Charles Mingus is currently filling my low-lit basement office with one of the best jazz albums ever pressed. There are paintings from local artists on my walls, jacketless hardback books on my shelves and micro-roasted coffee in my ceramic Intelligentsia mug. However, none of this makes a person creative.
I listen to jazz when I write because it keeps me focused and on my toes. I have art on my walls because this small office would otherwise feel like a broom closet. And I drink good coffee because I like good coffee.
There is a mystique around creative writing that makes writers feel obligated to tap into something ecstatic, supernatural or other before they are allowed to compose. Some of these misconceptions are propagated by writers themselves, who want people to view them as ancient mystics with all the secret incantations and hidden mantras needed to tap into the energy source behind a clean sentence. Hopefully, these short thoughts will clear away some of the space dust from the word creative and some of the physical dust off of the way you view writing.
Discipline Over Inspiration
If you are always waiting for inspiration to strike you will be waiting for a long time. But if you discipline yourself to write when you feel uninspired, you will find yourself tripping into the deep waters of inspiration on a regular basis. I’m surely getting eye-rolls from both the staunchly avant-garde and the habitually lazy. Discipline and creativity seem mutually exclusive. But they are, in fact, more like the engine and the car. The former drives the latter. While the thrill and usefulness of the latter cause you to care for the former.
So what does discipline look like in creative writing? Frankly, discipline looks different for everyone. But discipline does similar things in writers wherever it is found.
- Consistency – I write in the mornings. Mornings hold your most creative and productive hours. However, not everyone can do mornings. It doesn’t matter. Find anytime in your day that you can dedicate to your craft. Shut the door, get the writing medium with which you are most comfortable and get to work. Write daily.
- Concentration – Have a project in mind. You don’t need to spend every second of every session on that project, but you should be touching it regularly. Your project could be a book, novella, poem, graphic novel, memoir, or any number of other final products. Having a project that you continuously touch will give you a reason to come back to your desk everyday.
- Completion – I would venture to say that the number one killer of writers is incomplete projects. Nothing is more daunting and discouraging than a project on which you just can’t seem to put a final period. If you have one of these lingering projects (which most of us do), finish it. Put everything else aside and finish it. Being able to put it aside as a complete whole will give you a sense of accomplishment in your writing and a feeling of boldness to enter your next endeavor.
In More Than Out
One of the most regular contradictions I see in aspiring writers comes from the first question I ask them. They say something like, “I want to be a writer.” Then I say something like, “That’s great! How much do you read?” Their eyes then hit the floor and go over every detail of their shoes.
If you want to be a writer you must be a reader. You will only ever write as well as you read. And the ratio is not one to one – it’s more like ten to one. If you want to write one page, you need to read ten. This is not a hard and fast rule, but an example of the work it takes to be a writer.
You would not try to play jazz without ever listening to jazz (Charles Mingus would be so disappointed). That is because you wouldn’t know how it jives, what works and how a phrase best forms within a bar. Reading gives you an ear for writing. You must put more in than you pour out.
Communication Over Creativity
The chief purpose of writing is communication. Yes, it can and should be beautiful. Yes, it can and should produce emotions. But, at the bottom, writing communicates. So often, when people venture into the vague world of creative writing they decentralize communication for the sake of creativity. Such head-in-the-clouds writing will never make you creative. It will just make you difficult to read.