Here at Writing Forward, we talk about three types of creative writing: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
With poetry and fiction, there are techniques we can use to invigorate our writing, but there aren’t many rules beyond the standards of grammar and good writing in general. We can let our imaginations run wild; everything from nonsense to outrageous fantasy is fair game for bringing our ideas to life when we’re writing fiction and poetry.
However, when writing creative nonfiction, there are some guidelines that we have to follow. These guidelines aren’t set in stone, and there aren’t any nonfiction police patrolling bookstores, waiting to arrest you if you stray from the guidelines. These guidelines might be considered best practices, except if you violate them, you might find yourself in hot water with your readers.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
What sets creative nonfiction apart from fiction or poetry?
For starters, creative nonfiction is factual. A memoir is not just any story; it’s a true story. A biography is the real account of someone’s life. There is no room in creative nonfiction for fabrication or manipulation of the facts.
So what makes creative nonfiction writing different from something like textbook writing or technical writing? What makes it creative?
Nonfiction writing that isn’t considered creative usually has business or academic purposes. Such writing isn’t designed to entertain or even be enjoyable. It’s sole purpose is to convey information, usually in a dry, straightforward manner.
Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, pays credence to the craft of writing, often through literary techniques, which make the prose aesthetically pleasing and bring layers of meaning to the context. It is similar to fiction in that it usually uses a story structure and is written in prose.
There are many different genres within creative nonfiction: memoir, biography, autobiography, and personal essays, just to name a few.
Writing Creative Nonfiction
Here are six simple guidelines to follow when writing creative nonfiction:
- Get your facts straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing your own story or someone else’s. If readers, publishers, and the media find out you’ve taken liberty with the truth of what happened, you and your work will be ridiculed and scrutinized. You’ll lose credibility. If you can’t help yourself from lying, then think about writing fiction instead.
- Issue a disclaimer. Most nonfiction is written from memory, and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and plan on issuing a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken.
- Consider the repercussions. If you’re writing about other people (even if they are secondary figures), you might want to check with them before you publish your nonfiction. Some people are extremely private and don’t want any details of their lives published. Others might request that you leave certain things out, which they feel are personal. Otherwise, make sure you’ve weighed the repercussions of revealing other people’s lives to the world. Relationships have been both strengthened and destroyed as a result of authors publishing the details of other people’s lives.
- Be objective. You don’t need to be overly objective if you’re telling your own, personal story. However, nobody wants to read a highly biased biography. Book reviews for biographies are packed with heavy criticism for authors who didn’t fact-check or provide references and for those who leave out important information or pick and choose which details to include to make the subject look good or bad.
- Pay attention to language. You’re not writing a textbook, so make full use of language, literary devices, and storytelling techniques.
- Know your audience. Creative nonfiction sells, but you must have an interested audience. A memoir about an ordinary person’s first year of college isn’t especially interesting. Who’s going to read it? However, a memoir about someone with a learning disability navigating the first year of college is quite compelling, and there’s an identifiable audience for it. When writing creative nonfiction, a clearly defined audience is essential.
Do You Write Creative Nonfiction?
I know most of the readers here write fiction and poetry, but I suspect there are quite a few who either write creative nonfiction or want to try their hands at it. If you are writing creative nonfiction, do you have any guidelines to add to this list? Are there any situations in which it would be acceptable to ignore these guidelines? Got any tips to add? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
I’ve been collecting writing notebooks and journals since I was a teenager. Most writers I know tend to accumulate a lot of stationery and office supplies: notebooks, pens, paper clips, and other odds and ends that we can use to manage and organize our writing projects.
Over time, these writerly goodies pile up.
I now have a sizable collection of creative writing notebooks and journals. Some are completely filled up. Others are still blank. A few are only partially used.
Good Old-Fashioned Paper
These days, writers use computers for most of their writing. But most of us readily admit there’s still something about good old-fashioned pen and paper that gets creativity flowing. It’s difficult to brainstorm on a computer; jotting down notes and random thoughts is cumbersome; and it’s almost impossible to doodle in the margins.
When you work with paper, more of your senses are engaged. When more of your senses are engaged, creativity flows more freely. You have to use your mind and your hands together. It’s a tactile experience.
