We relax into writing.
I encounter a lot of writers who are stuck, and most of them frame their difficulty in moral terms. "Let's face it. I'm lazy." They clench their fists and declare, "I just have to kick myself in the butt and write." They understand their problem as a lack of willpower, and they're wrong.
What these writers lack is not resolve but the skill of relaxing into the mental state that allows us to write. Think about how a beginning piano student uses great effort to hammer out the simplest melody. Each note of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" is struck with maximum force, and the effect is anything but musical. With practice, however, this piano student learns to relax the fingers and render the melody with greater ease, eventually reaching a stage where the muscles are so relaxed that fluid musicality emerges from the keys. Only through relaxation can this pianist play with both sensitivity and power.
So it is with writing. Fist-clenching resolve — "I'm going to force myself to write" — produces tension and turns every sentence into a moral struggle. With practice and the proper focus, however, we can learn to relax our minds and bring ourselves onto the page with greater ease, clarity, and expressiveness.
our problems on the page are often gateways disguised as Barriers.
A number of writers feel crowded off the page by some problem that calls their writing into question. For example, when I sat down to write my memoir about my experience in the music business, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, I began to tense as I wrote the scenes. Nothing I had to describe felt worthy of a book with the words rock star in the title.
And then I realized that this was because, of course, I had never been a rock star, more like a near rock star. "What if I wrote about that experience?" So I wrote about what it's like to come tantalizingly close to stardom and yet fall short. Suddenly the scenes became sharper, funnier, and easier to write. The problem that stood in my way held the key to unlocking my story.
My work with other writers has borne out this principle. The problems that vex us on the page often hold the solutions. If we understand how to articulate our problems, instead of hiding from them or letting them hover over us as we try to write, we can learn to bring them onto the page and release their energy into our work.
Your intuition is the best writing teacher you'll ever have.
When you read some passage of your work and think, "This isn't working," you are hearing a murmur from your intuition. My work with writers is aimed at helping them give their intuition a more precise vocabulary, so that "This isn't working" becomes something more useful. "This passage sags, and it's because the language has become vague. Maybe I'm scared of saying what I need to say, which is . . . "
The best feedback Humbles itself before THE Writer's Intuition.
Even a confused piece of writing hopes to become something. Only feedback that honors that hope and therefore aligns itself with the intuition from which that piece emerged can help the writer bring the piece to satisfying completion. When I comment on work, I do three things:
- Report on my understanding of what the piece wants to be.
- Report on the experience of reading, where I was engaged, where I was confused, where I felt transported, where I was lost, and so forth.
- Offer ideas about how my difficulties as a reader might be attended to in ways that honor the piece's ambition.
This approach does not discount the importance of learning important skills—how to attend to the tempo, how to turn exposition into ammunition, and so forth — but it enables both the reader and the writer to listen to the writer's intuition, which more often than not points the way forward.
You've already learned more about the craft of writing than you know.
Through your reading, viewing, and music listening, you've absorbed many lessons about craft. You know a great film when you see one, and a great song when you hear one because you've intuited a large number of the relevant creative principles. For example, you've learned that songs are built out of sections, and that these sections—intros, verses, choruses, bridges, codas—and that a certain logic underlies their order and repetition within a song's form. And you've noticed various techniques that filmmakers employ at the beginnings and endings of films. You've made countless such observations about various creative forms. What remains is for you to name the principles at work so you can apply them to your writing. I love helping writers make these connections, which they find helpful and inspiring. I also write about these connections on my blog, Portable Philosophy.