Thank you Lauren for your inspiring talk at the Writers Group Convention 2017.
Ways to develop writing: What makes stories come alive?
First, read “La Loba” from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
13th c. – Rumi
“Learn the rules so you can break them.” Truman Capote.
Holistic Approach with voices of the masters lighting the way:
- Mind: Tips on Literary Technique
- Body: A physical approach to this discipline
- Spirit: “Don’t wait for inspiration,” JL, “go after it with a club.”
Mind: Tips on Literary Technique
- If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Elmore Leonard
- Be honest. Be honest until it frees you. Writers know what this means. We know the difference between the tinny and the resonant. How? First stage of writing. Strive to be authentic. Peel away the layers of what people taught or sold us. We are not strings of clichés: we are unique; we are creative fire; far more than the sum of our memories and experiences.
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig traces an unlearning that creative, independent minds need to achieve. We have to cut through the false self that we keep constructing. We discard opinions and biases as the hollow things that they truly are. It means we see things afresh. This is what all the mindfulness is about. We see with the eyes we had when we were children.
The Czech poet Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: “If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life…For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant. Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure house of memories? Direct your attention to that. Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past.”
Lydia Millet: “My feeling is that the struggle to write well is also the struggle to write honestly, even when they seem to be at loggerheads. And that candor—elusive and sometimes rudely naked—shouldn’t be just the easy honesty of me but a more ambitious honesty of us. Not the sole purview of children’s books, but the purview of any book at all. In the end, I think a bit of shamelessness is called for.” Truth & a writer’s own sense of shameless freedom are entwined.
Virgina Woolf: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
- In 1988, when I was 17, I wrote to Stephen King, asking him how to be a writer. He said, READ READ READ, WRITE EVERY DAY AND TAKE AS MUCH CRITICISM AS YOU CAN STAND.
William Faulkner: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master…”
And if for no other reason than to say that just like a dentist who can tell if we don’t floss, an editor can tell if we don’t read.
- Learn to sift out the good writing from the not so good. Doris Lessing coaches: “…learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad —including your own bad.” So what makes for a good versus not so good in writing?
Jane Austen: “For my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.”
- Engage the left brain. Work to deadlines. Set goals. Write daily. As Douglas Adams wrote: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ Use mindmaps like DaVinci to tap right brain then organize into outlines…so you can enjoy departing from them.
- Learn perspective/POV. The hardest thing. It’s the camera, the lens guiding the telling of the story. Understand breadth and precise limitations of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person limited and omniscient POV.
What do you gain and give up by choosing the POV of your story? So when you screw up POV [slips in perspective] and your editor points it out, you’ll be able to tighten the lens and see clarity, integrity and the dramatic shift that emerges.
- Learn not to defend those self-righteous little adverbs or spaghetti strings of adjectives. Let them draw your early drafts out of the ether; let them work like scaffolding; and then…like the rafts that help the Buddhist monk cross the river, let them go once you’re on the other side. In your subsequent drafts, cut adverbs by 90% and be as choosy with your adjectives as you are when you select a most excellent writing pen.
Remember that Stephen King said “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” and that Mark Twain said “Every time you’re inclined to write very, write damn; your editor will delete it and your writing will be just as it should be.”
- Show don’t tell. Learn the difference by reading as a writer, read yourself into a good pair of glasses. Learn to see when you’re showing and when you’re telling. And with your drafts carve away the scaffolding of telling to allow the showing to steal the show. Shows not tells. Seeing, and hearing, is believing. Eavesdrop. Read Anton Chekhov.
- The keys. The actual set of keys to conveying your meaning that you don’t want to entrust to an editor. Don’t hand over the keys to someone who does not know your story the way you do. McKay cattle farmer. A word on the exclamation point. F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
- “Pity the reader,” Neil Gaiman Pity your pocket if you’re an assisted or self-publishing, first time author: shoot for 80-90k words. I’ve seen good books rejected for being over the 100k mark.
- I was once told, to get a good photo, take lots of photos. So to get a good idea, have lots of ideas. John Steinbeck: “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
- It’s all about the people, the characters make or break a piece of writing. Ethan Canin: “With characterization, you have to let go. You’ve got to release yourself from your grandiose intentions, your ambitions, your ideas about humanity, literature, and philosophy by focusing on the being-another-person aspect of it—which, by the way, is freeing, delightful, and one of the few real joys of writing. Stop worrying about writing a great novel—just become another human being.”
Again, the writer’s goal of truth and honesty is quick at our heels: As our characters emerge, we see the tragic, routine flaws of what it means to be human; as our characters, and we, fall short of the marks we set for ourselves. Fiction means conflict.
- Cut compound verbs, the verb ‘to be’, is, are, was, were, will, had, had could, would by 2/3rds and people will think you’re a great writer and won’t know why.
Body: A physical approach to this discipline
- Ian McEwan, author of Atonement, Short story writer, Andre Dubus II and his son, III runs. Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami run. McEwan said writing is an endurance trial. He’s not kidding.
- Get a good chiropractor or a good physio. Writing desk murder on the sciatic; the shoulders. Swimming, yoga, tai chi, Pilates.
- For memoir, grief writing, abuse story, quite often the body releases the trauma alongside the narrative. As memory speaks, the body speaks. Back pain, etc., surface for some.
Spirit: “Don’t wait for inspiration,” JL, “go after it with a club.”
- Sylvia Plath: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
“Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome and fear hates uncertain outcome.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
- Tim O’Brien, Viet Nam vet author of The Things They Carried collection of short stories equated fiction writing with a magic show and with the Native American Kiowa tribe shaman. You are making magic. There is such extraordinary power in words. How do you sustain this journey?
- Surround yourself with positive, creative people. Anything more destructive than the unlived creative life? Rubbing up against that headspace is bad juju for the writer. 1992. 21 years old. My first National Writer’s Union gathering, a man shouted across the hall in Boston at me as I entered the room: “Let me guess! Another coming of age tale! Don’t quit your day job!” Didn’t write for a month after that because I was in fact, working on a coming of age novel.
As poet Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” That agony comes with handcuffs and a stun gun for anyone showing the slightest bit of inspiration in its company.
Hang out with good, healthy creative people, the painters, the photographers, the poets, the gardeners; the ones who spend time with children and the elderly and dogs. The ones who smile at the cash register, who look past the steering wheel. The ones who go for walks or visit Avid Reader or linger at a sunrise and sunset.
- Artist Dates: Remember The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron? Do something once a week for your creative fire. Feed that fire premium fuel.
- Write what you know. Write what you live. Toni Morrison, wrote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Close with Rilke, “Go inward.” Everything you need is right there, waiting, within you.
Lauren Elise Daniels, BA, MFA Writing
Writer, Senior Consulting Editor www.ledaniels.com
Director, Brisbane Writers Workshop www.brisbanewriters.com