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The Myths of Creative Writing

The Myths of Creative Writing


The truth about wisdom is the wisdom of the truth; or, restated, a lot of things look good on paper but in real life may leave a few stones unturned. One teacher asks, "Why do you write?" Is it for money, to impress loved ones and family, or to attract big box office audiences? Could it be just another ego trip? What if you wrote a few stories or plays just for yourself, with no intention of ever sharing them with anyone; would the process be as satisfying? The idea here is to look at your creative writing and grasp some of the illusions and false ideas you may have before you devote a great deal of time to it without reaping the results you never understood did not exist in the first place.

Probably a third of adult humanity today can read and write. So there are many writers, and one big hurdle you face in trying to sell your stories or obtain employment if you are more than a hobbyist is that everyone believes himself or herself  to be a writer. It is not a very unique skill, like brain surgery or rocket science, which may have very few competent practitioners. Almost anyone can write. So that must be Illusion No.1: that writing makes you special or different. You are special or different, anyway, but it has nothing to do with picking up a pen or spending a few weeks or months at a computer keyboard. Yet it is your own perfectly original and special lens or filter that will make your creativity interesting to or valued by others.

Here's an Illusion: Do writers make a lot of money? Young people who may have creative instincts often think they do. I started writing 30 years ago because I liked to see my name in print, and I loved the idea that popular writers of the day were always well-paid, publicly applauded and welcomed, with nice houses and cars. The ones we all read probably reaped these rewards because they were the most popular with millions of fans. Unfortunately, and you must know this, you can write millions of words in complete obscurity your entire life with only paltry rewards and few if any fans other than your immediate family. The house and car will have to be paid for some other way. Making money with your writing is another topic, but like any career, do not expect the high life as a given.

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Other false ideas you may encounter include the popular persona of the writer as a cranky, yet beloved boozer and womanizer, who writes in the home library wearing a smoking jacket and a fez.  
Then there's the notion that you as an individual are very likely to hit upon any new or different ideas and themes that others have not explored already but which may save the world somehow. There's the idea that writers are  sagacious, benevolent, or even particularly nice people. There are religious urges you may feel to compete with God to rewrite the Bible and the mysterious, patently absurd idea of attaining immortality through your writing, as if Shakespeare or Mark Twain really inhabit their words throughout history wherever they are read, and as if you would be likely to achieve that level of renown, anyway. There are many other false ideas, including the notion that writing by itself will necessarily make you or anyone else happy or really solve anything.
Of course, there are wonderful reasons to pursue creative writing. The Ghost in the Wishing Well has other motives; there's something strange about that wet, wailing phantom. Before you fall in after the ghost, though, you may want to understand that the poor phantom  may have fallen down that dark, wet hole chasing his or her own ego. Probably the master illusion of illusions regarding creative writing is that it is an ego trip of the first order. When you claim to be a writer, you have equated your own talents and insights with everyone from Moses to Kierkegaard. Some have pointed out that, if one considers human history, many or even most of people's troubles can be traced back to a writer of some kind. So, at the least, as songwriter and singer Paul Simon says, "Use a humble pen."

In a way, perhaps everything ever written was an attempt to record and preserve human thoughts. You can write your words on stone or steel to last thousands of years, or you can write poetry on a banana leaf or grain of rice. Every writer usually wants to keep personal thoughts at the forefront, valuing what has passed through his or her consciousness. Even if the scribe writes in cuneiform on a clay tablet, the idea is no different from recording your thoughts on a piece of paper, computer hard drive, or voice recorder. Creatively, as your words pour forth, you now have the luxury of refining them, carefully tweaking each word, until in effect you are finished with thinking that thought and are ready to move on.  This also is true of your fiction, poetry, or songs.

How big is your ego if you approach the process with the idea that, like Moses, your words will change history and the course of human events far into the future? If you get so-called writer's block, this ego complex is often the problem. You are not staring at a blank page, or blank word-processing document on your computer; you feel instead you are staring at the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, or the Magna Carta, the Monroe Doctrine, the Louisiana Purchase, or even the bill of sale on your home. Yet this is not the case; it is just that sweet story about the horse you had when you were a kid, the time she threw a shoe out on the trail, or a similar dream.

There really is only one cure for writer's block. You always can get some exercise, take a walk, do something else for a while, and refresh the Ghost's Well. But when you sit back down, it is like jumping off a diving board: You know your topic or your story, so you just start in and turn on the words like water from your kitchen faucet and go ahead at a comfortable pace. Do not look back, do not stop, do not get stuck in contemplation of the hardness of the stone because it is really never that hard at all. If you really cannot stand the look of a blank paper, or it just bunches up inside and will not come out, you really may not want to be a writer at all, and that is one way to find out.

Do not be a ghost at the bottom of a wet hole, wailing. Be alive and well with both feet on the ground as you write, dispel all illusions of obstacles and just be all you can be. Sometimes, it's as simple as that.

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