So often I begin a writing class with a simple, free-writing prompt, usually just a word or phrase – “skipping in the rain”, “amusement parks”, “the kitchen sink.” I enjoy watching the quizzical glances of my writers at these random ideas. But slowly each of them connects to some inner flash of thought or memory.
In just a moment or two, all their pens have touched down and the air becomes infused with soft shushing. The room almost sizzles with an electric flow of thoughts connecting our deep, interior minds to the exterior space that allows creative energy to manifest into something real.
It’s a miracle really, as magnificent as discovering how to harness lightning. It’s also as practical as the humble plug, lowly, taken for granted, and yet, without it, we sit cold, bored and hungry in the dark.
As long as there’s a physical connection — our pens on pads, our fingers on the keyboard — the energy begins to pick up speed. If we listen to our thoughts, we can feel the ideas forming. The words beg to be written down. If we’re lucky, our hands keep up. (The best thing I ever did was to take that touch-typing class in high school, though I certainly didn’t think so at the time!)
Even hooked into that current, our thoughts might not make sense. They’re just random static and scattered sparks — brilliant, sometimes frightening, irrational, moved by emotion, not logic. As they should be. If we stay with that flow, slowly the electrons (or neurons) begin to fall into line. It is a natural progression from chaos to order that has formed and reformed the universe again and again. Eventually our random thoughts — our own personal chaos — take shape and find direction.
Eventually, the connection slows and sputters or sometimes even breaks. That’s when our eyes gaze up and we stare off into the distance. But if our thoughts drift slightly, that too is a necessary part — a slight readjustment in frequency. Our minds, as our bodies, need sometimes to rest in order to catch the flow of energy again and continue.
The key is not to unplug completely. We must dip the pen again and float with the stream, even as it shifts and veers, often in completely unexpected directions.
By working from random meanderings into a purposeful stream of thought, these seemingly meaningless prompts become vital exercise. They help beginners and more practiced writers strengthen our instincts to tap into the flow which is so necessary to create short stories, memoirs, novels, plays — to write anything, really.
The purpose is to physically — pen on pad — tap into the unconscious stream and to steer toward a single, clear image, to follow it doggedly, fluidly, instinctually again and again until there is no question that we can find it whenever we need it. The practice may seem pointless at first, but over time, our words flow more freely until writing becomes as natural as speech or thought.
And that is where creativity begins.
Here’s a list of prompts I’ve used over the last few months. Pick one to start or end your writing day. Write for ten minutes. No editing or second-guessing. Just write. Ready, set, pens down, fingers on keyboards. GO!
- First Meeting
- The Ritual
- Last Day of Summer
- Small creature in a storm
- Write a dream (real or otherwise)
- What’s missing
- Passing On
- A favorite place (for you, someone you know, a character)
- Family gatherings
- Write a run-on sentence
- Something worth stealing
- Writing on the wall
- A holiday tradition
- Start with the phrase: “If the door opens, go through.”
- A place you once lived
- Your first time (take it any way you choose!)
- Damp earth
- The scent of an orange (go smell one – really!)
- Falling Leaves
- Skipping in the Rain
- Being Bored
- An argument
- Write about the living room (yours, your character’s…)
- The Final Chapter
- Folding sheets
- Don’t Panic!
- The playroom
- Spring cleaning
- Kitchen Sink
- Amusement Park
I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
— Walt Whitman
I foolishly started reading Anna Karenina this spring – twice, and then again this summer. Each time I was dissuaded by the time-swallowing responsibility of editing other people’s work. Beloved writer-friends and clients, you know I adore you. But every once in a while it is a relief just to hide in the bathroom between ream-length tomes and read something that requires neither a big red pen nor an editorial eye.
I usually pick up The Atlantic, The New Yorker, browse the photos in National Geographic, or slog through one of that large stack of articles I’ve printed from the Internet.
