Once upon a time—
No, wait, you can’t start with that. It’s too vague. What about the five W’s, who, what, where, when, and why? What is the URL? Can I look it up on Google? Has it got a Facebook page? What do you mean it’s just a story and that’s the point? Show me where I can find it on my phone.
Those five-year-olds are getting much too sophisticated.
Okay, I’m making this up. I don’t have a five-year-old in my life. The only person I tell stories to is my dog, and she’s fine with whatever I say as long I keep petting her belly.
My mother used to make up stories. I can’t remember a single one now, but they were good. They were tailored to the audience, so they probably all featured a little girl like me. They weren’t too long because Mom was tired and I needed to go to sleep. They had action and suspense and a happy ending. If I looked restless, she added a new plot twist. There was no editing or revising, no marketing, no platform-building, and no, you couldn’t look them up on Google or Facebook.
I think sometimes we writers have lost the freedom of just telling a story. We worry so much about making it perfect that we get tongue-tied. We worry about what it’s going to be, where it’s going to go, and how people will receive it. If we could just forget all that and tell stories because it’s fun or because we need to get this story out of our heads, we could all write more and probably write better.
Many writers hate the sound of their own voices and worry about getting stuck, so they are reluctant to just tell stories to other people or, God forbid,” record them. But I think we need to get over that. Try telling a story, something you make up or something that really happened. Tell it to yourself in the mirror. Tell it to the dog. Tell it to your children or grandchildren. Tell it to your voice recorder. Just let it flow. Follow the rivulets of thought wherever they go. You never have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to.
If it’s good, tell it again. You’ll remember the important parts. Maybe write it down. Eventually, if the story is worthwhile, it will get edited, revised, marketed and hooked up on social media. But meanwhile, the story has value just for itself, just for the fun of telling a story.
Try it. See if it works for you. Start with “once upon a time.”
Here’s a link to a TED talk on storytelling. Check it out when you have time.
Now go write.
People are always telling aspiring writers that they need to sit down and write. Write every day. I say that, too. Every week, I conclude this blog with “Now go write.” But you might be wondering “Write what?” Some days I wonder that, too.
If you have a paying writing gig, either as a job or a freelance assignment, you know what you need to write. All you need to do is get off Facebook and do it. But if all you know is that you ought to be writing SOMETHING, what should you write? Where do you start? When I’m between projects, I turn to my piles of prompts and the ideas I scratched out in moments of inspiration, but sometimes none of those seem right. To be honest, sometimes I play the piano, buy groceries or work on a puzzle instead. But more often, I sit down with my journal and just start writing whatever’s on my mind. Usually it leads me into my next writing project. Yesterday, for example, the date, May 8, reminded me that I made my First Communion in the Catholic Church on May 8 many years ago. That led to seven pages of memoir about what it was like at church in those pre-Vatican II days, so different from how it is now.
Many writers I admire preach the benefits of journaling, writing “morning pages” or doing free-writing exercises to get the writing juices flowing. Just get the pen (or the fingers on the keys) moving and don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good or has any chance of being published. You can turn to books like Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life and Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir for lots of ideas to get you started. Julia Cameron also preaches free-writing in her book The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.The idea is that writing is like a sport or playing a musical instrument. You need to warm up. I agree. Lots of times when I feel completely uninspired, all I need to do is start writing and the inspiration comes.
Other writers will say this is a waste of time. If you’re going to do writing exercises, why not write something that advances your work in progress? All I can say is do whatever works for you.
Which brings us back to that work in progress. What is it? What kind of writing do you want to do?
Some readers here are firmly established in one genre or another. They write novels or poetry or essays or articles. Others are still trying to figure out where they belong. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling in lots of different kinds of writing, but eventually you’ll find one genre fits you better than all the others. Think about what you love to read. If all your dreams came true, would you find your byline on a feature in the New York Times, on the cover of a novel, on the spine of volume of poetry, or on top of the most popular blog ever? Do you just want to capture your stories for your family and friends? Or, are you looking to make lots and lots of money writing and don’t really care if you get a byline? Are you attracted to technical writing, corporate PR or advertising? Would you like to write movies? Plays? Porn?
Forget about money or fame. What kind of writing feels most natural? What kind of writing gets you so involved that you lose track of time? What would you be most proud of having written?
Today’s assignment is to write about what kind of writer you want to be and then write about what you need to do to become that kind of writer. Do you need to take classes, download programs, read books, apply for jobs, or join a writing group? What have other writers done to get where they are? Write yourself a plan. Then, next time you sit down to write, put that plan into action. If you have decided to write a novel, start writing it. If you want to write a movie, write the opening scene. If you want to be a technical or corporate writer, write your resume and start sending it out. Make a plan, write out the steps, and then take those steps one at a time.
I welcome your questions and comments.
Now go write. 🙂
I have started reading a book called The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. It was written by Brenda Miller, who was of my creative nonfiction workshop leaders in my MFA program at Antioch, and Holly Hughes, who taught the poetry workshop I took in July at Fishtrap. As much as I love these writers, I hesitated to buy the book. It’s a lot about meditating, contemplating, slowing down, seeing with more than one’s eyes. As much as I want to be creative, artistic and thoroughly right-brained, I’m pretty practical. Maybe it’s all my years in journalism, or maybe it’s just how I’m wired, but I like solid assignments, deadlines and start-to-finish processes. Even when I do yoga, I’m ticking off the postures and rushing to the final namaste. Git ‘er done, as the comic says. Ring a little bell and sit and do nothing? Hm. Aren’t we going to talk about marketing?
But I did finally buy the book because that workshop in the woods with Holly Hughes got me writing. It also got me breathing, relaxing, and seeing. It untied a lot of the knots in my writing self. This morning, I pulled a dusty little bell off my mantel, rang it, contemplated my current between-carpets den (see last week’s post), and started writing. I wrote for an hour, and I like what I wrote. It started as prose, then became a poem that begins, “I ride my couch like a life raft/floating in a concrete sea.” I thought about being shipwrecked. I thought about how our human dens can be compared to the dens of wild animals. I forced myself to look at the paint-stains, nicks, dirt and ants on the concrete that lay all these years beneath my white Berber carpet. You can put a rug on it, but it’s still dirt underneath.
I will polish this poem, and I will think about getting it published, but for the first hour today I put all that aside and just wrote. It didn’t have to be a whole hour, but I didn’t want to stop. It felt too wonderful. When I finished, I rang my little bell. Ding. I did it.
Maybe, like me, you’re not inclined to get all New Agey with your writing, but slowing down long enough to play with words not only feels good, it enhances everything you write. No matter what you write, take a few minutes to warm up the brain and the fingers. Athletes do warm-up exercises, musicians play scales, artists make sketches, writers . . . Right.
In addition to their Pen and Bell book, you can visit Hughes and Miller’s Pen and Bell blog for their own mindful writings and more inspiration. The Pen and the Bell is more linked to meditation and mindfulness than most of the writing books I have read. Other good books that will get you writing include Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Wild Mind and her classic Writing Down the Bones. All are full of free-writing exercises. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write are good ones, too. I also enjoy The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer. If you like puzzles, that’s the one to get.
We’ll get back to marketing and all that other writing business stuff, but you can’t sell what doesn’t exist. You have to write first.
Now go write.