Writing and "The Process"

All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Those Creative Types...

I often talk about how first and foremost, writers should write. This seems like an obvious thing to do, yet sometimes I feel obliged to remind people about it. When a writer is bogged down in a project, what's the best remedy? Write something else. Writer's block? Write literally anything. Not feeling your best about something you've just written? Write the exact thing again, approaching it with every doubt you have. That's what I mean about writing - it should be the go-to tool in your toolbox.

Kurt Vonnegut
Now, this also applies toward any real craft. A carpenter should build things. A musician should create music. An economist should... probably try something else. The point is that we should do what we truly love, and practice it as often as we can. More to the point, we should always pursue those things that lead us toward improving ourselves as writers, as people, as whatever we decide we want to be. And that's what leads me to talk about a special type of person: the Creative Type.

First and foremost, a writer is a member of the Creative Type. The only catch is that someone who sticks strictly to their writing is missing a chance to improve themselves in different ways that will eventually feed back into their writing skills. When a writer embraces their membership into the family of people who make up the Creative Type, they consciously decide to adventure into the creative world and find out what's in there. From that point they just take everything in, becoming hoarders of experiences and anecdotes, and this all becomes fodder for their future writing. It's quite amazing once you get into the habit.

The author Kurt Vonnegut was no stranger to exploring the wild world of the Creative Type. In a letter he penned to the high-school students of a Ms. Lockwood, he offered some advice on just how and why this should be done:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow. [emphasis added]

I highlight the very last part because that's the best part - anything and everything you do in the name of being a Creative Type will inspire growth within, and that will never be reversed. For that reason alone, this adventure is worth it. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

Why We Stop Writing

Recently, I have not been writing as much as I would like to. The easy explanation for this would be to chalk it up to too much work, too little sunlight, a few too many aches and pains, and not quite enough inspiration. However, the easy route is not always the best one, and this happens to be the situation right now. I am actually hung up because of a different beast this time, and as a writer, it is always better to understand what moves us than just assume something and go from there. This is also true when we don't move at all.

Every writer hits a rut, and there are many kinds of them. Sometimes we don't know what to write, we can't get our thoughts together, the idea of writing gets a little too overwhelming, and so on. When we understand which kind of rut we are in, we can pursue a more direct remedy and get ourselves back into a good writing space.

In my case, all of the reasons I discussed - work, bad weather, etc. - were true. However, when I sat and thought about it for a bit, none of those were holding me back from writing. Each one of them was easy enough to overcome, but there was something else I was not facing. Something that made me want to turn away from the keyboard and go to whatever other diversion was available. When we are in a rut, we need to ask ourselves, "What is really going on?" This should not be an easy question to answer, and we should challenge what we just want to jump out and say. Usually, the deeper truth does not want to come out. We need to poke it, prod it, or lure it out with treats. (I use the same process when my cats hide under the bed)

What's been bothering me of late, and what I have discovered from creeping around a lot of author chat boards, is that every writer needs feedback, and without it, that creative drive can become malnourished. As solitary as the writing process is, it often comes from both a need to create and a need to be heard. Sometimes one need dominates the other and we can just go with that for a while. When an idea is brewing in my mind, writing it down is almost instinctive, but often that other need comes up and we want to have our story heard. We need feedback; we need response and something to feed that other part. When we are driven to write by that need, the loneliness of writing can very much work against us. And, considering this wintry world of isolation, that need can often go unsatisfied.

If you find yourself bogged down and unable to write, give yourself a moment. Ask yourself what is going on, and feel around for an answer. There are plenty of them out there and they are all perfectly natural. However, remember that writing is very much a social process at times, and we often need to do more than just create on our own. And, if your answer turns out to be a need to be heard, well, seek one of those chat groups and get some feedback. It can actually be quite satisfying.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Speechwriting

I was considering taking today off from posting in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but instead I decided that there was something to offer from a brief post discussing speeches. "Speeches?" you might ask. Indeed, speeches. Some of the most memorable quotes in history were from speeches and yes, they were often from pieces written well in advance with painstaking care and forethought. And as with any speech, the way it is written will determine the impact it has on its audience and on generations to come.

Speechwriting and oratory have become lost arts in these days of soundbites and memes, which is what makes them secret weapons in writing effectively and persuasively. People have forgotten how a well-written speech can bring people to their feet, rising to action. Sweating over one concise, thought-out message can pay off in ways some people no longer realize. The Gettysburg Address - less than 200 words - is one of the most quotable speeches of the 19th century, while most people forgot about the two-hour-long oratory given by another speaker at the same commencement. Lincoln's words moved people. Good speeches do that.

Now, today we will (or should) all hear the famous line from Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. That moving quote, however, was so effective in part because it was part of a very rousing speech. This is what good speechwriting is really about - emphasizing a theme, building upon it, shoring it up through examples and metaphor, applying it to the entire audience, and then packaging everything discussed into one profound message. A good speech should be built like a pyramid - a broad, solid base that narrows as it grows, becoming more firm and grounded as it rises, all approaching one point that will feel inevitable in its conclusion.

Let me offer this. As I said, we all know that soundbite from Dr. King's speech. However, read the words preceding the famous part, and look at how everything builds up to what we all remember. Examine the structure and see why it is such a great example of building to a  point:

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

This section starts from a deep, dark place; one of true despair. It emphasizes that point, encompassing the audience in that misery so that they are all of one mind. Then, with one transition, it lifts them all with the message of hope. This is speechwriting at its best. And if you learn this technique as a writer, your message will carry farther and influence your audience more than mere words could ever do.

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Non-Sensory Approach

I'll admit it - I have been going on a bit about description lately. And, let's face it - this is an important element of anyone's writing technique. Description puts the reader there, and without it, things kind of get lost fast. Good, descriptive writing provides more than just a description of the setting; it provides an anchor for all the story elements and lets them evolve more organically. So, yes, I think the subject deserves a few posts now and then. However, this time I thought it would be interesting to explore what kind of description we can use.

Often, description is an immediate appeal to the five basic senses (there are actually many more than five senses, but for now let's stick with sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch). These sensory cues bring a person very much into the scene because it recreates exactly what the reader would sense at that moment. This is what we learn when we first start writing, and it's a great foundation piece. However, the five senses is just a starting point, and they actually are not the only starting point we can work a description from.

Let me offer you a link to a post I wrote over four years ago. The first three paragraphs of this particular entry, entitled "The Emotional Description," described the house where I grew up. The rest of the post is about the inclusion or omission of details depending on whether or not they were important to the purpose of the piece. In that entry, I wrote three paragraphs and didn't use one sensory element to describe the house or property. Rather, I used emotive anchors and packaged feelings to create the scene. This served the same purpose - the put the reader there, but the reader is there in a much different way. They are not seeing what I see but rather envisioning what I feel. Those five senses are not the appeal - the main draw is how the writer is interacting with the setting.

Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch are all great descriptors and they have their place, but a writer does themselves a great service when they practice descriptions outside of those boundaries. As we get in touch with describing elements of a story with emotional elements, we secretly remind ourselves what makes a particular element so important to the story. In describing my childhood home in emotional terms, it places me, as a writer, deeper within that emotional pool, and my reactions will naturally reflect that immersion.

A great writing exercise for those who like a challenge and occasionally need a prompt is actually very simple. Sit down with your writing stuff, and describe the first thing that catches your attention. Notice how I didn't say, "catches your eye" - there's a reason. Your attention responds to things more than sight - it is called by a different force, and is usually a good subject for writing about. Of course, the key to this exercise is to not write a descriptive blueprint of whatever you choose, but rather discuss how you respond to different elements. Write about the subject in a way where the reader will feel your reactivity. 

The more you do this exercise, the easier it will be to bringing the reader into the scene and connecting them in the way you are feeling. That is a great form of engaged writing, and a tool definitely worth keeping in your writing bag.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Writers As Readers

For all the writers out there, I offer you this simple question: "What are you currently reading?" Hopefully this simple question has a very simple answer for you, and you peel it off without a second thought. I only ask that you answer something other than, "I am proofreading my own work," "I am in the middle of several books right now," or "I don't actually have time to read other things because I am writing so much." These aren't answers as much as excuses, and I will tell you why.

"I am proofreading my own work." I am sure you are. However, the importance of reading things is to read other styles and techniques. Consuming words other than your own is important in that you challenge yourself to see things through different lenses, and study how different writers approach situations that you might someday try out. Reading your own work has its place, but it is never an appropriate substitute from what you can gain from taking in other authors' words. Even if what you read doesn't have anything to offer you, at least you can look back and say, "Wow, I've learned a lot of things as a writer" because you know all the author's tricks. That's something.

"I am in the middle of several books right now." Also quite possibly true. However, if this is how you are willing to answer that question, it is similar to saying, "I am not really dedicated to one specific thing." Everyone has (or should have) a few books that they are progressing through, but when asked that question, a serious reader will have one specific work come to mind. As for myself, I am reading Flint Dille's The Gamesmaster: Almost Famous in the Geek '80s. This is after finishing How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. I also have Dead Wake with a bookmark, A Mother's Reckoning is on my things-to-read shelf, and Lee & Andrew Child's Better Off Dead is there as well. However, I know which work is influencing me right now, so that's the one with which I answer.

"I don't actually have time to read other things because I am writing so much." Any writer should be so lucky. Now, during certain times like NaNoWriMo or during bursts of inspiration, an author might be overcome with just waves of words that demand to be committed to paper, and have little time for anything else. However, this is more often the exception than the rule. Sometimes it does feel easier to write until the point of exhaustion, then step back and do nothing. If I may be so bold, that feeling of writing exhaustion is an excellent time to read for a bit, simply because it lets the creating part of the brain rest while the consuming part gets its own workout. Having a book that you can read in twenty-minute bursts, perhaps before you go to sleep, is a great way to keep the reading habit going, even if you are writing to the point of collapse. It can actually be refreshing.

