Often, our writing experience has been limited to logical work such as business letters or class essays. You probably have been admonished to use full sentences and correct punctuation. Such instruction is correct and necessary for many of life's writing requirements.
However, creative writing is distinctive in that it requires both your intuitive mind and your logical mind to engage simultaneously. The physical act of writing, the construction of letters into words, words into sentences and paragraphs, is a logical practice. But the complexity of language transcends its own structures. Words take on specificity according to their context; sentences become beautiful when syntax is disrupted. Creativity transforms writing from the mechanical representation of meaning to an immersion in the living body of language.
In his essay, "Fiction: A Lens On Life," Wallace Stegner notes "periodic attempts" to make language static, with "unchanging denotative meaning" and the "precision of mathematical symbols." He quotes a linguist who claims that "mathematics is the best that language can do." Stegner disagrees, as most writers would. He says, "A pearl is a pearl, but a pearl taken from a dead oyster is worthless—it has no sheen. And the words that we value are words with sheen, the kind we cut from the living body of the language."
So what does it mean for a word to have sheen? Why do you like words? Do you ever repeat a word just because it feels delicious in your mouth? Are you excited by rhythms, by the sounds words make when happily ordered?
A word sometimes signifies an actual object, something that occupies physical space. Words also signify emotion, action, and other less tangible experiences. But consider that words also have their own lives, that they can exist in imagination as substance. The trick is to recognize that the word's sound and texture are as relevant as its meaning. You can feel a word in your mouth; you can hold a word in your mind. As you begin to meet words, language can become clay or paint or muscles—you can sculpt and dance with it.
Freewrite! Write a list of your favorite words. Choose words for their sound and texture as well as for meaning. Write at least 20 words. Try the following exercises:
1. Look through your list and choose 5 words. Freewrite for 10 minutes, incorporating the 5 words.
2. Use each word from your original list in a short narrative. Try not to use any additional words (other than conjunctions, articles, and prepositions).
3. Choose one word. Write a short narrative and use that word in every sentence.
For a group: Freewrite the list of 20 words. Have each writer offer one or two words (depending on the group's size) and make another list with each writer's contribution. Have the group write short narratives that include the entire list.
Obviously, words work in relationship to each other. Most sentences make sense by arranging subjects, verbs, and objects in a particular order. Sentence structure is called syntax. It is easy, as a result of knowing how sentences work, to fall into specific syntactical habits. Discovering your own habits will allow you to explore new syntax and different possibilities for arranging words.
Sometimes, words that are not often linked can make an intriguing combination. For example, your eyes would probably gloss over a phrase like luscious ice cream, but what about luscious concrete? Or bony ice cream?
Now try this arranging exercise. Using the list of words below, apply prompts 1 through 3.
1. Arrange these words into one sentence adding only one article, one preposition, and one conjunction.
2. Use five additional words to make one or more sentences.
3. Write nine sentences. For each line, choose one word from the list as the last word of the sentence.
Metaphors and other figurative speech often work best when they surprise through arranging seemingly incongruous terms. A phrase such as you make my blood boil would alert you to the speaker's anger or arousal, but it would not do so very interestingly because this metaphor is clichéd. Note that it is a cliché because of its accurate capture of anger as rising temperature in the blood; it gets at the truth of how it feels when someone makes you angry. However, its overuse almost negates its accuracy. What is different about the phrase you make my scalp ache or you make my teeth cold? While not stunning metaphors, they beg further attention than boiling blood.
1. Some of the cliched metaphors in the list below are probably familiar to you. Try rewriting each one with a new metaphor. We all know (or want to know) about "smoldering love." How could you describe love differently? Try creating a metaphor that as accurately, but surprisingly, conveys the phrase's meaning.
• My love for her still smolders.
• She planted the belief in his mind.
• The children were infected by advertising.
2. Create your own metaphors by pairing words and phrases from each of the lists below. Use any combination you like.
stone twist dilapidated barn stagger willow branches holler ladyfingers retch yo-yo hyperventilate
Here you are, with the urge to write a story. As we have discovered, that story won't emerge from proper punctuation. Its source is more complex and sometimes difficult to access. Freidrich Nietzche suggests that "chaos in your soul" is the source of creativity. Chaos, as a concept, is predictably frightening to most of us. The word conjures insecurity and disarray. The artistic impulse suggested by Nietzsche's term "chaos" does not have to be angst, neurosis, or addiction. Rather, the chaos is the untempered, unmannered mind, the mind that does not make sense. Creative writing requires chaos because to create is to tap into something beneath your structural understanding of language. To do so, as I have mentioned, sometimes requires you to intentionally disrupt your writing patterns.
1. Write a sentence about anything. Just one sentence. Now choose two words from that sentence and repeat them in your next sentence. Don't belabor your choice; approach this exercise as a freewrite. Quickly scan each sentence to discover two words to repeat in the following sentence. Write for 10 minutes.
2. Now start again with a new sentence, any sentence. Choose two words and repeat those two words in every subsequent sentence.
3. Start again. Another new sentence. Use the last word of that sentence as the first word in your next sentence. Repeat. Keep going.
Creative writing asks you to fall in love with language. In a sense, that means redefining your relationship to language. While creative writing requires that you understand language conventions, it asks you to question them, to manipulate conventions according to your artistic impulse.
This chapter asks you to write before you think. If you allow writing to precede thinking, you may discover meaning your orderly mind would not allow on paper. By thinking I mean to imply planning, which will become an important aspect of your writing process. However, the plan must emerge from the creation; the writing comes first. Let your love of words guide you.
Now give each of the following prompts five minutes. Freewrite.
1. Juniper berries...
3. Relevant contact...
4. My secret treasure...
5. Idle fractions...
Writers develop a specific relationship to words, as we have begun to explore. Developing this relationship will enable you to write precisely. Eventually, you will discover that rewriting is the important next step for writing. The play that you have been practicing can be refined with revision. Now you can think about what you've written.
As you develop your own relationship to language, you will begin to intuitively choose words as you write. You will "hear" your writing. Poets know the importance of the one right word, an importance as big as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Understanding the particularity of words is useful for all writers. Consider the words shrub and bush, which both describe the same plant life. Shrub, however, has a short vowel and a hard consonant stop. Bush has a longer sound, provided by the vowel and the ending soft sh. The difference in meaning is negligible, unlike Twain's lightning and lightning bug, but the difference in sound could distinguish your word choice.
Use the first word in the following prompts for a five-minute freewrite. Then repeat the process with the second word.
Creative writing requires word-immersion. Cultivate your love of language by letting yourself play. Trust your ability to construct sentences and then question your patterns. If you can think of language as a living body, rather than a set of dusty rules, your writing will be enriched by the surprising choices you make.
Writing before you plan can help you gain access to difficult, but compelling ideas. The plan will emerge from the creation. Letting go of thinking, of planning, and of plotting, can liberate your writing. Sometimes, thoughts that impede writing sound like "I cannot do this" or "this is a bunch of garbage." Give yourself permission to write garbage. In fact, assign yourself a page of garbage a day. See what happens. Writing with the expectation that every word must be perfect will sentence you to fail. You are not writing to prove your ability. You are writing because you want to write. Let yourself write.
Write garbage, write surprising metaphors, write ridiculous rings of rhyme. Just write.
Was this article helpful?