I’ve been teaching creative writing classes for over ten years and last week I finally taught “Write Where You Are: The Art of Being Present on the Page” online via Zoom. It was a thrill to teach people all over the country, and one student in Canada. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I love helping people get out of their own way so that what wants to be expressed through them is free to come, and I enjoy sharing tools that help writers say what they mean with greater clarity, impact, and grace.
The following tips for improving your writing were inspired by an email I received from one of my students the day after our first online class. She outlined what we discussed, which sparked my desire to share more widely.
1. Get Personal. This may be obvious if you’re writing personal essays or memoir, but it’s equally important if you’re writing poetry or fiction, which is informed by your life. Even self-help and blog writers need to know how to get personal in their writing if they want people to relate to their anecdotes. It’s hard to get personal if you’re afraid to share your truth. You have a right to tell your story, to bear witness to your experience. Doing so can be healing and empowering for you as the writer, but also for your readers. But in the beginning, forget about readers. Imagine you’re speaking to your best friend. Trust her and yourself, as well as your urge to write, which is your soul talking. Quiet your mind and share from you heart about what matters most.
2. Voice. Write like you talk. Don’t use big words, fancy language, or try to sound like someone you’re not. There’s poetry and beauty in your own voice. It has its own rhythm, diction, cadence, and intonation. Writing in your natural speaking voice can take practice. Beginners, wanting to put their best foot forward, sometimes fall into the trap of writing to please or impress, and when this happens their writing sounds stilted and unnatural. Finding your voice may take time, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Don’t try to sound like anyone but yourself. It’s okay if you’re not sure what you sound like at first. Give yourself time. Be yourself and know that you are good enough. What you have to say is as important as what anybody else has to say. Avoid comparisons. Finding your voice is like coming home. There’s a deep familiarity, honesty, and comfort in doing this. There’s nothing to prove and nowhere to go. Just settle into your inner knowing and speak from there. We all have wisdom within. While imitation can be a form of flattery, and it’s sometimes a useful exercise to imitate great writers, at the end of the day it’s about you and your distinctive voice.
3. Scene vs. Narration. You’ve likely heard about the importance of showing and not telling in creative writing. Make sure you know which is which. Telling is narration. A narrator describes what’s going on. Or perhaps the narrator is speaking about something that has already happened. This is called exposition. New writers tend to do a lot of telling, but showing is the heart of dramatic writing. Showing involves scene-making. Scenes allow action and dialog to play out in a particular time and place, like in a movie. The characters reveal themselves through what they do and say. Or don’t do and say. You get to watch the drama unfold, rather than have the narrator tell you about it. The trick to writing strong scenes is to engage the senses. I ask my students, “What does the character see? Hear? Taste? Smell? How do they feel in their bodies? Can you describe visceral sensations? Who is speaking? What is being said?” Addressing these kinds of questions in your writing draws the reader in. It’s okay to narrate between scenes, but make sure you show, or “play,” the salient moments of your story through scene rather than just saying what happened. Show it to us. For more on this topic, see Chapter 3, “Scenemaking,” in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.
4. Be Specific. If you’ve studied creative writing you’ve no doubt heard the expression “God is in the details.” Details provide information, texture, and ambiance, as well as specificity. Take a look at these two opening lines from Janet Fitch’s novel, White Oleander: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.” She didn’t say, “The hot winds blew in from the desert.” By specifying that these were Santa Ana winds she established location, as well as the quality of these winds, and her reference to the spring grass tells us it’s summer. We see “whiskers of pale straw,” the oleander’s “delicate poisonous blooms,” and “dagger green leaves.” And it’s worth pointing out that Fitch named the specific plant. The author doesn’t refer to it as “a large bush.” Avoid using general words, such as “bird.” Is the bird in your story a canary, a raven, a hummingbird, an eagle, or something else? Each one has its own nature and quality. Implementing specificity into your writing takes practice. The key with choosing details is to look for ones that feelresonant and meaningful, details that illustrate your message in some way. Don’t be afraid to give the nitty-gritty, to use your full descriptive powers. Let’s see how observant you can be. You can scale back later. A common mistake among new writers, when learning about the importance of details, is that they use too many. It may not, for example, matter if the couch in a scene is blue, but it might be worth mentioning if it is hot pink or flaming orange. A hot pink or flaming orange couch is unusual and may therefore say something about the character that owns it. If you are mindful to include objects in your writing, you’ll see them do their share of heavy lifting in your story. A beautiful example of this is Pablo Neruda’s poetry collection, Odes to Common Things. Paint pictures with your words. Provide images. Describe what you see. From images you can move to moments, events, and finally the whole story.
5. Filtering Language. Filtering language consists of words that distance or remove the reader from the action. Examples include words and phrases like: “I noticed . . . ” “I heard . . .” “I saw . . .” “Suddenly . . .” and “There is/are . . .” Forget your role in the narration and show the action directly. Rather than saying you noticed the carp flailing on the weathered dock, just show us the creature and describe what’s happening. It’s like pointing the lens of a camera at something specific and allowing the image to speak for itself.
6. Transformation Lines. My students work off writing prompts. I tell them to write as fast as they can without thinking so that they can bypass their left brain (thinking mind) and engage their right brain (creative mind). I want them to follow energy, impulses, and images rather than concepts. Sometimes during this process, transformation lines come out. A transformation line contains within it an invitation or opportunity to drop deeper into your story. It has the ability to transform the trajectory you’ve been on and take you somewhere unexpected. Sometimes when these lines come out during freeform writing sessions, the writer doesn’t recognize the opportunity. Or they might become scared and think, I’m not going there. This may be conscious or unconscious. Either way, it’s fine. But later, if the writer recognizes the line for what it is—an invitation to explore something deeper—they can then go back to it and use it as something that has the power to transform their writing. It may emerge as a surprise, sometimes as a metaphor, but always it’s an invitation.
This is some of what we discussed in my first online “Write Where Your Are” class. Remember that writing happens in stages. One word at a time. Let yourself be exactly where you are. The writer’s three P’s—patience, passion, and persistence—have served my students well for a decade, and has supported my own writing practice over thirty years. The main thing is to keep at it. Read. Write. Engage with words on the page. Be curious, and be gentle with yourself while you’re learning. Improved writing happens effortlessly when you come to the page with an open mind and heart and listen—to teachers, yes, but also to fellow writers, and especially to your own wisdom.
Enjoy the journey!