First, don’t panic. We’ve all been there. You’re writing your latest poem or story, really feeling great. This is going to be your best work ever. Then suddenly, you feel yourself sliding down some sort of funnel, down, down, into a cliche. There’s a phrase that you’ve used before sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s a situation which you’ve seen a million times before in other, better stories. There’s a character type who’s practically a walking stereotype, whether it’s the Goth loner or the dumb cheerleader. Suddenly, your special, wonderful story is trapped in the realm of cliche.
It can feel pretty desperate, and also pretty disheartening, to find your work here. It’s kind of like being stuck in the doldrums; what you wanted to be special is just a litany of weary sameness. But there ARE ways to get yourself out of that cliche, to escape back into the world of originality.
The key to escaping the cliche is to understand what cliches are and where they come from. Cliches are a kind of shorthand in conversation. When having a chat with someone, we want to meet on common ground, and we also want to convey information quickly. So we use shortcuts, established, commonly known ways of shortcutting through stories or description. We’ll see we cried buckets, or that the guy was the most boring guy on the face of the earth. We’ll say the little girl was as cute as a button or that we jumped for joy. And in casual conversation, we make ourselves understood. It saves time.
But in creative writing, it’s just lazy to use a cliche; it demonstrates a lack of imagination. It shows that we aren’t working hard to make our language beautiful, special, or memorable. We’re just leaning on the same old crutches to limp our way through an over-familiar story.
I’m so pleased to say a couple of new short fiction pieces by me have appeared online. The flash fiction piece “Bats” is available to read at Lumina, and another short piece, “Decide”, is up at a literature blog I love, The Toast. Have you checked these guys out yet? I’d love to have more readers, and I’m proud to be among some wonderful pieces of fiction there.
Both of these pieces were written very quickly this spring as I tried my hand at a bit of flash fiction. While fictional in plot, the emotions behind both of these were heartfelt, and the stories poured out of me with very little revision. Every now and then it happens that way, and it makes the months of tough slogging worth it.
I think the most jealously guarded secret in the world of writing may be that just everyone’s first drafts are really, really bad. Did you just write something that disappoints you, that just isn’t as good as you hoped it would be? Welcome to the club! Everyone struggles with their first drafts, and yet we all want to pretend like it was easy and effortless, as though a winged muse descended from the heavens and dropped a brilliantly packaged idea right in our laps. The more you write, though, and the more you get to know other writers, the more you realize that it just doesn’t happen that way. Not for anybody.
Even if you continue to work on writing at the college and graduate level, though, few people are going to admit this, and fewer people are going to teach you what to do about it. The only writers who succeed are the ones who are willing and able to revise their work, to commit to not letting it be done until it really is as good as it can be. Here are a few tips to get you started on the long, exciting, frustrating path of revision.
First: put it aside, and look at it with fresh eyes.
The moment you finish something, you might feel pretty great about it. It could be your best work yet. The temptation is to throw it into an email and send it off to your friends, to Teen Ink, to The New Yorker magazine, without any further thought. But you’re just too close to it right now to tell whether it’s really ready. You’re emotionally invested in it; you’ve just been fighting battles alongside with your characters. You’ve shed their tears. There’s no possible way you can be objective about the language, the plotting, the actual quality of the thing.
So put it in a drawer for a little while — or in today’s digital age, put it in a “needs revision” folder on your computer. Let it sit in there WITHOUT LOOKING AT IT for a MINIMUM of a week, but more if you can possibly stand it. Only then may you look back. You might be shocked to see how many errors in judgment, how many clichés or plot holes still remain in that first draft. And now that you can see them, you can fix them.
Welcome to summer, writers. You’ve slogged through the hard brutal months of winter, you’ve sneezed and sloshed through the allergies and mud puddles of spring, and you’ve been rewarded with that perennial gift, the months of summer. (For this post: sorry, Australians, you’ll get there). The sun is out ridiculously late, and I always find myself bursting with newfound energy. At long last, it’s time to do all the things you said you would do, and make sure you make summer count.
The great part about summer is that if you’re out of school, those daily mental demands of homework are gone, freeing you up to daydream, to wonder, and to imagine. This is the kind of idle, directionless thought that can turn into creative work; no matter how you try to force creative thought when you have to, it just doesn’t happen as easily as when you let thoughts percolate and creep up on you of their own accord. It’s kind of like trying to solve a crossword or a sudoku — you always get the answer the moment you’ve given up and pushed the puzzle away for a while.
So my first suggestion to you this summer is to leave plenty of room for unstructured thinking time. That is NOT to be confused to unstructured staring-at-the-tv time or unstructured partying-with-friends time. Fun as that is, those activities end up filling our brains, stimulating us in pleasant but distracting ways. To REALLY leave ourselves in an unstructured mental space, we’ve got to go for a walk. Stroll under some shady trees or follow the shoreline of a beach that is whispering secrets to itself. Ride your bike through a neighborhood you only half now. Don’t blast music in your earbuds. Don’t check your phone for messages. Give yourself the time to dream.
