Keeping Your “Eye” on the Story

Tess Callahan, author of the novel April & Oliver, says you can’t learn to paint by looking at a Picasso any more than you can learn the cello by listening to Yo-Yo Ma, yet writers are expected to know their craft by virtue of having read books. Reading is of course crucial—just as looking is for the painter and listening for the cellist—but what artists, musicians and even athletes know about training for their field is often lost on writers.

EMULATION

Matisse Dog Paintint

Painters often learn their craft by copying master works. Try recreating a Cézanne or a Matisse and you’ll see how humbling it is. This method teaches the apprentice artist things about composition and brushstroke that he or she could never have internalized otherwise. Once the painter does this with 20 or 30 artists, she starts to get some serious tools in her toolbox. So it can be with writing. For example, take a signature line from Ernest Hemingway or Amy Tan and, while keeping the sentence structure intact, take out all of the nouns and verbs and replace them with your own. Do this with the writers you most admire, as well as those to which you have the greatest aversion. You might learn more from styles you hate.

Do not place these emulated lines directly into your own writing project. That would be like taking a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, changing the color of her hair, and calling it your own. Rather, the plan is to practice emulating lines so that the many different styles can work their way into your brain. After all, no art form exists in a vacuum. The masters often hung out together, sipping coffee in the same cafés, sharing ideas and pushing each other forward. Dancers learn from dancers. Jazz musicians learn from jazz musicians. In fact, new music genres develop from musicians comparing notes. Oh my, a pun!

In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose helps readers pull aside the curtain to observe what the writer-magician is doing, to isolate how each one manages gesture, dialog and character development, and to learn from others’ strengths and weaknesses. As readers, the most important thing to notice is typically what we fail to notice—that is, how the writer keeps us immersed in what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we fall into that blissful dream as readers—when we actually forget we’re reading a story—it appears seamless on the part of the writer.

FREQUENT SMALL SKETCHES

Stick Figure

Figure-drawing classes often start with timed gesture drawings of initial poses lasting as short as five seconds before the model moves. Gradually, the time increases to 10, 15 and 30 seconds. By the time you get to a minute, it feels as if you have all day to capture the pose on your sketch pad. The idea is to keep you free, dexterous and more focused on process than end product. Process is paramount at this stage of an artist’s life. The more process he or she engages in, the more they’re able to hone their craft. Such short bursts also keep you from taking yourself too seriously—otherwise, you’d quickly become frustrated. I suffer this malady! I must remind myself to focus on the art of writing rather than the art itself.

Thankfully, you don’t have to take a creative writing class to use this technique. Simply take a moment here and there throughout the day, waiting for the train or at your favorite restaurant, jot down gestures, expressions or snippets of dialog. Given that these experiences are transitory in nature, the exercises will create their own time constraints. Whether or not these little vignettes make it into your story or novel, they will aid in deepening your awareness of the myriad expressions and experiences we go through each day.

One of my favorite “how to” books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg refers to writers’ journals as “compost piles” where ideas can sink down into the subconscious, heat up, and combust at any time. Most artists don’t start on a big canvas without doing countless thumbnail sketches that help sharpen their skills and drive their vision. My father was extremely creative. He did numerous paintings in various media, including oils, watercolor, pastels, and acrylic. He also build furniture, shelving, and wooden toys. I remember him making several sketches and reworking the idea before committing it to canvas or cutting his first piece of wood in the shop. Writers can benefit from this practice as well.

Julia Cameron Pic

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron teaches use of daily free-form writing in a journal. She suggests this exercise be done the moment you wake up, and refers to this as morning pages. Cameron says, “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it” (p. 9). The morning pages are three hand-written pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing without any concern for punctuation, spelling, grammar, or concern for mistakes. She believes it is better to use a pen and paper for this undertaking than using your laptop. Something about the tactile experience of words-to-paper.

UNDER-PAINTINGS

Traditional landscape and portrait artists often begin with a monotone under-painting using sepia or cool tones. Essentially a base layer, this has two benefits: First, it allows the artist to play with the composition rapidly in broad strokes before committing to a particular layout. Second, it forces him or her to put aside the issue of color and see the image in terms of dark and light planes. The artist “frames out the house” before putting up the walls. Once the artist begins applying color, he or she does so with a solid understanding of the image’s layers and dimensions.

Callahan says, “What I’m suggesting here is not outlining, which comes from the rational brain and works for some writers, but rather quick, loose first drafts that spring from the subconscious like dreams and proceed image by image.” Consider what it means to write a novel that has morphed from a 20-page short story. In order to flush out the complete tale in this fashion, you must be able to work the entire canvas at once, relating people and places and plots and subplots across great distances. For me, this is quite a daunting task. I’m sure that’s why I’ve so far limited my writing to short stories, flash fiction and prose. After all, to get stuck in one corner of the canvas risks losing the proverbial thread that connects it to the entirety of the story. And this needs to be done page after page, for hundreds of pages.

Brushes and Pallet

Just as painters must keep the brush moving, relating one color to another, writers must work threads back and forth so that their patterns of imagery relate and work together across the scope of many pages. Writers, keep looking at your recurring images and notice how they change each time they surface. They should never be redundant; instead, they must always move the story forward. A writer cannot achieve resonance on a minor note without constantly working the whole piece at once. Again, from my perspective, arg! I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s gonna take some practice!”

To write this way, quick and without restraint, means giving ourselves permission to create crap. We cannot, nor should we, predict what will come out of our first draft. Then again, the first draft is always written for the audience of one—you, the writer. Stephen King says, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In fact, in On Writing, King describes how he pens his first drafts with the door closed, no one watching over his shoulder, his internal editor shut away. Not until the second draft does he open the door to allow in criticism. Fluid first drafts, like under-paintings, hold open a space for the real story to emerge.

When we write, our minds have a million thoughts running through them. How do I want to organize this chapter? What are my main points? Am I being consistent with my characters? Not surprisingly, the best way to focus is to allow plenty of time—ideally two or three hours with absolutely no interruptions or distractions. Find the time, whenever that might occur in your day, and cherish it. Defend it with all your might. When we write, we delve into another world. Interference tends to quell immersion in this nether world. This practice must become routine—it needs to be established in a pattern. It is through this routine that you will be able to write more consistently.

So…

References

Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Perigee.

Gardner, J. (1983). The Art of Fiction. New York, NY: Random House.

King, S. (2000). On Writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Prose, Francine. (2006). Reading Like a Writer. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

What Stops You?

FEAR. Now there’s a terrible four-letter word. Some will tell you that fear is necessary for survival. How else will you know if something is harmful or fatal to you? I propose the correct word here is caution. Not fear. You see, fear will stop you dead in your tracks. Fear will lie to you. Fear is an emotion. It will make you question your next move, and every move after that. It will create doubt in your plan of attack. It will convince you that you are going to experience nothing but rejection and ridicule. Fear will make you give up. Quit going in to avoid failure.

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This applies to many things in life. Some typical events that are interrupted by fear include proposing to a woman. Yes, asking her to marry you. What if she says no? Then what? I’ve already asked her dad for her hand in marriage. I’ve told my mom, who cried, then dabbed her tears and said with a gleam in her eyes, “When’s the wedding?” I’ve told my best friends. I told my brother and my pastor. Good gracious, I’ve told everyone. What am I going to do? See how our protagonist is ready to quit just so he doesn’t hear the word “no?”

Now what about writing? How many times have you bragged to teachers that you’re going to be a published author one day? How often have you told your mother or your father. I think it was well past five years since I first told my dad I was going to be a writer. I mentioned it once again, at a family picnic. Maybe one time too many. He said in response, “A wise man once said if you have nothing good to say, maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all.” You could hear a pin drop. No one knew what to say. My face turned beet red. I fought back a tear, and decided such comments don’t create fact. Action does.

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Why do writers write? What makes them see beyond all the negative prognostications and decrees? How are they able to see something on the other side of the blinking cursor on the laptop? When it’s all going so well, and I am cranking out word after word that somehow seem interrelated, I am convinced I’m well on my way. This is it. I’m writing. Where did all this talent come from? Dad was a woodworker and a painter on canvass, so I must have his creative genes.

Then I hit a wall. A dead end. And I do mean dead. Like my fingers won’t even move. No thoughts come to mind. The characters are trapped, never to go anywhere again. This can go on for days, weeks, months. I hate to say it, but it can even go on for years. I had a wonderful idea for a screenplay. It had everything. Teenagers, music, a snowstorm, a party gone horribly wrong. Great opening act. Act One was a joy to write. I even had a good idea how the story would end. But I am stuck at page 57. Dead in the water. I’ve tried altering the ending. I even changed the moral of the story, and looked at various character arcs. Nothing.

So what stops you from moving forward? Julia Cameron, in her great book The Artist’s Way, takes her reader through a series of exercises and workshops and lists in order to get at the bad guy inside you that’s telling you what you’re doing is no good. The internal editor. This evil force is ultimately based upon someone in your life that told you there was no way you’d ever make it. You’re too old. You’re not clever enough. You’re not creative. Your idea is not original enough. I highly recommend if you are seriously stuck as an artist — songwriter, sculptor, painter, writer, poet — that you get this book. Follow her instructions. She will help you get unstuck and find out what’s stopping you from moving forward in your work.

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Click here to visit Julia Cameron Live.

To the writers everywhere, just stay plugged in to the spirit that moves you. Julia Cameron talks about God being the Great Creator. She said God has instilled creativity in all of us. Our job is to get in touch with our Inner Artist. Why do we write? Because creativity is living deep down inside of us. What stops us? It’s a whole number of things, most of which are not even rooted in reality. No one knows where their writing will take them. I am grateful for the renewing of my spirit and my drive to create. It has put me back on my intended path, and that’s worth every word I struggle to put down on paper.

So write, my friend. Start with free association. Try writing the minute you wake up. Write anything that comes to mind. Your internal editor is still sleeping. He won’t see what you’re writing. Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or word usage. That can all be fixed in your rewrite. Just write. You will be so amazed at what comes out of end of your fingertips at six in the morning.

Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is defined as the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing. Writer’s block may have several causes. Some are creative problems that originate within an author’s work itself. I have fifty-seven pages of an unfinished screenplay sitting on the hard drive of my laptop. Although I have not experienced an overall loss of creativity, I am stuck regarding my script. Writer’s block may also be related to running out of inspiration. Sometimes we are distracted by events in our life.

Regarding writer’s block, I want to mention several things that do not help you to get unstuck. You cannot overcome writer’s block by deciding not to write until you feel inspired. I’ve heard fellow writers say, “I’m waiting on my muse.” Mary Jaksch, the Chief Editor of the blog Write to Done, wrote “You don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike in order to be inspired. When you start writing regularly, without inspiration or even an idea, inspiration gradually finds you.” She said, “It’s time to stop waiting for the creative genius to hit, and to simply start doing. To prove (if to no one else but ourselves) that we are, in fact, writers. Because like it or not, the truth is that it’s not really fair to call ourselves writers unless we are, in fact, writing.”

I recently assumed responsibility of running a group for artists and writers at the public library where I work part-time. We will be launching a twelve-week workshop aimed at discovering and recovering our creative self. We are using Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Each participant will be bringing a project to the workshop that he or she has not been able to move toward completion. (I will be bringing my stalled movie script.) You can find Julia Cameron on her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/juliacameronlive.

If you find yourself blocked creatively, start somewhere. Anywhere. Write a few lines. Don’t think about it too much. Just write and see what happens. It doesn’t need to be eloquent or presentable. It just needs to be written. Write for the sheer joy of it. For me, it’s not possible to not write. Get some words on paper. No excuses. No justification. You can write. Don’t make it harder than it has to be. Just type a few words.  It doesn’t have to feel good. Remember, all first drafts suck. That’s why we don’t show them to anyone. We save tweaking for the revision stage.

For now, just write.

 

Found: How My Muse Came Back

The Muses were 9 goddesses from Greek mythology who guided the hands and gave divine inspiration to artists, writers, and poets. In colloquial terms, a muse can be a living person who inspires an artist and creates a desire for an artist to create. A muse is a guiding spirit, a source of inspiration of an artist, or a poet. It comes from the Latin musa. If a person says that a person is their “muse” they are calling them their source of inspiration.

I think creativity is essential for a balanced, full life. It is enjoyable, exhilarating, and fun. It needs to be honored and nurtured on a regular basis. Without constant vigilance, it can be easily ignored, impaired or impeded. But there are no exercises, books, or techniques in the world that will help you or your work unless you honestly examine what makes you tick. So, take a moment, sit down and think about your life. Remember, muses are not always attractive, socially acceptable, moral, or lovable. But muses are essential to the practicing artist.

“…as immediately I stopped disciplining the muse,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “she trotted obediently around and became and erratic mistress if not a steady wife.” Most writers either over-discipline their muse or ignore him or her. Well here’s the key to solving your discipline problem. You need to realize you don’t have a discipline problem. You have a relational problem. You can either be a good lover or a failed one, a committed wooer or someone who makes lots of promises but doesn’t deliver. Don’t focus so much on creating a finished product. Enjoy the creative process.

Create a safe, comfortable routine so when your muse shows up she will feel welcome.
Realize that her main job, like infants, is to create messes. Therefore, give her space to make big ones. You can clean them up later. Avoid distraction while you’re spending time with her. No email and no Facebook, please.

If your writing project turns out well, say, “Oh well, I can’t take all the credit. The muse, you know.” If it turns out poorly, say, “Oh well, I can’t take all the blame. The muse, you know.” If she says something, write it down, even if you’re in the shower. If she said something in the shower and you didn’t take notes, don’t blame her if she doesn’t show up to “work” on time, later. Your muse is great, but just because she gives you a great idea for a new novel, it doesn’t mean you should quit the one you’re working on to go write that one instead.

I have been writing for most of my life. My craft has yielded poems, essays, journal entries, several flash fiction short stories, and a half-finished screenplay. I became an accomplished technical and legal writer through my career as a paralegal. I have also written a lot about recovery and spirituality. Unfortunately, I have never been published. I am not always confident when I write. When it comes to creative works, I fail to finish the project. I have fifty-seven pages of a screenplay which is stuck somewhere in the middle of the second act. I am struggling with a short story based on an event from my teenage years.

I came to realize that something was wrong in my creative life. It seemed I’d lost touch with my muse. I would often sit and stare at a blank document on my laptop, unable to think of a single thing to write about. I would wake up from a wild dream, ready to put fantasy into words. The dream was complicated and wonderful and aroused a plethora of emotions. So why couldn’t I write? Why wouldn’t the words come? This did not make sense. It was as if something was blocking me. Something was standing in the way. This continued for quite some time. It became very frustrating. I had this terrible feeling that time was slipping away. That maybe I was not a writer after all. When I could see no hope, I headed to the local book store.

I discovered a fantastic book on creative recovery by Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way. Cameron talks about overcoming creative blocks and maintaining a state of flow through the practice of journaling and seeking God. She indicates that God is the Great Artist, and that all creativity comes from Him. She says we need to get in touch with our inner artist, and open up the channels of communication between us and God. She maintains throughout her book that creative inspiration is from and of a divine origin and influence, and that artists seeking to enable their creativity need to understand and believe in this concept. She writes, “God is an artist. So are we. And we can cooperate with each other. Our creative dreams and longings do come from a divine source, not from the human ego.” She says we are often blocked creatively by our internal editor. That harsh, judgmental, limiting, defeating voice that tells us we’ll never amount to anything. That we have nothing good to say. Many times, our internal editor is based on someone who has put us down in real life.

I followed Cameron’s instructs in the book and started writing what she calls “daily pages.” The exercise involves writing four pages every morning upon awakening. No subject. No hesitation. No spell checking or editing. Just writing down whatever comes to mind. This is supposed to get you into the practice of writing. Cameron says if we write immediately upon waking up, we tend to beat the internal editor to the punch. (I guess he has a habit of sleeping in.) I figured if I could get around the harsh criticism of my internal editor, I could reestablish the connection between me and my muse.

What I didn’t realize is that, at least for me, one of my muses is God. Cameron’s theory of God as the Great Artist struck me as being right on target. I have an inner artist that connects with God and is inspired to write. It is as if I am merely a conduit between myself and Him when He’s speaking to my heart. For the longest time, I could not figure out what went wrong. I had written some fairly decent poems over the years. This was especially true when I was emotionally lost, hurt, or crushed. The words were cathartic, and they would often just come pouring out. Now, admittedly, I think my alcoholism and drug addiction caused me to shut down. God could not reach me. The lack of inspiration was on me.

But as I came to grips with my addiction and got treatment, a lot of really bad negative, almost automatic, behaviors went into remission. It’s as if the underlying “static” has gone away, and I can hear what my muse has to say. I can recognize prompts and suggestions. I started carrying a small notebook with me again, and there is a legal pad on my nightstand. I sometimes have to pull the car to the side of the road and start making notes. I have a healthy respect for my muse and for creative ideas, and realize that ideas are fleeting. Never tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll remember it.” That usually doesn’t work. Of course, part of the reason I have found my muse again is because I simply started writing. My son once said to me that the number one way to get in shape for hiking is hiking. Writing is like that.

I can’t wait to see where my muse takes me next.