Sometimes people tell me that they’d like to start writing, but they don’t know where to begin. The answer is so obvious, that when I say it, it sounds like I’m mocking them. There are three steps:
It seems simple, but as we learnt on the recent Multiversity episode about creative block, it turns out there are several pitfalls that stand in the way of this process.
Buy a nice pen, and a nice notebook – but not too nice. If you’re afraid to treat your book unkindly, to scribble in the margins or have it look less than perfect, then it’s too nice. It should be nice enough that it lets you feel good about writing, but common enough that you’re not scared to mark it.
Again, it’s obvious. But if you have a notebook, bound with black covers, embossed with a logo, or even with your initials, you will feel good about writing, and so you are more likely to write more often and with more volume.
This is the application of a greater principle – set up your life to enable yourself to take right action.
There’s an idea in your mind, and when it pops up you start to feel a little excited. There is something special about it. So you start writing it down.
You get a few sentences or paragraphs in, and then you start to judge what you’re writing. You think, this is corny, this is awful. Then you get disheartened and maybe try to come up with a new idea. It’s fine to move on to a new idea, but for most the best thing is to stick it out. Persist despite your doubts. See where that paragraph leads, finish the draft. You can decide what to do with it afterwards.
Make no mistake, most of the stories you read and loved came very close to being discards in a waste paper basket. You are a writer. You’re not a critic. You don’t know what’s good, and it’s not your job to know what’s good – at least during this brain dump phase.
There’s a great moment in one of Bukowski’s stories. His old lady asks, did you write anything today? He says 10 pages, every day 10 pages. She asks, “Is it any good?” He says he doesn’t know – you never know until 30 days later.
Bukowski wrote 10 pages a day, day in day out – probably more. You can picture the guy working at it like a chainsaw, chopping down 10 trees a day, no matter what. He never needed to know if it was good to write it. He wrote it and let the chips fall where they would.
There’s a common perception, probably encouraged in popular culture in works of fiction, that an artist can only work when she is inspired. A related idea is that inspiration is entirely out of control of the artist – it comes when it comes, and there’s nothing she can do to create it. Both of these ideas are false.
You can work when you’re not inspired, and you can learn to become inspired when you are not. In fact, if you ever hope to become more than a mediocre or moderately talented creator, you must do both.
When the psychologist Abraham Maslow first started thinking about self-actualised people, he believed that only those certain few had what he called peak experiences – feelings of unity, elation, among other mystical states. Later he learned that everyone had this class of experience. It’s just that certain people learned to have them more often, to fall into them, and to feel them more deeply.
Likewise, a mediocre artist might only move when he feels something. A superior artist will learn to feel, seek out feelings, see things more feelingly, and set up his life so he can feel more often.
It’s a big question: how do you learn to be inspired? There is one simple, though incomplete, answer – discipline.
It can seem like hard work to write. It’s an inconvenience to wake up 20 minutes early to scribble a few notes, or to find 2 hours of quiet and write a few pages, or sit down at the desk expecting to write three lines, with the hope that you may write more.
It’s hard to stare at a blank page and bring your pen to the paper, not knowing if what will come out is cool, or if you will end up seeing a part of yourself you have been afraid to face.
In contrast, our ancestors slaved at hot forges, ran into battle, waited in damp jungles for hours in silence with the hope of getting a hot meal that night. With that perspective, is it really hard to write ten pages and withhold judgement long enough to let them play out? Is that “hard work”?
Absorb the world around you, and be inspired.
Inspiration isn’t random. It’s like a 24 hour radio station. Always playing, but if we don’t set up the apparatus and tune in, we might never hear it.
There are clues all around us, speaking about some greater truth, telling us the beauty of the present moment.
Everything is a clue leading to ultimate truth, and all one must do is listen.
Some artists are afraid their work will be plagiarised, their ideas will be stolen and somehow the life will be gone from them.
I heard of one playwright who was so scared that an amateur theatre would use his play without paying him, that he wouldn’t even send a copy of the script to see if they liked it, so they could buy it. He believed that he had created a treasure, and he wanted to hoard it.
It’s very difficult for someone to believe at once that their ideas are worth hoarding, and that it’s easy for them to create more.
Your thoughts are not scarce. You are capable of producing more than the world is capable of stealing, but only if you believe it.
You are sipping from a fountain which can never run dry. According to our most ancient myths, humanity was formed in the image of God. Your creativity is comparable in its limitlessness.
Another idea popular among writers, lyricists and comedians is that you need to be suffering to write funny jokes, or compelling songs, or stories. The truth is a little more subtle. You need to be capable of suffering – that’s all.
You might say that your songs won’t be relatable if you let go of their pain. Actually, they will be more so, because you will open yourself up to joy, elation, and ecstasy. Sure, people want beautiful melancholy in their melodies. But they also want to be spirited away.
Writers, beautiful children, do not stay in tortured states for the sake of your art, while the range of human experience lies dormant within your heart.
When an artist develops his skill to a certain level, he might make a grave mistake – to think that art is all about skill, about artisanship or musicianship, rather than the feeling behind the work.
Anyone who has been to a western style karaoke bar has seen people get up on the mic with limited skill and still win the crowd. They sing their hearts out. They’re not holding anything back. And the crowd loves it.
A writer gets caught up trying to make things technically correct, following the hero’s journey, or a Hollywood formula, too closely. A rapper tries to include four multisyllabic rhymes within every couplet. There’s a lot of skill involved, but there’s not a lot of heart, and things start to get boring very quickly.
Skill is secondary when we’re creating. What we really need is to be able to goof off, to know that there are no mistakes, that being creative itself is the goal. When we drop the mask of technical skill, we, and our audience, see the soul.
One book, which I recommend highly, that outlines these principles and gives you a framework to implement them, is Keith Johnstone’s Impro.
At any moment in the creative process, we don’t have to understand what is going on, see the bigger picture, compare it to our expectations. In fact, that is precisely the thing that attracted many of us to writing in the first place – that artistic liberation, that openness in the moment, unbound even by our own judgement.
In our notebooks and journals, in our own little worlds, we say the things that the world need never see. We let ourselves be free.