The first step to getting started in creative writing is showing up. Since you are reading this book, you are making that step. Showing up requires the recognition that writing is a practice. How you practice writing is up to you, but you must practice.
The poet Mary Oliver compares regular writing practice to the romance of Romeo and Juliet. The couple's love affair could not evolve if Juliet was not present at her balcony to receive Romeo's courting. Similarly, you have to provide the space for your muse to woo you. Showing up every day at a particular time and place opens the door for inspiration. If you don't show up, neither will inspiration.
Jumping into your writing practice does not mean you have to chain yourself to a dull schedule. Experiment. Carve out 15 minutes before you leave for work in the morning or an hour before you go to bed.
Maybe you stop at the coffee shop every morning to read the newspaper. Try taking your journal, instead, or use news articles as inspiration. If you have to wait until the kids go to bed, brew yourself some tea and sit down with your journal in a comfortable spot. Make writing a habit you want to keep.
Close the book. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Write! Don't stop to edit or belabor word choice. If you like, use one of the following prompts as the first phrase in your first sentence. When the timer rings, stop.
Three reasons that she...
My mother speaks...
I remember the fire...
You just wrote for 15 minutes. Start there. Every day for the next seven days, write for 15 minutes. Maybe you won't want to stop. Don't. Maybe you will find it difficult, at first. See what happens. Use the next week to discover the time and place that best suits your schedule and your sensibility.
Try to find a time of day during which you can give your full attention to your writing. Close your e-mail, turn off the phone, hang a Do not disturb sign on your door, do whatever it takes to keep distractions to a minimum. Alternatively, you may work better when surrounded by other people's conversations. Many public places offer computer access or outlets for laptops. Of course, there's always your journal.
Go to a restaurant, a coffee shop, or a pub with your journal. Eavesdrop. Go ahead, listen to other people's conversations. Let yourself tune into the couple at the table next to you discussing animal husbandry. Or the two women whispering over their lattes. Catch phrases that interest you. Write one down and use it as a freewrite prompt. Or imagine the relationships between the people at surrounding tables. Perhaps the couple discussing animal husbandry have a son in trouble and distract their worry by exploring neutral topics. Imagine the conversation if you can hear only snippets from the whispering women. Drink your beverage. Listen. Write.
Some writers create writing space in a particular room, at a particular desk. What do you need to create your space? You don't have to remodel your house or buy a new desk. Find a space in your house that you can dedicate to your writing practice. Choose a space as free of distraction as possible. Make it accessible and comfortable. Clip quotes from your favorite writers and stick them on the wall or on your monitor's case. Hang photos or art that stirs you. Or keep your space austere, with only your writing tools at hand.
Use this week of experimentation to create your writing space. Even if you decide to write at the local coffee shop, create a writing space where you live—inspiration can visit unannounced. Often, I wake up from dreams with a line or a scene in my mind. If my writing space is accessible, it's simple enough to scribble or type it out and return to bed. If I have laundry piled on my chair or I've left my journal in the car, however, I go back to sleep. The line often disappears by the time I wake up again.
Invite writing into your life. Woo your muse by giving your writing practice precedence in your daily schedule. The dishes will still be in the sink when you've finished writing. If you've found an appropriate time to write, you don't have to worry about picking up the kids or being late to work. Let yourself enjoy the pleasures of writing.
Right now, you are the only reader you have to consider. Let yourself explore the possibilities for courting inspiration. Let your muse woo you. Establish a place and time for writing and show up every day. Start with 15 minutes seven days a week. Maybe you will discover you work better writing for longer stretches five days a week. However it works, establish your writing habit and stick to it.
For the next week, write about a different room each day. Start with a room from your childhood, perhaps your bedroom. Focus on memories you have; don't worry about what you cannot remember. Describe the room with sensual detail. What color were the walls painted? How did the room smell? How did the light fall in that room? I recall my room's blue carpet in the house we moved to when I was eight, an extension of the blue throughout our new house. Light blue walls, bright blue carpet.
What emotions do the memories of this room inspire? As you describe the room, explore the emotion behind the details. The room might connect you to people in your life. Describe them. What other rooms have played a significant role in your life? Perhaps your office, your sister-in-law's kitchen, a classroom, a ship's cabin. Recall seven rooms from your life. Write one each day.