But the other day I stopped myself. No! Read a book – a real book with a bound cover and back-matter blurbing its praises. Stop worrying that it might get dripped on by childishly undried (but washed!) hands, or that the cats will jump up on the narrow shelf beside the toilet and send all your precious literature into the – Eew!
I couldn’t quite bring myself to allow Anna Karenina to sit there. (No, I’d prefer her sitting with stoic crossed arms on my nightstand where she’s been neglected – again.) Instead I chose Stephen King’s wonderful memoir of craft, “On Writing”. What makes On Writing perfect bathroom reading? First, much of it is presented in brief snippets. There are also longer sections that focus on the topics we all struggle with, including simple but absolute truths like, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
How succinct! How accurate! And yet here I sit. OK, I’m reading in the bathroom, I’m editing and I’m blogging. But does any of that count? What about the hard stuff – reading classics, analyzing story structure and character development? What about hours of uninterrupted, fingernail-biting writer’s block? Are these the realms of the blessedly unemployed or the very young?
King also mentions the rationale for our hard work – joy. How often have I found myself forgetting about that, in all my anxiety about getting my novel just right and anticipating its fate in the larger world? Why struggle if not for joy? Why bother to write except for the gift that it gives us, first to the writer, then to those who read. But even if the writing stays locked in a drawer, with it goes a fragment of a soul that needed cleansing.
King says in an old Salon interview that his mother “used to say, when we were scared, ‘Whatever you’re afraid of, say it three times fast and it will never happen.’ And that’s what I’ve done in my fiction. Basically, I’ve said out loud the things that really terrify me and I’ve turned them into fictions.” In this, he and I are exactly alike. Just think, why else would a woman who hates the cold ever dream of writing a novel about Viking Age Greenland?
To face fear on paper makes one bolder. It sets you free.
So spit on the page, as I’ve said many times. Just spit. Get it out. Don’t worry. Don’t edit. You can fix it later. Don’t analyze why you write while you’re doing it. That’s the surest route to an endlessly blank page. Feel that freedom, even if for only ten minutes at the beginning of a writing session. Isn’t that a brief moment of heaven?
Did I mention I also keep a notebook and pen beside the toilet?
Read an excerpt from On Writing and hear a great interview with Stephen King on NPR.org
We all hope and pray that the writing we’ve been slaving away at for weeks, months or years is brilliant, publishable, praiseworthy.
Sometimes we’re right. More often than not, it seems, we’re wrong.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad writers. I found two links this week that brought home the point that every writer, no matter how skilled, talented, lauded or adored, sometimes misses the mark. And some of us (God help, please no!) have only one really good book within us.
Take note of “Great Writers, Bad Novels” in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I particularly love the honesty in Flannery O’Connor’s quoted letter to a friend: “It appears that I have finished my novel [“The Violent Bear It Away”].…Just in that state of not knowing if it works or is the worst novel ever written.”
We all feel that way, sometimes afterward, but more often than not right in the midst of creation. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days they do, until we go back the next day and realize everything we thought was brilliant really was just a pile of lard!
How do any of us stack up in our earnest efforts to get our hearts on the page? As Robert McCrum muses in his column in the U.K.’s Guardian, “Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds.”
Indeed! How many of us struggle just to get a few words on paper, to complete amidst the daily demands of our busy lives, a single short story or a somewhat lengthy essay? Wouldn’t any of us give our right arm (or perhaps more critically, each of our ten fingers) to have written one of the novels in The Huffington Post’s list of “Great Literary One-Hit Wonders“?
Writing is struggle. Perhaps that’s why I witness such incredible reluctance in some of my younger students. Writing IS HARD, especially if you have nothing particular that inspires you, as is often the case with essays that are required for school.
But some of us “rare birds” (in a less rarefied form than above), feel a literal pressure within our bodies as a story forms and pushes upward, forcing itself upon us, demanding with such force that we cannot refuse it.
So we write. We have a passion as powerful as any new-found love. If we neglect it, even for a day or two, we feel guilty as if we’ve forgotten to feed our infant. After a while, we can no longer separate the story from ourselves. We carry it around with us and listen to it, think about it even when we are occupied with something else, take notes at odd hours of the night, in the middle of meetings, when we’re chatting with someone on the train. We know we cannot give it up no matter how tired we are, no matter how bored we are with it, or how frustrated with the awareness that our love, our soul, may never find its way to a wide, appreciative audience, that we are all almost inevitable victims of what McCrum calls “the murderous cannon fire of indifference and critical disdain”.
None of that matters somehow when we’re in the midst of writing. It is creation itself that drives us. If our effort is mediocre, we know we will try again, searching forever for the unforgiving truth that something’s living inside us and we are its slave, not its master. Our stories are our essence. They inform our existence and give us our sense of self. If they were anything less, why would we bother?
We write until the well runs dry. Then we rest until we’re ready to take up the challenge again. We are grateful for our mistakes. We learn from them and slowly, with plodding certainty, we actually get better.
But no writer travels a straight or steady path. This is not a staircase; it’s a mountain. Sometimes we trip up. But that, too, is part of the journey.
In The Wall Street Journal essay, perhaps the most poignant thought comes at the very end: “No writer sets out to produce a mediocre book; sooner or later, most do. Forgiveness is in order. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.'”
As many of you know, historical novelist Stephanie Cowell and I go way back. We met in a workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle more than twenty years ago and worked together in a writers group in NYC for over ten years. She’s the “Stephanie” I mention in my usual first class essay – the Stephanie of whom we were all a little bit green when she published her first novel Nicholas Cooke back in 1993. We’ve shared a lot – hopes, frustrations, disappointments, more than a bucket of tears apiece, and finally the joy of seeing her previous novel, Marrying Mozart and my first not only published, but represented by the same agent and edited by the same editor. I’m honored that she’s guest blogging today to celebrate the launch of her latest, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet.
How long does it take to write a novel? Writing, rewriting and rewriting and…
Sometimes people ask me, “How long does it take to write a novel?” I am never quite sure what to answer! It depends on the novel, the life circumstance, the writer. Three months? Fifty years? The journey can vary considerably. There was an article about this in the New York Times some years ago. A certain novelist confidently promised his editor, “Two more weeks and you’ll have my final draft!” Four years later he was still writing, likely having changed his address, disconnected his phone, and claimed to be missing.
“Still writing that novel?” someone will ask you. “My kid’s in high school. Didn’t you start it when she was just learning how to read?” Argh! Or, “What! You just started your new book last year and already you’ve done? I bet your next one will take even less time!” Well, not necessarily. Novels, like individual children, grow in their own way.
Writing novels can be like wandering in a great forest: the path is straight or crooked. Take a wrong turn and end up two years out of your way. Or it can be like walking across a desert where the wind blows the sand and you have no idea where you came from or where you are going. You run around in circles, shouting for rescue, a little out of your mind.
Of the several novels I have completed, two have each taken only nine months of writing but the story which is showing up April 6th in bookstores – Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet – ran away from completion for nearly five years. My poor husband lived through every draft. Why did it take so long? It was a big story which combined the young Monet’s development as a painter, his great love for Camille, and the birth of impressionism. And all that had to travel along a rising plot line, which it finally did. But that is not my longest creative effort. I have several unfinished novels which I have worked on for a long time. There is one that has eluded completion for 21 years but I keep getting closer every time I go back to working on it. I think one day it will get there.
I guess the only thing to do is enjoy the journey. And maybe buy a t-shirt I once saw for sale and have regretted always not buying. In big black letters across the front it said, “Just working on my novel.”
Stephanie will be here for two local events:
May 1 at 1:00 PM
54 Fairfield St., Montclair, NJ
WORDS of Maplewood
May 13th at 7:30 PM
179 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood NJ