Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
January 2011 - Volume 11, No. 1
How to Write
The Inner Life of Creative Writing
For many years I’ve noticed that when I write, the writing itself wants to takes over. What I had in mind at the beginning frequently gives in to something new that emerges. This is the excitement and challenge of writing - you never know what’s going to show up. It’s important to pay attention to what’s happening.
More recently I’ve come upon a pattern or set of rules that lends itself to enhance this experience.
I’ll begin with the following bi-directional outline:
A) First the writing serves the writer. ←
B) Then the writer serves the writing. →
An elementary understanding of the writing task has the writer simply putting onto paper the words that are in his or her head. Perhaps I recall a dream - and then I put words to paper that represent that dream. Or I have occasion to thank someone for a gift - from which comes the common “thank you” letter or note.
But I’ve long realized that the act of writing is an act of translation. It’s usually easy to talk, where the spoken word more immediately represents the material inside us. Our inner experience can flow more easily since we often think with talking words. This is the source of the “Freudian slip” where the inside material can sneak out without being censored. Though when the inner experience is more a feeling, the access-translation into spoken words can be more difficult (biologically more-so for men than for women).
For most of us, it’s more difficult to write than to speak. Even to compose a thank-you letter is more difficult than to just pick up the phone and say thank you. That’s why teaching of writing in schools was often called “composition.” It takes more time and effort to translate my inner experience into the written word. Consider that the novelist Graham Greene wrote over 30 novels using the rule of only 500 words a day.
So when I write - i.e. translate my inner experience into the written word - something especially important, or creative, is happening.
So here are my four stages or rules of writing:
1) Write. Let what you’re writing emerge as is. This is the First Draft, where you don’t have to worry about things like spelling, punctuation, or even the logic of your subject. Just get it out of your head onto paper (or the computer screen). For me sometimes I do best when my first first (rough) draft is on paper, then I type it into my computer, becoming the official first draft. That’s the first stage. Just get it out there.
2) Next - and this is what I often missed - read what you have written for the presence of a message (often unconscious) from the writing to the writer. “What does what I’ve just written want to say or show me?” Spend some time here, this is the first direction - A) First the writing serves the writer (← ). For those who practice journaling, what you journal can then tell you what you have just journalled. You can use the practice of meditation here, or the benefits of walking, especially out in nature.
Often for me, the message from the writing comes more as a pattern or gestalt that is quite independent of what I thought I wrote. Sometimes it can take some personal discipline or insight to catch this. And it’s a message no other person would be able to discern. It’s just from the writing to me ←. The unconscious it seems is always looking for ways to get our attention. If you discern nothing, that’s OK too. You’ve honored the writing just by asking.
3) Now, begin rewriting the document, letter, story, etc. so that it’s own purpose can be fulfilled. This is the second direction - B) The writer serves the writing (→). Now the work can become itself, independent of the writer’s self or ego. Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” It’s up to you how many drafts are necessary for the work to become fully itself. That’s why “a page a day” is so often the pace of full-time writer-novelists.
Frank Conroy, the 5th director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, edited a book called “The Eleventh Draft” (Harper Collins,1999), a compilation of 23 essays by writers who had been his students at Iowa. The title alone (and also since I’m a Iowa alumnus) told me I had to have the book.
I’ll often consider that something written becomes a living entity of its own. That’s why we have honored good books by encasing them in good bindings. Once I’ve gotten myself out of the way, my own work is to serve the writing →. It’s not mine, I’m just the birther. Like our children, we raise them in order to let them go. Sometimes we are reminded they were never ours, just lent to us for raising.
4) The final task is to let it go. If it’s a letter, send it. If it’s a story, share it, or publish it (often a dedicated task in itself). If it’s an important class assignment, now submit it. If there’s no place to give or send it, put it into storage. On my computer, works in progress are on the desktop; finished material goes into files designed just for that purpose.
Then move on. You have a life. And sometimes the inner gift of the writing to you (←) is that you may need to make changes in that life.
My purpose here has been to remind you that when you write, realize you are always on sacred ground, and to honor it accordingly.
Can :rules be applied to the creative process?
Response to Dawny
Add a Comment
FREE Monthly Newsletter
Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some
free monthly words of wisdom: