through them, ran a common theme that was a deep interest of mine. And there was. The theme was how certain challenges break families down. After I learned this, I was able to choose the stories of mine that were consistent with this theme, and craft new ones more easily.

Fiction, though, isn't the only area of writing where this applies. My book, Tapping Creativity, was originally designed to be a textbook on writing, complete with grammar lessons and primers on APA and MLA styles. The more I hammered away at it, however, the more I realized what interested me most were the sections related to idea creation and ... well ... tapping creativity. And that is something that applies to all creative arts.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Getting Big, Cold, and Creative

In a recent article by Seth Godin, titled Small Before Big, he discusses scalability in terms of business growth. His main point is that bigger isn't always better when it comes to a business model. Indeed, if you work on being better first, then bigger should come more easily - after the fact.

I mention this, not only because I have a strong appreciation for Seth's business sense, but also because much of his advice can also be applied to other areas of interest. In today's post, we'll talk about how this applies to writing, using Seth's words, and applying them to my friend, and writer, John Smolens.

I met John when I was a student at Northern Michigan University. He was teaching a few writing workshops. One of the things I liked most about his teaching style was that he shared his works in progress with the rest of the workshop. This approach created a closeness , showing that, just because he was a publishing writer, he still saw the value of workshops in improving writing. One semester, he brought in a short story he was writing; the working title was "Cold".

I was immediately impressed. True to the workshop, however, John solicited as much advice as he could. People spoke about what character attributes they liked and when certain actions just didn't seem quite right to them. John was a pro. He scribbled copious notes, and thanked his class for their help.

Months later, John hosted a reading. At the reading, he finally unveiled "Cold". The reading went very well. I mean, it went well in that kind of way that leaves the whole room speechless. Comparing the pre-workshop version to the live reading, I noticed several changes. And I must admit, the second version was better.

To Seth's point, John went out of his way to make his story as good as it could be. This led to the next step: getting bigger. John, building off the success of the story, continued with it, turning it into a novel. To my knowledge, Cold: A Novel, is John's most well-received book. I'm sure it was a result of the care put into making it great before making it as visible as possible.

When you are working on a story, solicit input from others you trust. After this step - and only when you feel your work is as good as it can be - then consider moving to the next step of increasing the scope and scale of your work. The Internet makes it easier to reach a bigger audience, but if your product isn't as good as it can be, you will be shorting yourself ... and your readers.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Getting From Here to There

The basis of most storytelling involves getting a character from here to there. Along the way, of course, is a struggle that needs to be overcome. Traditionally, there are four main struggles that prevent characters from getting from here to there. They include:

  • Man vs. Man (Rocky, The Iliad)
  • Man vs. Nature (Call of the Wild, Castaway)
  • Man vs. Establishment (1984, Office Space)
  • Man vs. Self (Crime and Punishment, The Shining)
In each instance, when a protagonist overcomes an adversary, getting from here to there is accomplished and readers are happy. When writing, however, it is easy to lose steam on a story when we are to a point that lacks clarity in direction. At these times, it can be helpful to revisit the above list. What is preventing your character from getting from here to there? What you thought was a Man vs. Man story, might actually be a Man vs. Self story, and fighting that inevitability is what is slowing or stopping your progress.

Getting from here to there isn't always easy, but being mindful that it is the true challenge will help you find new and creative ways to accomplish just such a feat.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Writing to a Snapshot

When you are in a creative rut, sometimes creative inspiration can be as close as the nearest photo album.

In my book, Tapping Creativity, I go into depth about using paintings or photos to get a narrative going. We will touch on that briefly here, then get into advertising, where this technique also works well.

Take a look at the photo on in this post. That is a picture of my daughter taken at a nearby park/beach. If you didn't know that, however, who do you think this child might be? And what is her story? If you are trying to get a narrative off the ground, you might start by asking questions like this:

  • Is this the happy ending of a story?
  • Is this the earliest memory of the child who is now grown up?
  • Is this the dream of a woman regretting an abortion?
  • Is this the first outing of a reunited parent and child?
You can also discern other clues as well. Since this is at a beach, it eliminates a lot of the Plains States and Southwest. Since this child is wearing jeans at the beach, it might be a location where the weather gets cooler, or is in a cooler season.

This type of questioning can be the seed that gets a story growing and be a foolproof way to tap your creativity time and time again.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Horse of a Different Color

Today's news of the hybrid horse/zebra foal is a good reminder that nature can get creative as well. Call it a hebra or a zorse, it's a good lesson in how interesting things can become when you combine them. The hebra is just the most recent example. For years we have been combining terms. We wear skorts to brunch and eat with foons (or sporks) while talking the latest gossip about Brangelina or Bennifer. We even comment about it on our blogs.

Why? Because it's a fun and simple way to be creative; that's why.

You'll notice that I don't have links on this page. I have BLINKS. Those are my blog link: links to my favorite blogs. I'm not sure if I'm the first to use the term, but it came about by simply combining terms.

What terms can you come up with? Feel free to leave them in the comment. I gotta go run and feed the pet cockapoo now.

Write Like The Beatles

Call me nostalgic, but I really miss songs that tell a story. Traditionally these were called ballads. These days, that term is usually reserved for sappy slows songs that adorn Disney movies (cough, cough, Phil Collins, cough). There was a time, though, that a song like Eleanor Rigby could be appreciated as literature as well as for its musical merit.

Do know the story of Eleanor Rigby? Seems like Sir Paul gave us just enough to gather some great images, but not enough to spell the whole thing out. Sometimes I just want to sit down and write the story of Eleanor Rigby. I mean, all the lonely people, where do they all come from? Maybe I know. The Beatles have a few songs that do this to me. Man, I wish I could write like The Beatles.

There are some other musician that are also good for this kind of inspiration: Bjork, Peter Gabriel, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and, lately, Kelly Clarkson. Yeah, I said it. So, you guys want to go in with me?

I call dibs on Eleanor Rigby.