When you return from your walk, you’ll be amazed by how many ideas want to jump onto the page from your head. Try writing down a few of them. Keep the spell of quiet going just a little bit longer. After all, it’s the summer; there will be plenty of time for the beach, for friends, for cheesy blockbuster movies. But daydreaming time, creative time, is precious. Don’t let the summer slip through your fingers without that rare time.
No matter how old I get, I think I’ll still feel that burst of savage glee that comes with the arrival of summer. School’s out for summer! School’s out for ever! I may not be a a student anymore, but the summer is still a time of changing schedules, of greater freedom, and of nearly boundless opportunities for creativity. It’s crucial to be mindful of what you want out of your summer, and to make it happen. It’s simply too easy to let summer slip away, and wake up on August 31st wondering where it went. On the first day of fall, you want to walk back into your normal life with accomplishments under your belt, with new skills acquired, new adventures experienced, new maturity and growth achieve. So here’s your guide for how to have not only the most fun summer, but also the most creative.
For Memorial Day this year, I found myself in a small Vermont town, working on my novel. Sometime around noon I heard the fanfare of trumpets and drums beating outside my window; I stepped outside just in time to see the town’s charming little parade come by, waving banners and flags, high-stepping and proud. It’s always fun to see a parade go by, but I was also glad that I was in a small town with just one Boy Scout troop and one high school band, because after a while, parades start to get repetitive. They also look the same no matter where you are. There’s always the firetruck and the band and the camping troupe, the same people you don’t know marching by.
I know I’m not supposed to knock parades, their being patriotic and all, but on a purely aesthetic level, I think they can teach us a lot about our own bad habits in writing. Once my dad attended a very long parade. He used two rolls of film taking pictures of the event. When we got the photos back, there wasn’t a single interesting photo in the whole bunch; it was just a wall of unknown people walking past. Sometimes this is the exact effect we create in our own writing.
Readers, this month I have been tucked away in the splendid Vermont Studio Center, busily editing the novel and also trying to produce some new short stories. About once a year I love attending programs like these; there really is nothing like devoting yourself to the quiet, singular craft of writing. You’d be amazed what kinds of work can come out of an experienc like it.
I am stunned by how smoothly the VSC is run, by how beautiful the facilities are, and how friendly and welcoming the entire community is. I’ve met a terrific bunch of writers and artists while being here, and I’m so inspired by marinating in their developing work.
Many might say that you can achieve the same experience if you just turn off the phone and hunker down at your desk at home, and you can with effort and if a residency is not possible. But if it is possible, jump at the chance. There’s a huge mental difference between squeezing an hour of writing in between obligations at home, and giving yourself the time and permission to put your writing first.
So what is a residency really like? I’ll try to tell you about a typical day here at the Vermont Studio Center. The day might be different for every resident, but here’s the routine I’ve been working on.
I’ve written about how absolutely crucial the skill of observation is in writers. You need to be a giant walking eyeball as Emerson said, a vacuum that absorbs the world. You’ve got to use all of your senses to notice the eccentricities, the beauty and the ugliness of the world.
By itself, though, sensory perception, or noticing, is not necessarily a creative process. It’s something that animals do a lot better than us, for example. If you’ve ever seen how a cat will instantly pick up on any kind of motion in a room that you’ve barely detected, you know what I’m talking about. The creative process comes from linking things with other things. Read more
I’ve written before how important it is to step out of your lifestyle habits once in a while to stay creative. I’ve found it’s tremendously important for me to change my physical location, for example. I might have all the time and freedom in the world, but if I’m sitting at my desk at home, the world of distractions opens itself to me like a beautiful, attention-hogging flower. Whenever I go to a cafe with just my notebook, even though I might not have the perfect snack or the perfect quiet or the perfect tools, I’m much better at getting work done.
But there are mental habits we fall into as well, and we similarly need to step out of them and find a different place in our minds to operate from. Have you ever found yourself writing down a word or phrase that feels familiar to you — because you’ve already used it ten times before? Have you written about someone walking with “easy grace” or “knitting their eyebrows” and you realize that the previous character in your previous story did the exact same thing? We all have these verbal tics or favorite lines, these “contemporary clichés” as one teacher of mine called them. They’re over-familiar phrases, writing that has become inert because of its lack of originality. We want to read for delight and surprise, for pleasure bursts of language, but these phrases don’t give us that. So let’s discuss how to get out of those verbal ruts.
On another panel discussion I went to at the AWP Writers’ Conference, I learned another very interesting bit of advice from some acclaimed writers: several used the phrase “rotate failure.” A poet, a memoirist and a fiction writer all agreed with this idea, and it does seem like a wise way to approach your writing. So what does this phrase mean? And how do we apply it to our creative writing lives?
Whenever you’re good at something, you’re bad at something else.
When you’re really devoting yourself to your poems or fiction, something else is necessarily being given the slip in your life. It might be your schoolwork, or it could be your time with your family; it could be all those projects you wanted to do, like learning to cook or training for a 10K or eating more healthily or getting into college. At any one time, we’re trying to manage and juggle a busy life full of expectations, obligations, and demands. The truth of our modern lives is that we can’t be awesome at everything at the same time.
But the secret is, we CAN be awesome at some things some of the time.