I get lost in my writing when I’m composing scenes on my computer, but the real magic happens when I’m working out problems and developing ideas in my writing notebook.
Most writers will develop a preference for a particular type of writing notebook. Some of mine are pretty and whimsical. Others are simple and functional. I always go through lots of spiral notebooks for my business writing, but when it comes to creative writing, I prefer either composition notebooks or hardbound journals.
Composition notebooks are cheap, so I feel like I can be free and messy, which is essential when I’m brainstorming and plotting elaborate stories. A lot of my ideas get scratched, and it’s not a big deal when they’ve been scrawled in one of these cheap writing notebooks. Since they’re not precious, it’s easier to dive in and start writing without feeling intimidated by the blank page.
For poetry, I prefer to work in a hardbound sketchbook with unlined pages. I like to doodle and draw when the mood strikes. Occasionally, I write sideways, upside down, or even in circles (a technique for breaking through writer’s block). It takes me a while to fill up a poetry journal, so it has to be tough and able to withstand lots of use. Since most of my poems never get transferred to the computer, the paper must be archival quality; there’s less yellowing and tearing with higher quality paper. I’ve found the Watson-Guptill Sketchbook to be the ideal choice for my poetry journals with Moleskines coming in a close second.
What’s in Your Creative Writing Notebook?
The other day I was going through all my notebooks and journals. I found some good ideas I’d forgotten about along with plenty of ridiculous ideas that I’m glad I abandoned. I also went through the notebooks and journals that I haven’t used yet and found myself wondering about the poems, stories, and ideas that will someday fill their pages.
Do you ever go through your old creative writing notebooks and journals? Once you’re done with them, do you store them somewhere, or do you keep what you want to use and throw away the rest? Do you have a favorite brand or style for your writing notebook, and do you keep a decent supply on hand, or do you run to the store whenever you need a new one? What, exactly, do you write in your notebooks? Do you develop stories, draft poems, or keep a journal about your life? Leave a comment and tell us about it.
When I look back over all my years of formal education, from preschool through college, only a few classes stand out as truly educational in a life-changing way.
In sixth grade, we did a section on space, which fascinated me. I retained a lot of what I learned. Later, I took astronomy and learned even more about the universe. A class on women writers exposed me to a whole world of literature I didn’t know existed. And two writing workshops (poetry and creative writing) put me on the path to becoming a professional writer.
The main difference between a regular class and a workshop is that a workshop is interactive. You work together with your fellow students, critiquing each other’s work, asking questions, and exchanging insights. Whatever you can learn from a single instructor is multiplied by all the knowledge and wisdom you gain by sharing ideas with a roomful of your peers.
What You Can Learn from a Creative Writing Workshop
I only took one creative writing workshop, and I’m sure they are not all equal. You can usually sit in on the first couple of sessions to see if a class or workshop is right for you before you commit. If you find a good workshop, you’ll reap the benefits:
1. Discover yourself and your path. One day, while sitting in creative writing workshop, I was overcome by the strangest sensation. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It was the moment I knew without a doubt that I would be a writer.
2. Find out what your writing strengths are. The best part about receiving critiques from your peers is that they tell you what you’re doing right, which is reassuring. When you know that your writing skills have a solid foundation, it’s easier to accept that you still have work to do.
3. Accept the weaknesses in your writing. No matter how good your writing is now, there are things you can do to improve it. When ten of your classmates agree that certain elements in your prose need touching up or that you need to hit the grammar books, all you can do is accept it and dig your heels in.
4. Learn to handle critiques of your work. The first few critiques might be a bit rough, but once you see how all the suggestions make your writing so much better, you’ll start looking forward to them. You’ll learn how to separate yourself from your work, and you’ll be able to not only handle but actually embrace (and look forward to) critiques. This will also prepare you for the real-world critics and their reviews.
5. Help others improve their work. When other writers put your suggestions into action or express appreciation for your ideas and recommendations and then tell you that your feedback helped them make their writing better, it feels good, especially when the entire arrangement is reciprocal.
6. Meet people who share your passion. There’s nothing like sitting in a room surrounded by people who are just as excited about writing as you are. It’s not only inspiring, it’s comforting. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to meet like-minded people, some of whom may become lifelong friends, writing partners, or your future writing group.
