I have an old friend who is starting a course in creative writing. I thought he could use some advice and, because I store writing advice the way doomsday preppers store beef jerky, I thought I’d make an offer.
My first piece of advice: The most important part of “creative writing” isn’t creative; you’re probably disappointed to hear this, but if you hear nothing else, this will serve.
Nothing is writing except writing. Having inspired ideas about what you’d like to write, or vividly imagining your name inside hard covers, isn’t actually writing.
If you can’t harness your creativity with discipline, you’ll never achieve excellence. Think of it this way: If somebody gave you a violin, would you imagine yourself playing both professionally and immediately because you’ve always deeply loved music? I bet you wouldn’t because you’d have too much respect for the instrument.
Yet some people believe that the thing they write should be admired, widely read and perhaps given the Pulitzer because they have spent years reading works similar to what they’re trying to write. Why would we treat a musical instrument with more deference than we treat language?
For those who remember Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” you’ll know that I’m fiddling with a line when Hamlet rebukes two of his aides for trying to play him emotionally him as if he were a flute.
This leads me to piece of advice No. 2: If you don’t remember your Shakespeare or never read him in the first place, pick up the collected plays. If you don’t remember your Dickens or your Douglass, your Brontes, Baldwin, Atwood or Smith, ditto. Read the great writers and then read the pretty great ones. Take notes. Memorize your favorite passages. Make them your own.
You’re joining a conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years and you need to know where you fit in.
Good writing is an echo with edge. The best writing is a reflection, a repetition with a difference, of the deep initial disruptions repeated throughout time. It’s your business as a writer to know where your echo originated.
My third piece of advice is to pay attention to everything that goes on, good and bad, and to write it down. No great work of art ever came out of a general idea. It came out of one image, one sentence overheard on a bus, one exchange that happened 20 years ago that you never forgot.
Only the specific can be universal. You can’t begin a piece of writing by saying, “This will have all the stories.” No one piece of writing meets your full daily requirements for literary content. It’s not like a multivitamin, and there aren’t labels on art saying “poetic content: 8 percent; sugary content: 22 percent; salty content: 28 percent; etc.” At least — not yet.
Readers want to know why they should stay on your page. The first thing anybody wants to know is “What’s it about?” even if what they’re going to read is a haiku. We want to know what we’re reading in the same way we like to know what we’re going to be served before the plate is set down in front of us. The admonition, “Just start, you’ll like it,” is followed by the unspoken threat — “or else.”
Here’s No. 4: No piece of writing, just like no person’s lifetime, is ever really finished. There is, however, a moment when it’s done. You can pound it on the chest all you want but nothing is going to happen. The best thing to do is to leave it for others to dissect.
No. 5: If you’re writing for the money, don’t. Almost every successful writer I know has either kept his or her day job, inherited money or married money. From what I know, the last two are tougher ways to secure health insurance. So while I’m all for following your bliss, I’d put it this way: Follow your bliss, but first make sure you have dental.
Finally, No. 6: Don’t give into the voices saying you don’t have time to write. You’ll never be able to say, “Now I will sit down and create art.” But you can almost always say, “I have a piece of paper, and a writing instrument, and now I will work.”
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.