Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to write

The best thing you can do as a writer is to find out what kind of writer you are.

And that means forgetting the set of rules which tell you that there is only way to write.

Some of us are slow burners, we carry a story or an idea around with us for days, sometimes months, and it has to find its own way of getting out. Try to force it and the story will just shrivel up.

Others prefer to be pushed. Set the timer, give us a starting light, and watch us go.

Some of us like writing in groups. Or the feeling of groups. On-line, in classes, with friends.

Others need complete hermit-like solitude. Even sitting in the same room as another writer freezes us.

None of these is wrong. In fact, I am and have been all of these. Sometimes it depends on what I am writing. Sometimes it depends on me, the writer, and how I feel.

But, over time, what I've come to realise is that I like a warm up before I start writing. Owen Sheers called it 'letting the rusty tap run clear.'

There are two ways I do this.

The first is morning pages. Every morning I sit down - often over a cup of coffee before anyone else is awake - and just write three pages of whatever comes into my head. It's an exercise from Julia Cameron. What I write depends on how I feel. Sometimes it's a list of moans ... I'm so tired, I'm so bored of hearing myself whine, I'm really cross with xxx ... but most often it starts of as a moan, and then something starts to connect. I write myself into ideas. I write myself out of ideas. I write myself into making sense of all these ideas, and into what I can do about them. I try out characters, reject them, write scenes, remember what it really feels like to have toothache, anything and everything.

My morning pages are an essential part of my day now. (I also do a fourth page of affirmations, but I want to write about that in a different post.) It's a way of establishing myself as a writer for the day. Even - especially - if it's the only writing I manage to do that day. I don't look back often, but when I do, I'm constantly surprised. It's better than a diary because it has the same ability to bring me back to how I was feeling at that moment, but more direct. it gives me back the fleeting thought I would otherwise have lost.

The second way I warm up is through my writing prompts (see the sidebar for my daily list, or follow me on twitter). Sitting down and writing something from a random idea is a completely different experience, almost as if another part of my brain engages itself in the act of writing. If my morning pages are about drifting across the lines, bringing up thoughts and feelings I wasn't aware of, using writing prompts mean I'm wholly aware and active on the page.

I often - no, always - don't know where I'm going, even though I wrote the prompt myself. I become aware of how I make conscious decisions as I go along. Not least in the shaping of the piece. My fifty word stories engage the same part of the brain too.

With my morning pages, I often finish mid-sentence. But with my writing prompts I am constantly crafting. It's good to start to realise what both feel like, and that I need somehow to combine the two in my 'proper' writing.

I'm not going to publish either set of pieces, or even edit them, but by doing the two together as part of my practice I can almost feel my writing muscles shift into gear. To expand. And both sets feel like gifts to me. To use a vegetable gardening analogy because I'm addicted to my allotment at the moment - my morning pages are unearthing what's already planted, however deep rooted, while the other is sewing new seeds and building new beds.

And now because I'm away for the next few days, here are some of my writing prompts for you to follow if you want to. Please feel free to link to whatever you produce in the comments section, or email me if you'd prefer. It's always such a real pleasure to see how the same few words end up with such totally different results!!!

Thurs 17th - She prays he won't come and sit next to her, but ...
Friday 18th - The list of things that annoy him about her
Sat/Sun 19/20 - You've never been up so early
Mon 21st - Things we never did together
Tues 22nd - I've taken up flying

And if you want to try other exercises, then I did a different kind of warm up on Scott Pack's blog recently. Also if you want to send me your favourite writing exercises, or warm ups, to share that would be great.


Kathryn said...

As a fellow Morning Page writer, and a regular responder to your lovely 50 Word Stories, I identify with your comments about the different approaches to writing. With both, I am free-writing and it is always interesting to see where I end up. It's funny how when the pressure to produce something great is removed, clarity of thought and new ideas seem to find their way out. You would think that the 50 word limit would be restrictive yet I find it liberating. A sort of simultaneous process of contraction and expansion. With the Morning Pages, I feel completely free and now I have almost all my ideas there plus I organise my thoughts for the forthcoming day. Both practices have helped me to define my writing voice and plans for the future. And finally, thank you for your helping hand in this by providing the prompts. How on earth do you come up with them?

Kate said...


I am not a writer but really enjoyed reading about the different approaches. Kate x

Anonymous said...

What wonderful ideas for getting started, I took thr thought for today and just wrote, its amazing where it took me. Will try out some of the others over the coming days! Thanks. Sandra

jem said...

Thanks for this gentle reminder. It's so easy to forget what the writer needs because you are so focused on what the writing needs. Interesting that you mention 'writing muscles' - that's just how it feels to me. Sometimes I get out of shape and it's really hard work to do anything, it literally aches, but when I've built up regular practice I'm amazed at how far and how fast I can go.

Kristin said...

I have just begun reading Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" and have made the Morning Pages part of my daily routine. It was nice to stumble upon this advice at this time. Thank you for this helpful and inspiring post!

fiona said...

thanks for this - I've just sat up all night reading 'Something beginning with' and loved it... thank you!
I used to do morning pages (with a moan) until my partner found them and got upset; but i think I'll re-start them now :)