Four Principles for Beginning Creative Writers

Whether you are just starting out or later in your creative writing journey, making these four principles your own will help you advance your writing.

The first principle is, “learn your craft.”

The second principle is, “then forget it.”

Learn everything you can about craft matters such as dialogue, description, exposition and scene; stanza, line, and turn. Practice them and apply them to the point you don’t have to think about them. Then you can forget them when you compose.

Creative writers don’t take these craft pieces and “assemble” them to create first-rate writing, as if a short story, poem, or essay is just about connecting parts according to instructions. That’s not how it works. Every writer needs to know craft. But no writers compose by assembling pieces as on a factory floor.

In the best writing, not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts themselves perform many if not all the functions of writing. All parts are themselves wholes. For example, dialogue doesn’t just inform the reader what a character says, it also builds character, advances plot, sets tone, embeds theme, creates emotions, adds subtext, gives exposition, and more. The same might be said of any other piece of “craft.”

And you’ll want to understand this: no craft ability, no matter how excellent, will prevent you from writing a shitty draft, or having to start over, throw out, or revise. Each piece of writing presents its own unique challenges. If you are new on your writing journey, you will learn this. If you are not, you already know what I’m talking about.

The third principle is about attitude. Do not be self-judgmental or self-censoring when composing.

There are many names for this attitude. Here are some: Inspiration. Readiness. Poise. Listening. Silence. Free-fall. Meditation. Trance. Commitment. Grace. Letting go. Being “possessed.” Openness. Active stillness. Quieting the conscious mind. Exploration.

Consider this description about composition by the late, great poet Derek Walcott:

Individual writers have different postures, different stances, even different physical attitudes as they stand or sit over their blank paper, and in a sense, without doing it, they are crossing themselves…I do know that if one thinks a poem is coming on—in spite of the noise of the typewriter, or the traffic outside the window, or whatever—you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity, so that what’s in front of you becomes more important than what you are.…the beginning and the ending and the actual composition that goes on, there is a kind of trance that you hope to enter where every aspect of your intellect is functioning simultaneously for the progress of the composition.

Paris Review

This nonjudgmental willingness to open yourself up so that your words will flow out without censorship and with a willingness to express some sense of truth and authenticity about life, to take yourself out of yourself, is a key principle to writing creatively.

Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the world’s greatest poets, wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write.”

What if inspiration results in what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts”? Understand that’s not the exception, that’s the state of the art. Writing is about the willingness to be inspired and to translate that flow of inspiration into words first, and then editing them later, or, if they seem inadequate, being willing to throw them out and try again.

As far as doubts, lack of self-confidence, or feeling unworthy, I have a couple of responses to these interior hindrances. First, accept doubt, but put it in the middle, surrounded by composing: Compose first, doubt second, compose third. Give it a place to live, make it useful, but do not let it inhibit creation.

Rilke has the best explanation I ever heard of how to use and transform doubt from enemy to co-author:

Your doubt can become a good attribute if you discipline it. It must become a knowing; it must become the critic. Ask it, as often as it wishes to spoil something, why something is ugly. Demand proof of it, test it, and you will find it perhaps perplexed and confused, perhaps also in protest. But don’t give in; demand arguments. Act with alertness and responsibility, each and every time, and the day will come when doubt will change from a destroyer to become one of your best fellow-workers, perhaps the wisest of all that have a part in building your life.

Letters to a Young Poet

But perhaps you believe, as many do, that you have no talent, or not enough talent, and you’re “doomed” to mediocrity. If so, I present Barbara Ueland’s wisdom from If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit:

I have been writing a long time and have learned some things, not only from my own long hard work, but from a writing class I had for three years. In this class were all kinds of people: prosperous and poor, stenographers, housewives, salesmen, cultivated people and little servant girls who had never been to high school, timid people and bold ones, slow and quick ones.

This is what I learned: everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.

And it may comfort you to know that the only people you might suspect of NOT having talent are those who write very easily and glibly, and without inhibition or pain, skipping gaily through a novel in a week or so.…But these, too, were talented underneath. I am sure of that. It is just that they did not break through the shell of easy glibness to what is true and alive underneath–just as most people must break through a shell of timidity and strain.

If You Want to Write, pg 3.

The fourth and final principle of writing is one word long: Revise.

In high school and even in college writing courses, chances are high that you’ve been taught a watered-down, well, there’s no other way to put this, bullshit, version of the writing process. Or if not taught it incorrectly you’ve come away from the lessons with misconceptions about it. The misconceptions are legion, but the two that I care about here have to do with revision:

  • Revision is something you do once.
  • Revision is about fixing small things, doing “clean-up”.

Oh my God, I can’t emphasize enough how much these two ideas are hurting you as a writer if you’ve never moved beyond them.

Here’s what working writers have to say about revision:

According to poet Bill Matthews, as recalled by poet Billy Collins, “revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party! That’s the fun of it, making it right, getting the best words in the best order.” (Paris Review)

Poet Jorie Graham has said,

I’d say I spend ninety percent of my time in revision. It’s a craziness. There are sometimes maybe thirty variants of the lineation of a stanza. Getting “far enough away” to grow the new set of ears required to hear the poem outside of the “way you intended it to sound”—to hear what it will really sound like (and in other words mean and feel) to a stranger is quite a trick. Sometimes it means just putting the thing away and not reading it for a long time. Long enough for its intended music to fade from memory. Then you can read it “clean” to hear if you have anything resembling the music you thought you had. But you have to be right on top of it in that first “clean” read, because it takes no time at all for you to be working with a muddy text, one full of what you think is there, which you can’t sort out from what is there. That’s why keeping all the drafts and keeping them present at once is important to me.

Paris Review

Poet and Fiction Writer Raymond Carver described his writing and revision process this way:

When I’m writing, I put in a lot of hours at the desk, ten or twelve or fifteen hours at a stretch, day after day. I love that, when that’s happening. Much of this work time, understand, is given over to revising and rewriting. There’s not much that I like better than to take a story that I’ve had around the house for a while and work it over again. It’s the same with the poems I write. I’m in no hurry to send something off just after I write it, and I sometimes keep it around the house for months doing this or that to it, taking this out and putting that in. It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts. It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections in the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.

Paris Review

As you can see from these quotes, a writer’s process of getting words on the page may differ, but almost all will agree that writing is created through revision. Lots of it.

I wish you the best on your writing journey!

This article is adapted from Michael’s forthcoming digital book, Introduction to Creative Writing.

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