The last exercise asked you to use sensual detail. Beginning writers occasionally will discover the joy of such detail and oversaturate their writing with description. In later chapters, we will explore precise detail. For now, go ahead and saturate your writing with sensuality. What do I mean by sensuality? Everything your senses have to offer.
A skill most writers have and all writers should cultivate is observation. Open your eyes. As you move through your day, look around you. Notice images. Notice details. A woman's green silk scarf contrasting her coral lipstick. The shadow of a skyscraper across your desk in the afternoon. The moon's halo behind black clouds. A child's hair dragging the sand as she swings in the park.
In his early career, Ernest Hemingway attempted to write without symbolism or metaphorical language. Instead, he wrote precise observations. Consider this excerpt from his story, "Big Two-Hearted River":
He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast-moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge.
Wherever you are, sit for a few minutes and observe your surroundings. Find an image that captures your attention. Describe it. Notice texture, color, gesture, and contrast. Don't try to describe the significance or meaning of the image; rather, let the details imply any meaning.
1. Try keeping an image journal. Each day, repeat the exercise above with an image the day supplies.
2. Visual art can stir your imagination in surprising ways. Many writers create stories or poems in response to paintings, sculpture, and other art forms. Visit an art museum or gallery in your community, or try an on-line gallery. Find a piece of art that speaks to you and spend some time with it. What emotions does the piece evoke? What do you notice about color and light? There are no right or wrong answers—your response is yours. If possible, write with the artwork in front of you. Write as long as you can. Use as much sensual detail as possible to paint with your words.
Many writers find rhythm and meter essential to their style, even if they write narrative rather than poetry. Although reading is often a silent activity, we read rhythms with our eyes; we hear the sounds the writer creates with his language.
Consider the following passages from Raymond Carver and Sandra Cisneros. Notice the patterns each writer creates. Head the passages aloud. What do you notice about sound?
In English my name means hope. In Spanish, it means too many letters. It means sadness; it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.
It was my great-grandmother's name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse—which is supposed to be bad luck if you're born female—but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong.
My great-grandmother. I would've liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she would not marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That's the way he did it.
And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she could not be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window.
At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister's name Magdalena—which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least—can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza. I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do.
—Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
I poured some Scotch, drank some of it, and took the glass into the bathroom. I brushed my teeth. Then I pulled open a drawer. Patti yelled something from the bedroom. She opened the bathroom door. She was still dressed. She'd been sleeping with her clothes on, I guess.
"What time is it?" she screamed. "I've overslept! Jesus oh my God! You've let me oversleep, goddamn you!"
She was wild. She stood in the doorway with her clothes on. She could have been fixing to go to work. But there was no sample case, no vitamins. She was having a bad dream, is all. She began shaking her head from side to side.
I could not take any more tonight. "Go back to sleep, honey. I'm looking for something," I said. I knocked some stuff out of the medicine chest. Things rolled into the sink. "Where's the aspirin?" I said. I knocked down some more things. I did not care. Things kept falling.
—Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From
Certainly, Carver's language differs from that of Cisneros. However, both give a special attention to sound in the construction of their sentences. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing. Notice the use of alliteration and assonance in this sentence from Cisneros. Sunday, shaving, songs, and sobbing all begin with the same consonant. Cisneros increases the musicality of this sentence by using assonance, the repetition of internal vowel sounds, in plays and shaving and in songs and sobbing. Cisneros also lengthens the sounds in this sentence by using long vowel sounds: plays, Sunday, mornings, and shaving.
Raymond Carver is famous for his succinct sentences and everyday language. Notice Carver's subtle use of rhyme, consonance, and assonance in these lines: Patti yelled something from the bedroom. She opened the bathroom door. She was still dressed. She'd been sleeping with her clothes on, I guess.
Bedroom, bathroom, and dressed share similar consonants. Their similarity carries your eye (and ear) from one short line to the next. The vowel sounds also repeat, yelled, dressed, guess.