7. Improve your writing. This, of course, is the main reason most people take a creative writing workshop. The ultimate goal is to become a better writer, and a workshop will definitely do the trick. You’ll also put a lot more effort into everything you write because you know it will be scrutinized, and this builds excellent writing habits.
8. Adopt new writing techniques. Between the instructor and your peers, you’ll discover all kinds of interesting new writing tools and techniques, often simply through the course of discussion as well as through observing everyone’s work.
9. Get access to a mentor. The person running the workshop should be knowledgeable and experienced in the world of writing. Maybe the instructor is a published author, or maybe it’s someone who’s worked as an agent, editor, or publisher. This access to a mentor is priceless. Take advantage of it!
10. Gain experience and get a lot of creative writing practice. This is one of the most valuable benefits of a creative writing workshop. When writers work on their own, they tend to procrastinate, get distracted, and generally don’t finish most of the projects they start. But in a workshop, you’re forced to get it done. This gives you lots of great experience and practice, and it also builds good writing habits.
Thinking About Taking a Creative Writing Workshop?
I definitely recommend taking a creative writing workshop if you can find a good one that suits your schedule, budget, and writing needs. If you’ve already taken a creative writing workshop or class, share your experiences by leaving a comment. Did you learn or gain anything? Would you do it again?
Today’s post on Writing Forward is a special treat. It’s a short film called The Writer. As you have probably guessed, it’s a about a writer.
There are only a handful of films about writers, but not nearly enough for those of us who labor at the craft of wordplay and storytelling. It’s always exciting when a new film comes out that explores what it means to be a writer.
And that’s exactly what this short film does.
A writer imprisoned in a mysterious house has everything he needs; food, drink and affection. Yet, he yearns to escape from the harbored life and venture into the wilderness outside. But there are a few things standing in his way: the other occupants of the house.
This film is a story about overcoming obstacles that hold you back from pursuing your dreams. Fear, self-doubt, distraction and laziness can cripple you, stopping you in your tracks. You can only blame your shortcomings on so many external things, until you realize the biggest obstacle in the way is yourself.
Take a quick break and watch this intriguing short science-fiction film all the way to the final revelation and payoff. Enjoy The Writer!
The Writer is produced by Woolly Rhino Productions, directed by Mike Rominski, and written by Mike Rominski and Kellen Berg. It stars Nathan Tymoshuk.
In creative writing, we talk about form and genre. Form is what we write: fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. Genre is how we further classify each of these forms.
In fiction writing, there’s literary fiction and everything else.
In fact, literary fiction and all the other genres are so at odds with each other that some writers simply say they are either literary fiction writers or genre writers.
But what does that mean? Isn’t all fiction considered literary?
Yes and no.
What is Literary Fiction Anyway?
Let’s start with a simple definition of the word literary. Dictionary.com offers several definitions, including the following:
- pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature: literary history.
- pertaining to authorship: literary style.
- versed in or acquainted with literature; well-read.
- engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing: a literary man.
- characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.
So we can use the word literary whenever we’re talking about writing or authorship in general, but it can also mean an excessive or affected display of learning. That’s a nice way of referring to intellectual or academic snobbery.
Wikipedia offers a more specific definition of literary fiction: “fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.” The article goes on to say that “to be considered literary, a work usually must be ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘serious’. In practice, works of literary fiction often are ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.'”
In other words, literary fiction has meaning and significance. I’ve also heard literary fiction defined as paying diligence to the craft of writing (or the art of stringing words together), exploring the human condition, and making bold commentary or criticism of society and culture.
Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else
I love literary fiction. Some of my favorite novels are The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which would be classified as literary fiction. These are the kind of books that people study and analyze. They’re taught in schools. People read them for decades, even centuries, after they’re published. They win prestigious awards and are beloved and celebrated by bookworms and scholars alike.
As much as I love literary fiction, I’d have to say that my heart belongs to science fiction. From A Wrinkle in Time to The Hunger Games trilogy, the science fiction that I love best has done everything that literary fiction can do and then some.
In an interview with the Paris Review (which I highly recommend), the great Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas.” He also observed that science fiction often goes unrecognized for having literary merit and expressed his chagrin:
“As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible… The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.”