Reading is such an important part of the writing process - this cannot be overstated. If anything, reading something should be able to offer a grain of inspiration that someday, somewhere, an aspiring writer might be reading your book, looking for something to push them to that next level. Until that day, some daily word consumption will benefit you as a writer, and it might just expand that brain of yours.

So in closing, I ask you: What are you currently reading?

Friday, January 6, 2023

The Word for 2023: Detail

Happy New Year, and may 2023 be a year of good health for you. I know it didn't start out that way for me - I woke up New Year's Eve with a pretty nasty cold (not COVID) - but I have the rest of the year to be healthy.

On a more interesting note, once I recovered from my cold, I decided to go visit my mother. The facility that takes care of her had been on COVID quarantine for a while, so now that the quarantine was lifted enough for visitors and my cold had subsided, a visit felt appropriate. I still bundled up, wore my mask, and took all precautions necessary just in case something was still communicable or one last cold virus in me wanted to make a run for it. When I got to the residences and came to sign in, I was basically a mound of things to protect me either from the cold outside or the threat of contagion. The funny part - once I got to the desk, the staff knew exactly who I was. How did they pull this off before I even gave my name?

My eyes. They recognized me immediately because I have my mother's eyes, and those baby blues were basically the only recognizable part of me sticking out beneath the protective masks and winter wear. Nothing else mattered - that one detail gave me away immediately.

This brings me to an important writing element that can often be overlooked: the art of detail. Beginning writers are often told to describe everything, and that's a good technique to learn. However, we learn that technique in order to parse through all the little things and find that one stand-out thing that makes our character rise above the crowd. There are a bunch of ways to describe me and all kinds of details to bring out: That shuffle in my step when my knees have put on too many miles in a day, the Irish freckles scattered about my face, or my ever-receding hairline and balding scalp that suggests a once-proud head of hair one resided there. All those things describe some aspect of me, and in different stories they would be the important detail. However, in this particular story, the one call-out is the eyes. I share some other features with my mother, but if you saw me and her together, and we both looked at you, the only detail that would matter to you would be those piercing blue eyes. 

In many stories, the main character's eye color is not even mentioned. The same goes for hair, facial features, and even skin color in cases where these details are not relevant to the story. The real art of description comes in taking one aspect, one feature of the character, and showcasing it in a way that sticks with the reader. With good writing, the reader will latch on to one detail and build the character around that, making it a fully fleshed-out entity in their own mind. Once that happens, the reader is part of the story. They are invested. They keep on reading.

Keep this in mind when you want a character to have a particular draw. Showcase their thick, lustrous hair, the rich, full color of their skin, or whatever you want to use to attract the reader. Just remember that when it comes to blue eyes, I got that covered.

 

Friday, December 30, 2022

Writing Resolutions for 2023

I can proudly say that I have been through all of life's main stages in celebrating the arrival of the New Year: Desperately trying to stay up until 12 pm, finally being able to reach the big moment at midnight, celebrating the New Year's arrival without being sober, wondering if I need to stay up until 12 pm, and then just deciding to go to sleep. I haven't done these phases in any particular order and I have backtracked several times, but that's the point - discovering what options you are capable of, then deciding which one is appropriate. As long as several options are available to me, I can do whatever I want.

However, there's another tradition that goes a little differently - New Year's resolutions. Some people make them like they are issuing formal press releases, others quietly consider a few necessary life changes, and some people like me make promises to myself about what I want to differently. Of course, none of these methods have any formal accountability and are even joked about as being readily broken before Valentine's Day, so most people don't take much stock in them. However, I do, and in that regard, I am offering up my resolutions as a writer and why I think they are reasonable goals that anyone can (and should) try.

  1. I want to write more. No surprise here - every writer should have this on their list of things to push forward. The exception here is that I will not promise to write the Great American Novel in 2023 or even start that project. All I want to do is know that I create more. The effects of that will naturally spill down.
  2. Whenever I read something, I will write something. I want to try and create more, and nothing should be more inspiring than first taking in some words and ideas. Therefore, any time I read something more than a recipe for kung pao chicken, I will take that energy and put it through the creativity mill. This should, of course, also help me with the first resolution as well.
  3. Lastly, I want to get more people reading and critiquing my work. Whether it involves joining another workshop, finding a couple more people willing to give me input, or including writing segments within my blog posts, I want more feedback. This shouldn't be too difficult, and could take many forms, but it's up to me to find the proper methods or venues. And yes, if this means I find a way to start up my pre-COVID writing workshop, then so be it. 

These are simple things and I hope you can pick one or two to include on your list of writing resolutions. You are the only person who will be able to hold you accountable, so choose wisely, then start writing.

Lastly, I will be taking the New Year's weekend and following Monday off, so my next post will be Friday, January 6th, 2023. Happy New Year to all, and may the coming year be something worth writing about.