Pay attention to sound. Carver and Cisneros have been influenced by the sound of language around them. Cisneros' writing adapts Spanish rhythms to her English. Carver chooses precise sentence constructions that mirror his characters' speech.
Read your writing aloud. You will begin to notice patterns in your own writing. Some passages may sound awkward to your actual ear when your mind's ear does not detect a problem.
1. Let yourself play with sound. Write ridiculous alliterations. Rhyme crazily. Use onomotapoeia (words that write like they sound, such as splat, hiss, boing). Disregard punctuation and grammar. Choose a topic or write nonsense. Write for 15 minutes without stopping. Have fun!
2. Read what you wrote. Underline phrases or sentences you like. Choose one as the first line in another 15-minute freewrite.
Like visual art, music can move your writing, too. As I'm writing this, a buzz saw is running in my neighbor's yard. The whine and grind overwhelm the birds' chatter and disrupt my concentration. So I close the door and put on Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. Immediately, my fingers feel more fluid on the computer keys.
Experiment with music. Choose a few pieces of music that you like or perhaps something unfamiliar, without lyrics. If possible, vary the music styles and play them in rotation. Try the titles listed below. Write while you listen. What happens when you switch from one style to another? How is your writing influenced by bass lines? By long notes from a saxophone?
Sketches of Spain, Miles Davis
Django Reinhardt and The Quintet of the Hot Club of France with Stephan Grappelly,
Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelly. Paris: La Belle Epoque, Yo-yo Ma and Kathryn Stott Genetic World, T^lepopmusik
Touch, Taste, Smell
Sensual detail includes these three delicious senses. A particular smell, say the aroma of buttered beans, can evoke powerful memories of my grandmother's kitchen. A precise description of a scent can provoke a similar response for your reader. Maybe you describe a character as smelling like rain. Anyone who has breathed in the scent of rain will be able to imagine the character's particular aroma.
Using scent to inspire your writing can aid your ability to convey that sensuality to your readers. Taste can work similarly. Chocolate cake, lemonade, and peppermint can prick recall, as can the iron tang of blood, the juice of a fresh peach, or the fire of an habanero pepper.
1. Choose three or four scents from your kitchen or yard. Herbs, perfume, coffee or tea, and strong-smelling fruits are suitable. Inhale deeply. Write for five minutes about whatever comes to mind. Switch to another scent and repeat the process.
2. Repeat this process using tastes. Consider using mint, chocolate, grapefruit (or other citrus), and some kind of chili pepper. Experiment with other tastes.
3. Now use a scent or taste to describe a different sensation. How would you describe the taste of purple? How would a note from a saxophone smell?
Texture is an important sensual detail that is often neglected. Remember the first time you felt sand under your toes? Hot asphalt on a summer day? Smooth skin beneath your fingers? Readers respond to tactile details with a similar emotional charge. I remember the first time I tried to cross a city street in bare feet. I quickly realized the white crosswalk lines were much less painful than the hot black tar. Think about how you use your sense of touch in your day-to-day life. Most likely, you take many tactile sensations for granted. Take some time to pause and touch things in your life. What do you learn through your sense of touch?
Finding the right words to convey touch is sometimes a difficult process. Using metaphor and simile can aid that process. A metaphor is a comparison that equates a sensation, condition, or object to another, sometimes dissimilar, sensation, condition, or object. A simile makes a similar comparison but uses like or as.
Mktaphor: Tristen's hair is a swimming cap, clinging to her scalp. Simile: His fingers felt like sandpaper on her arm.
1. Write 10 metaphors. Be specific in your descriptions.
2. Write 10 similes.
3. Choose a topic. Freewrite for 15 minutes describing your object with as many tactile descriptions as you can think of.
It is easy to get started in creative writing. Initially, your enthusiasm will keep your pen moving or your fingers typing. Sustaining your practice is the key. There will be days when you just don't want to open your journal or log on to your computer. Write through those feelings. You may end a 15-minute writing session with only one sentence. The important thing is that you continue. Tomorrow, you may write three pages. Two weeks from now, you may reread that solitary sentence and discover it's the perfect opening line for the story you're working on. Give yourself the opportunity to court, and to be wooed by, your muse. Continue your writing each day and be open to the sensuality the world offers.
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