Some of the other genres have it even worse. When was the last time a romance novel or horror story won critical acclaim or took home the highest literary honors? Science fiction and fantasy writers have enjoyed more critical and commercial success in recent years: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Suzanne Collins have dominated book sales, and they are all genre writers. Ray Bradbury himself won several prestigious literary awards. Sometimes it seems like the literary academics (the literati) are coming around and slowly opening their minds to genre fiction.
Yet there is still a stigma attached to genre fiction in certain literary circles. Just recently, I heard someone say they refused to read The Hunger Games because it was about kids killing kids and was therefore garbage. Yet kids are killing kids all over the planet: in gangs, in wars, and in school shootings. It’s not garbage; it’s truth, and that is the purest form of literature.
Looking for Merit in Creative Writing
Of course there is an argument to made about the merit of a work of fiction. I’ve read plenty of literary and genre fiction that said absolutely nothing about humanity or the world in which we live. Some of the literary novels I’ve picked up recently have been so abstract, obtuse, and erudite that after a few chapters, I gave up and moved on to the next book. And I’ve read plenty of genre fiction that is good fun but will never change the world.
Ultimately, each of us decides for ourselves which stories hold the most merit. We get to ask ourselves whether we want a gripping story or a story that makes us think, feel, and question. Do we read to be entertained and to escape, or do we read to broaden our perspectives and enlighten ourselves?
Have you ever watched a film or read a book that you thought had a lot of artistic or intellectual merit only to learn that the critics shot it down? Have you ever experienced a story that you thought was just awful and learned that it won awards and prestige? What are your thoughts on the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
A lot of young people first come to creative writing because they have a burning desire to express themselves. Emotions are running high, ideas are flying, and opinions are in full supply. What better way to get it all off your chest than writing it down?
Self-expression is the heart and soul of all forms of creative writing from fiction and poetry to memoirs and essays. We combine our inner thoughts and feelings with what we perceive in the outer world and put it into words.
When we balance what’s happening inside with what’s happening outside, real magic happens: that’s the sweet spot where we connect with readers.
For some of us, self-expression couldn’t be easier. Give us a pen and a piece of paper and our ideas will come pouring out. For others, putting thoughts and feelings into clear, coherent sentences and paragraphs is a challenge. Everything comes out garbled, and only the writer can make sense of it.
Freedom and Self-Expression in Creative Writing
Sometimes, self-expression can come across as little more than navel gazing, narcissism, or pontification. If we’re writing strictly for personal reasons, it doesn’t matter whether we write clearly or in a way that interests other people, but if we want to write professionally, to connect with an audience, our personal expressions must be clear and they must go beyond ourselves; they must resonate with readers.
Grammar and vocabulary matter: We need to communicate clearly when we’re writing for an audience. Personal shorthand, rambling, and bad grammar have to be reigned in. When it’s difficult to put our thoughts and feelings into words, we need a bigger vocabulary. If we study the language and rules of written communication, then our written self-expression will be coherent and more likely to draw an audience.
Honesty is the best policy: The best writing is full of truth. Even fiction and poetry, however abstract or fantastical, contain a kind of honesty that comes from the writer being forthright. That means we must embrace who we are. We have to be ourselves. Don’t write what you think people want to hear and don’t hold back your personal truths.
Connect with readers: We’ve all read essays and poems that were all about me, me, me (me being the writer). You can certainly write a great piece about yourself (your thoughts, ideas, or experiences), but in order for people to find value in your writing, it has to include them in some way. You can write drafts for yourself, but during revision, give some thought to your readers. Why should they read this? How will they benefit from it?
Know your purpose: Why do you write? Do you have ideas you want to share? Are you trying to influence people’s opinions? Will you help people see the world from a fresh perspective? Is your goal to enlighten or entertain? A little of both? When you know why you’re writing, you’ll have a much better chance at writing something worthwhile.
How Do You Express Yourself?
I’ve come across a lot of writers who insist on the sheer pleasure or therapeutic value of self-expression through creative writing. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s healthy to give yourself a personal writing space that isn’t influenced by the thought of someone else reading what you’ve written. It’s also good writing practice, because there’s freedom in writing without inhibition. But what if you want to take your writing to the next level? What if you’re ready to turn your self-expressions into poems, stories, or essays that people will read?
When you write, do you think about how readers will respond? Do you plan your creative writing projects with an audience in mind or do you focus on self-expression? How much of yourself do you put into your writing?
Creative writing includes more than just fiction and poetry. Creative nonfiction is a wide category of creative writing, which includes several genres.
Creative nonfiction is a relatively new field; only in recent years have works of creative nonfiction received the kind of attention from critics and readers that fiction and traditional nonfiction have enjoyed for decades.
It’s likely that creative nonfiction genres will continue to gain strength as a dominant force in the world of writing. The world wide web is growing at an astounding rate, and much of the content on the Internet is considered creative nonfiction. Take blogs, for example; many would be considered creative nonfiction.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
How can you tell the difference between a literary novel and any other kind of novel?
A work is usually considered literary because of the way it’s written. A literary novel is more than simple storytelling. The writer pays special attention to language, word choice, rhythm, and voice. Creative nonfiction is factually accurate writing that does the same thing; it pays attention to the craft of writing.
According to Wikipedia:
Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing truth which uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft.
Unlike fiction and poetry, nonfiction genres depend heavily on research, facts, and credibility. While opinions may be interjected and often the work depends on the author’s own memories, the material must be verifiable and accurately researched and reported.
Due to the factual nature of creative nonfiction, ethics come into play. In recent years, some memoir authors have been criticized for straying from the truth. There may be some wiggle room here. Since a memoir is not considered journalism, a writer may decide to take creative liberties with the facts; however, this may cause an uproar among critics and may even lead to a controversial reception of the work.
Creative Nonfiction Genres and Sub-Genres
These are just a few of the genres that qualify as creative nonfiction:
- Memoir and biography
- Food and travel writing
- Personal essays
- Literary journalism
If you think of more creative nonfiction genres, feel free to share them in the comments.
Creative nonfiction genres continues to grow and become more widely accepted and recognized as valid forms of nonfiction literature.
Have you written creative nonfiction? How strictly do you feel a memoir or other work of creative nonfiction should stick to the facts? Do you feel that nonfiction genres should focus on content and not creativity? Share your thoughts in the comments.
People ask me all the time whether I think a formal education is necessary to a successful writing career. A degree certainly helps, but no, it’s not necessary. There are master writers who did not finish high school and plenty never went to college.
I want to be clear: I fully support higher education. If you pull me aside and ask whether I think you should go to college, I’m going to say yes, of course you should! At the same time, I encounter plenty of writers (and other professionals) who are insecure because they feel they need that degree to back up their abilities. That’s just not so. If you want to write, you should write, regardless of whether you have a degree.
Keep in mind that while a degree is helpful (and you certainly learn a lot of valuable things in college), it’s neither a license to write nor a guarantee that you’ll be successful. Whether you pursue higher education or not, it is important to study the craft of writing. You can read books, join a writing group, or take a creative writing class.
Lessons from Creative Writing Class
Today, I thought I’d share a few lessons that I learned when I took a creative writing class in college. This might provide some insight if you’re currently weighing whether to go to college or whether to study creative writing in college. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I’m going to highlight the most valuable lessons I learned — things that stuck with me and that altered my life as a writer for the better. You’ll note that all of these are things you can learn outside of a classroom setting, if necessary.
1. Oh, so that’s what you mean by freewriting.
The first few days of my creative writing class, we spent ten to twenty minutes freewriting as soon as class started. About two weeks later, the instructor asked if anyone wanted to read their freewrites out loud. A volunteer stood up and started reading, and I realized I had been doing it wrong all along.
My freewrites were nothing more than diary entries. I simply wrote about whatever was going on in my life. But my classmate had written a mesmerizing stream-of-consciousness piece that sounded like something out of a dream. It was poetic! Oh, I thought, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
I had actually thought it odd that we were writing journals in class. Now it made sense! In creative writing class, I learned to freewrite every day as part of my writing practice and as a tool to generate raw material for poetry and story ideas. It had a huge impact on my writing and marked a time when my work and my writing practices went through dramatic improvements.
2. Some people work out with weights; we do writing exercises.
Writing exercises are where my technical skills saw the most progress. When you write whatever you want, whenever you want, there are aspects of the craft that inevitably escape you. Writing exercises and assignments forced me to think more strategically about my writing from a technical standpoint. It wasn’t about getting my ideas onto the page; it was about setting out to achieve a specific mission with my writing.
Many writing exercises that we did in class imparted valuable writing concepts; these were the exercises I treasured most because they helped me see my writing from various angles. Writing exercises also gave me host of creativity methods that I use to this day to keep writer’s block at bay.
Finally, all those exercises I did back in college ultimately inspired my own book of creative writing exercises; although the inspiration came from poetry and fiction writing courses as well as the creative writing class that I took.
When I was in high school and a teacher would announce a quiz or a writing assignment, the students would let out a collective sigh and begrudgingly get to work. In creative writing class, when the instructor said, “Let’s do a writing exercise,” everybody got excited. They couldn’t pull their notebooks and pens out fast enough!
Here’s the thing about a creative writing class: everyone in the room wants to be there. They chose to be there. So there’s a lot of enthusiasm and passion. For the first time in my life, I found myself completely surrounded with people with whom I shared a deep, common interest.
More importantly, there’s plenty of support and camaraderie. Prior to taking this class, I had shown a few pieces of my writing to friends and family, who mostly just nodded and said that it was good or that I was talented. In class, I was surrounded by other writers who were eager and interested to read what I had written, and the best part was that they offered suggestions that would make my writing even better! I can’t stress enough how warm I’ve found writers to be over the years. It’s an honor to be part of such a supportive community.
4. Nothing can replace a mentor
In college, instructors who taught my writing classes were all published authors. As a student, I had direct access to writers who had gone through all the rigors of everything that happens in the writing process: drafting, revising, submitting, publishing, and marketing.
These instructors were also extremely well versed in literature and the craft of writing (as they should be — that’s their job, after all). And there is nothing — no book, video, or article — that beats direct access to an experienced professional.
5. Right place, right time
Perhaps the best lesson I gleaned from creative writing class was that I was in the right place at the right time. This was a feeling that came from within, a certain surety that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. The semester that I took a creative writing class was packed with odd coincidences and epiphanies. I was often overwhelmed with feelings of serendipity, and I stopped questioning whether I had made the right choice in pursuing creative writing as my field of study.
Alternatives to a Creative Writing Class
As I mentioned, most of these lessons can be learned outside of a creative writing class. You can discover writing techniques and strategies from books, blogs, and magazines. You can find a community and a mentor online or in local writing groups. And you can experience a sense of certainty just about anywhere.
I definitely recommend taking a creative writing class if you can, and if you’re truly dedicated to writing and intend on going to college, then it only makes sense to study it formally. However, for writers who can’t or haven’t gone to college, I say this: find another route. A creative writing class or a creative writing degree will be helpful to building a writing career, but these things are not essential.
When I’m working on a story, I try not to think about technique too much. I focus on forging ahead without overanalyzing every step in my creative writing process.
My top priority is to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page.
However, during revisions and between projects, I often evaluate how I approached a project so that I can better understand my own creative process.
Hindsight is 20/20. I might decide that I didn’t do enough character sketches and therefore have to do more extensive rewriting. On the other hand, I might determine that I spent too much time writing down every idea and detail when I could have focused on the narrative and gotten it done more quickly.
Every creative writing project is different. Some writers might use the exact same process over and over; I don’t seem to work that way. However, I do take what I have learned to make the next project smoother. Recently, I’ve been thinking about two basic approaches that I have used when developing a concept. The first is an internal approach, which starts with character (or in nonfiction, with a human subject). The other approach is external, which starts with a situation or an event in the greater world.
The Human Condition
A few years ago, after struggling to get past the idea phase with several novels, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and successfully completed an entire first draft in just 30 days. I played by the rules and took the competition’s advice to heart by starting with just a couple of characters and not much else.
The result was that my entire approach was character based. I situated myself inside my main character’s head, placed the camera on her shoulder and just started writing. Miraculously, a plot emerged.
I ended up with a story that explored the human condition with themes of solitude and companionship complemented by themes of loss and gain. None of it was planned, and I was truly astounded that anything beyond a lengthy character study came out of it. What I learned was that by going inside the human mind and heart, and using that as a starting place, we can create touching, meaningful stories that help us better understand what it means to be human.
- How does someone’s internal landscape, made up of personal experiences, attitudes, and beliefs, affect interaction with the outside world?
- How does a character react in his or her unique way to various situations?
- Most importantly, how does a character handle conflict?
These kinds of stories are most often found in literary fiction, but they are sprinkled across all forms and genres of creative writing, including poetry and nonfiction.
The Social Condition
Lately, I’m working on a different type of story. I started with a situation rather than a character, although I did have a vague impression of a group of characters. My concept was borne from two things: a world (this in the science-fiction genre) and a situation at the social (or historical) level. I was looking at society and history for ideas (or rather, by looking at those things, I became inspired). I started far away from the characters, seeing them only from a great distance.
This approach has been a lot more fun for me, but it’s also a lot more work. World building and creating histories is no small task. Every day, as I write more and more about the world, I find myself looping around in a creative cycle that is bringing me closer and closer to my characters with every go-round as I discover how their actions affect the greater society or how events at the higher levels of their society affect them.
Starting Places in Creative Writing
Story is conflict. In a story about the human condition, it’s a personal or intimate conflict. In a story about society’s condition, we’re dealing with bigger conflicts that affect the masses: stories of war, for example. However, in the latter case, stories about big events can also incorporate character stories via subplots and therefore give you the best of both worlds.
Whether we start with an event and find the characters who were involved or start with characters and find our way through an event, we have to start somewhere.
Where do you start? Do you like to approach story from far away so you can tell a big, sweeping tale, or do you prefer to start with a character and tell a more intimate tale? Or do you approach from somewhere else altogether?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines lifestyle as “a particular way of living: the way a person lives or a group of people live.”
Dictionary.com defines it as “the habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards, economic level, etc., that together constitute the mode of living of an individual or group.”
A lifestyle is something you build for yourself from all the elements that make up your daily life: your thoughts, dreams, actions, routine, work, family, friends, food, hobbies, habits, and interests.
So is creative writing a lifestyle?
Examining the Writing Life
The writing life is unique. Writers spend a lot of time alone, with only our words and ideas to keep us company. We are immersed in word counts and submissions, manuscripts and notebooks. We work under tight deadlines and spend a lot of time worrying about typos. When other people are enjoying their favorite television shows or a day at the beach, we’re busy at our keyboards, doing our writerly work.
We are idea seekers — always looking for the next topic, poem, or plot. Every moment is an experience that could lead to a masterpiece, so every moment is a masterpiece. We live as observers, taking in the world around us so we can share the best parts of it with our readers.
We are communicators, using words to forge connections. It’s not enough to tell a story. We want to show readers what it was like to be there, to live it, even if it never really happened.
And the most ambitious writers, those who are driven to make creative writing not just a way of life but a career, must also look at themselves in a way few other people do. We must see ourselves as authors and learn how to brand and market ourselves. We have to be self-promoters, and we must be brave enough to put our work, which can be highly personal, out there for all the world to see.
The Creative Writing Life
The writing community is a tight one. Outside of literary circles, when two bookworms or writers bump into each other, they’re sure to forge an instant bond because such a person is a rare treasure. There may be some competition among writers, but most of what I’ve seen is goodwill and support.
We find ourselves outside of social norms. Our day jobs are simply a means to pay our bills. The real work happens early in the morning, late at night, and on weekends, when the rest of the world is playing. But our work is play. We writers breathe language. We engage in make-believe. We search for stories that beg to be told. We are concerned with words and images, grammar and structure, the historical and the fantastical, fact and fiction (and the difference between the two). And while we may be concerned with ordinary living, we ourselves experience a rather extraordinary life.
We get excited over things that put regular people to sleep — a passionate voice, a riveting scene, a complex character. We delight in office supplies, stationery, and writing instruments, tools that other people see as mere necessities.
All these things make up the life of a writer, the writing life.
How Do You Live?
Creative writing is an adventure, and it’s an adventure that is threaded throughout every minute of a writer’s day. That’s my experience, anyway. How does being a writer shape your daily life? Do you consider it a lifestyle? A hobby? A habit? Are you living the writing life?