Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Staying in Love (With Writing)

The world wide web is positively brimming with advice. And for writers, this advice sometimes seems to be leaking from every electronic orifice in existence. What's more, it usually is not faulty or bad advice; the tips one finds online are often fabulous, helpful, and insightful--born out of hard-earned experience and bloodshed.

It's tempting sometimes to read everything with the attitude of a dehydrated camel: drinking it all in with the determined intent to store up and use it later. I am continuously finding myself thinking things like, Of course! That's the problem! That's why I don't have an agent yet! and then immediately setting myself to the task of reorienting my writing habits to accommodate whatever new tidbit of advice or knowledge I have just found.

But here's what I've discovered lately: it gets overwhelming.

When I was in highschool, I played softball. (Yes, it's amazing, I know.) Before I began to play at such a competitive level, I had had very little technical training. My batting, for example, had never been critiqued; but even so, I was a fair enough hitter. In fact, I had a respectable store of home-runs on my record. But on my high-school team, there was a certain way of batting that every player had to learn--regardless of how well one could hit on one's own.

It transpired that I was absolute rubbish at the new technique. But I pressed on at my coach's insistence; learning her method, drilling the old way out of me until... I simply couldn't hit at all. Either way. An infield grounder on average was my best hit, and I bid farewell to anything better than shallow right-field on a good day. All the advice and training my coach was convinced would make me a better player actually killed both the promise of any improvement and the talent I had come in with.

Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to learn writing techniques from those who have gone before, or those who have more experience. We should. Those methods are full of wisdom, and have been tested and deemed successful. But we also shouldn't focus so much on what we think we should be doing that we lose all the natural writing instinct we came into this job with. The instincts and talents born out of an unsullied love for reading, or a pure desire to tell stories. Because when we lose those, I believe we also lose our ability to write with passion and love.

Also when I was in high-school, I wrote my first book. And I won't say it was good (it wasn't), but I loved every minute of it. I wasn't concerned with making it publishable, or writing a story readers would adore, or appealing to agents and editors. I didn't even think of trying to publish it. All I thought was that I had a story I needed to tell, and that I had to get it down on paper or die from the effort of holding it in. I wrote in a spiral notebook which I carried everywhere, and I stole every possible moment to scribble down words in it.

It was intoxicating, that kind of storytelling.

Lately, I've lost that passion. With the desire to publish has come an obsessively ambitious drive that sometimes makes it difficult to write purely for the joy of writing. I want to criticize everything that drops onto the page, search it for all the elements I feel I should include in a publishable story. I shove out my natural impulses in favor of the advice I have read. And it is all good advice. But that advice should not come first. I believe, first and foremost, we should tell a story organically; the way it comes most natural to us. And then, we should try and test it against the methods and elements we believe it should include.

Because how else can we write with passion?

What about you? When you write, do you ever find yourself caught up in a list of To-Do's, trying to include a billion things you know should be present, rather than just letting yourself write? How do you handle it? And if not, how do you keep out the extra stuff and allow your instinctive writer to take over?


  1. By writing in a notebook (no backspace button) and telling my inner editor to shut up...otherwise he get's away with whispering all those years of advice in my ears and changes my writing.

    You'll find that joy again, keep writing through the non-joyful parts and it'll come back.

  2. Hm, I might just go back to the ole' notebook ploy. I think you're onto something there, Amie.

    Sometimes you just want to slap that inner editor. Tell him to get a life, and not to hang around when it's inappropriate. I'll try that, next.

  3. Great post! I often trust my inner writer more than any advice, although I do take the advice into account. But I'm like you, I don't want all that advice to kill my creativity. Thanks!

  4. Wow, what a great post. I have actually been thinking about this a lot. Trying to make sure, as I revise, to use the feedback that has been helpful but stay keyed in to what *I* know is the heart of the story. That means letting go of notes and input I DON'T agree with you. I am like you, I criticize every word that lands on the page! But if I can get a little momentum going, I can at least suspend that for a while, until I put on my editing hat. One idea... write a scene you've been longing to write. The juiciest, sweetest, most conflict-riddled, or romantic, or adventurous part of the story. You might fall in love again. : )

  5. Jem: Thanks! I'm glad to hear you also put a lot of confidence in your instincts; somehow I feel that's the best way to avoid feeling swamped to the point of uselessness.

    Molly: I'm shamelessly relieved to hear that you ponder this quandary as well. It's encouraging to hear. And I think your advice is excellent. I'll definitely try it the next time I'm stumped!

  6. For me, stories have always been more about the characters than about the story. In fact, plot is difficult for me to create, but characters are a cakewalk.

    When I write, especially if it's a new project, I lay out a basic problem for the characters to work out, and then I start writing how the characters would act and behave before, during, and then after that problem.

    I hope you find that love again, soon. Writing is just so FUN :)

  7. I've been feeling the same way and missing my creative spark. I hope you find your passion again! Good luck to you and thank you for this post.

  8. Giles, I like your strategy. I've been thinking lately that, when in doubt, simplicity is perhaps the best plan of attack. But I really like the idea of starting with the characters and building up around them. That seems like a good way to keep focused on them.

    Jamie, I wish you luck as well. As with anything, there are peaks and valleys in writing. And it seems, the more serious you get about a thing, the more apt it becomes to yank your emotions around after it as it goes on its way. Here's to learning to live (without going mad) on the wild roller-coaster!

  9. Good post. I do think writers can psych themselves out much too easily by worrying about "the rules." Good writing is often the product of a dedicated craftsman who has learned the basic tenets of his craft. But, even more, it's an art form, and art is something that transcends rules. It's that pulsing bit of energy inside each of us, that desire to create stories out nothing, that decides whether or not we'll be good writers. All the other stuff is just technicalities.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly, K.M. Thanks for putting it so nicely.