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Creative Writing Exercises for Removing Obstacles

  • Creative Writing Exercises for Removing Obstacles

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    Perhaps you have tried to write a poem or story, or maybe two or three, and they haven't turned out the way you wanted them to. You've given up in frustration, seeing that your work isn't as good as someone else's, concluding that maybe you weren't cut out to be a writer, after all.

    You may blame some external circumstance for keeping you from writing. You are too busy, you might say. You are too tired when you come home from work. You don't know what you want to say. You need to take some writing courses before you start, but you're too busy, or you don't have the money for them now.

    Regardless of the excuse that comes to mind, the real reason many would-be writers don't write, is fear. Fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear that your work will fall short of your expectations, fear that you just aren't good enough. This fear is normal, and many writers experience it -- amateur and professional alike. Successful writers find a way to live with it, and write despite their fears.

    Do it Anyway

    Susan Jeffers wrote a book called "Feel the Fear…and Do it Anyway," about coping with the fears that keep us from chasing our dreams. Though the book is well worth reading, the title alone provides a lesson in overcoming the fear of writing failure.

    Fear is a survival mechanism, a vestige from our prehistoric days when our ancestors needed to run away from danger to avoid getting eaten by saber-tooth tigers, or stepped on by woolly mammoths. It seems that our limbic systems, where strong emotions like anger and fear reside, do not understand the distinction between real physical danger, like saber-tooth tigers, and the imagined danger of being a bad writer. If you are experiencing any resistance getting started as a creative writer, step back and examine your emotions. Chances are, it is fear that stands in your way. Now look at this fear rationally. Say you do write something lousy. Perhaps your first poem will be laughable and silly. Perhaps your first 10 poems will be. It happens. But how bad will the consequences be? Chances are, no matter how badly you write, you probably won't be stepped on by a woolly mammoth.

    Exercise: If the number one obstacle to creative writing is fear of failure, it is time to give this fear a voice. Imagine that you have written something really, really terrible, just as you may have feared you would. Tell of some of the dire consequences that have befallen you as a result. Go ahead and exaggerate as much as you can. Your short story is so incredibly bad that your wife leaves you. The poem police have arrested you and you are about to stand trial. Your lousy writing has precipitated a guerilla war in some obscure Eastern European nation, and seismic activity has been reported in several Pacific islands. There will be a march on Washington to protest your brutal murder of the English language in your attempts to write creatively. Even muggers and rapists run from you on the street, because of the sheer awfulness of your writing.

    Have fun with this exercise. Make yourself laugh with it. Then step back and read it, and realize that the fear you are experiencing really is this silly. If you write badly, the only person who has to know is you. You can keep your writing private, until you get better at it. Everybody who learns something new stumbles at first. Most of the time, the world doesn't end, even if we have the gall to write badly.

    Silence the Inner Critic

    Your doubting inner voice will hint that you face disaster if you persist in creative writing without being expert at it. This voice is often called the inner critic, and it is the enemy of any creative artist. The inner critic turns our vestigial fear of danger into an inner Doubting Thomas, who tells us our work is no good, that we have no talent, that truly terrible things happen if we are foolish enough to presume that we can be writers. In order to progress as a writer, this critic must be banned from your writing space. Once you have drafted a poem or a story, it can be helpful to look at it with a critical eye, to see if it can be improved. But in the first rush of creation, you must give your creative soul the run of the house. You must feel the freedom to write anything that comes to mind, no matter how foolish or silly it might seem.

    One of the characters in the film "This is Spinal Tap," a zany parody of the 1980s rock star lifestyle, said, "There's a fine line between stupid and clever." Some of the most creative ideas can seem ridiculous or off-the-wall at first. They can be easy to criticize, and your inner critic can shoot them down before you have the chance to pursue them. Writing that is controlled by fear, though, is likely to be flat, unoriginal, uninspired. Give yourself permission to write badly. Tell yourself it is okay to write the worst drivel that ever darkened the page. You may need to write badly for quite a while before you have practiced enough to write well. Or, if you just start writing, you might find that you aren't as bad as you thought you were.

    Exercise: As crippling as your inner critic can be, recognize that it means well. Its goal is to protect you from embarrassment and harm, no matter how misguided this goal might be. You want to banish the inner critic from your writing room, but out of respect for it, you want to give it a nice place to go. Write about a lovely place where your inner critic can repose while you create without it. Give it a charming summer cottage on the grounds of an opulent estate. Furnish the cottage like the pages of a decorating magazine. Or create a castle on the Moors of Northern England where the mists roll in every morning and sheep graze in the hills nearby. Make your critic a wonderful place, where it can pass the time in bliss, while you happily create without its misguided intentions. Give it something to do. Perhaps it should act as shepherd to those sheep you saw in the hills. Let it drive them crazy criticizing their shaggy coats or barking them into military formation. Let your critic know that you will be back for it when the time is right; then wish it well, and go back to your writing space without it.

    Writing for Yourself, Writing for Others

    Some writers say, "I just want to write for myself." They may mean they don't want to be told what to write. They don't want to enter the marketplace where only certain kinds of writing on certain topics may be sought after. They may mean they're not interested in what others think of their work. This attitude is healthy up to a point. It's a wonderful thing not to feel as if the world is looking over your shoulder while you're writing. It's a great idea to give yourself the space to create without worrying about what your friends, family -- or even strangers -- will think of your work. If writing for yourself means writing about things that matter to you, things you have a passion for, then you are on the right track.

    On the other hand, saying you only write for yourself is never quite true. Writing is first and foremost a means of communication. Writing helps you put what is in your head and heart on paper, so others can see and experience it. If you really never wanted someone else to read your writing, there would be no need to write. You could sit and daydream stories in your mind. So while it's important to shut the world while you are creating, to give yourself the freedom to make a mess, without fear of anyone's disapproval, it's equally important to admit that somewhere in the future, you do intend to show your work to someone else.

    The main pitfall that can trap writers who only write "for" themselves, is the tendency to only write "about" themselves. Self-indulgent writing -- writing that dwells too much on the writer's own feelings, biases, and opinions -- is bound to bore any reader unlucky enough to be asked to read it. The writer herself, upon reading her own self-indulgent blathering, is likely to wonder why she bothered to set it on paper, and question whether she is any good at this writing thing at all.

    As a creative writer, don't make yourself the overt focus of a piece of writing. Create characters, places both imagined and real, stories to capture your readers' imaginations. Without focusing on yourself, your way of looking at the world will come through nonetheless. Your characters will be mirrors of some aspect of your personality. Your scene descriptions will reflect your perception of the world. Your writing will reveal you and what is in your heart, even if you don't overtly place yourself in your writing. You are unique, and no matter what you do, your writing will reflect that.

    Exercise: Create a character whose views differ from yours in some substantial way. Have her espouse a political position you don't agree with, or adhere to a personality trait that is the opposite of yours. Make her extremely messy if you are neat, or vice versa. Write a short scene in her voice, narrating events in her day that bear on her beliefs, and reveal them to the reader. Try your best to write as if you really are this person, whom in real life you might not agree with or relate to. When you've finished, read over what you've written. Chances are that even though you've created a fictional character very different from yourself, that you will see yourself in her somewhere. You may realize that somewhere inside you lies the potential to be like her even though outwardly you are not. You will see that no matter how fictional your stories are, your own unique take on the world will shine through.
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