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Friday, June 22, 2007

Writing Tip #2

After finishing "Desert Cut," I decided to clean my den -- oh, what a mess! Three years of research lying all over the floor (yes, it was originally filed and stacked neatly, but in the heat of writing...). Anyway, while shoveling away the debris, I found this little piece I wrote to one of my Creative Writing students at Phoenix College, who was afraid she was suffering from "writer's block." In case it might help someone else (it did that student) I quote the note verbatim.

It occurred to me after you left what your problem with writing actually is. You're afraid to fail, therefore you can't get started. Most beginning writers are afraid to fail because every time they start the process of writing, a little voice says, "Boy, that's terrible stuff!" You have to learn to ignore this voice.

Every good writer is two people: a writer and a critic. Both entities are invaluable, because without the writer the story would never be told, and without the critic, the story would never be told well. But sometimes -- especially with beginning writers -- the critic is so anxious to start work that he enters the picture too soon. Instead of letting the writer tell his story in the long, sloppy, rambling style in which all heart-filled first drafts are written, the critic rushes forward and says, "Let me fix that mess!"

The critic is right, of course. That first draft really is a mess. The problem is, though, that the critic is right at the wrong time.

To write anything, a writer must be very unjudgemental about his first draft, because to turn out anything worthwhile, he must write from his heart in an almost stream-of-consicousness manner. He cannot let the mechanics of the English language get in his way. He must worry only about telling his story, getting the action down, capturing the feelings and memories, creating characters who come alive. While doing this, he cannot worry about adjectives or adverbs or double negatives or even the passive voice. That's the critic's job, and the critic's time hasn't come yet.

It is only after the writer has completed his entire first draft (not just the first paragraph, first page, or first chapter!) that the critic should be allowed to start work. If the critic does begin working too soon, the writer shrivels up and frequently stops writing entirely. Why? Because the moment the critic steps in, the writer leaves -- the Creativity Room is too small to hold both of them at the same time. Which is fine, because critics can't write anything worthwhile, anyway. Unlike the far braver writer, a critic is so caught up in the mechanics of writing, that he has trouble creating. The critic always takes the "safe" tried-and-true path. Therefore, his prose is wooden, his characters stereotyped, his plots cliched. Why? Because critics are much too worried about making all the mistakes they know are lurking out there for unwary writers.

So only let your WRITER do the writing. Only your WRITER can speak with the authentic voice of your heart and soul. Then, when your WRITER has completed his project, tell your critic that it's time to get to work. After all, the critic's job is to bring the cool, clear voice of knowledge and intellect to bear upon your project. The critic will find all those non-sequiturs, passive verbs, superfluous adjectives and sloppy sytax that the writer indulged in. Like a surgeon, he'll slice away the worst passages, and do a little nip and tuck on the rest.

The critic, when called upon at the RIGHT time -- but no earlier -- will fix the mess the writer has created and will make it truly beautiful.

But only when it's time.

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