Monday, March 30, 2009

Developing creative writing habits

In March, I completed another enjoyable workshop with six talented authors in Ennis, Montana. It was the first five-day writing workshop and included  four more lessons in the workbook. A daily schedule of lessons will soon be posted on our website. You can e-mail and request a workshop schedule, a list of lessons covered, a registration form, and/or more information. 

As always, we began "true fiction" writing through free-form writing exercises, with each lesson building on the one before it. Those who've participated in the three-day workshop may wonder what has been added. The three-day workshop consisted of fifteen lessons. We now have nineteen lessons in the five-day class, with lesson nineteen, Publishing Options, taking a large portion of day five. I also added lessons on setting, writing background and development, and I divided one lesson and expanded it into two; one on dispelling self-doubts, and one on developing good writing habits. The lesson on writing habits takes up the first hour of day-five. 

As in every workshop I've presented, I learn along with my students. I also learn from research and study I put into each lesson. In particular, the lesson on writing habits has helped me strengthen my own habits with good results. I just finished the first draft of the adult novel I began 3 or 4 years ago, and had put aside to work on a trilogy of children's books. Now I have developed the habit that will help me rewrite and polish this first rough draft systematically. 

I think the part of the 18th lesson that has helped me the most is the emphasis on the word "habit." We all know what habits are. Our life is ordered (or disordered) by them. We have long-established habits that compel us to a certain ritual of behavior each day. Whether it's rising at a certain time each morning, proceeding to the next step which for some is making the coffee or getting in the shower or letting out the dog or jumping on the treadmill or heading out the door in your jogging clothes,  journal writing or daily devotions, we repeat the same pattern each morning, and it's hard—almost impossible—to veer from it. Why? Because it's a habit. It's ingrained. 

Why not add one more habit to your ritual? Schedule a writing time each day wherever it fits into your already established ritual. Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird, said, "So much of writing is sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill." 

From this I realize there are two parts to developing a writing habit. One is to sit down and do it every day. The other is to be open to ideas and inspiration all day long. Not all of my writing is done while sitting in front of my computer monitor each morning. Even more of it is done earlier while soaking in my morning bath with a freshly brewed cup of coffee, where I habitually solve a daily cryptogram, which is usually a profundity from some past poet or philosopher. Then I read something inspiring, currently an essay from another writer in the book, A Cup of Comfort for Writers, edited by Colleen Sell. And lastly, totally relaxed by this time, I let my mind fill with ideas for my book or whatever else comes. I have note paper and pencil handy to write down the ideas that the muse introduces. Then when I approach the computer, I use all the available time, typing madly as the muse continues, through the characters, to show my fingers where to go. 

It helps to be prepared for the presentation of ideas from the muse as you go about your daily living, seeing it all, as Lamott says, as grist for the mill. Keep pocket-sized notebooks or index cards and a pencil with you to jot down interesting conversations, descriptions of buildings, rooms, landscapes, or anything else that comes to mind that may later be adapted to your book, short story, poem or essay.  

We will each develop and integrate our unique writing habits into our daily lives in a way that works. Now that I'm experiencing "the habit" more compulsively, I can recommend that every writer work to develop one, if you haven't already done so. 

How is this done? The first step is to make the decision, firmly, to write each day and to set the time and space for doing so. The next step is to force yourself to do it consistently for as long as it takes for it to become a habit, a part of your daily ritual you would not think of skipping. Some say that takes fourteen times, some say twenty-one, others a month. Like everything else in life, however, first of all, it takes the desire. If you really want to write, it will be easier, and a productive writing habit will be formed in no time. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Compelling Fiction Comes from the Heart, not the Head

Are you intimate with the characters in the novel you are reading? Do their problems become yours as you are reading? Are their emotions, happy, sad, frightened, or angry, real to you? Felt by you? Then you are reading a book written by an author who tells his or her story from the heart, not from the head. The author became one with the characters, felt the emotion, and suffered or rejoiced with the characters as the story progressed. 

Regardless of who we are and what we write, we are bound to put some of ourselves into our writing. Each experience is unique and our passions and our idiosyncrasies help to flavor our work. Writers, don’t be afraid to give your characters some of your own passions, phobias, and emotional upheavals. It will give your writing passion as well as encouragement to those readers who carry the same troubling baggage you do.

The purpose of "true fiction" is to express and show emotion with which readers can relate, to allow the reader to experience the emotion vicariously. It should also have the potential for positive influence. Literature influences people. It is up to the "true fiction" writer to use that power for the reader’s good. There is nothing wrong with fiction that is written solely to entertain. But the purpose of "true fiction" is to touch the readers’ emotions; to help them feel what they may be afraid to feel in real life.

 “People recognize that it feels good to feel and that not to feel is unhealthy.… Literature offers feelings for which we don’t have to pay.” (Janet BurrowayWriting Fiction, A guide to Narrative Craft

“Don’t be afraid to ask of your writing, ‘Who will this art help? What baby is it squashing?.…Ideals expressed in art can effect behavior in the world, at least in some people some of the time.… I have said that wherever possible, moral art holds up models of decent behavior; for example, characters in fiction, drama, and film whose basic goodness and struggle against confusion, error, and evil—in themselves and in others—give firm intellectual and emotional support to our own struggle.” (John Gardner, On Moral Fiction )