Prepare to be inspired, fellow scribes! The Artist’s Way was one of the creative writing workshops; the rest of this best advice comes from a variety of writers’ sessions I attended this year.
Last night I attended a talk by Natalie Goldberg at the Vancouver Public Library. She’s the author of Writing Down the Bones. Unfortunately she didn’t share her best advice about creative writing because it wasn’t a workshop for writers. Rather, it a reading from her newest book, The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life.
I was disappointed that Goldberg was more intent on reading from her book rather than giving us writing tips. We were a crowd of published authors, aspiring writers, and freelance journalists who wanted to learn how to write. However, Goldberg was on a book tour – not a creative writing workshop. She invited the audience to ask questions in between readings, but she was very strict about limiting the number of questions (which were all about how to write, writer’s block, procrastination, etc). Her answers were short and sweet (“if you want to be a writer, pick up your pen and write”).
How do you feel about being read to by authors? I’m not a fan. I can read their books myself! I want to hear about their writing process, not listen to them read their own written words. But I understand that some fans love seeing their favorite authors in person and hearing them read from their latest books in their own voice.
But you’re not here to debate author readings and book tours, are you? You want to know the best pieces of advice from creative writing workshops I’ve recently attended.
In spite of not getting delicious writing secrets from Natalie Goldberg – or perhaps because I didn’t get any tips at all – this morning I woke up inspired to share the best advice I’ve recently been learning about creative writing.
7 Best Pieces of Advice From Creative Writing Workshops
Have you ever wondered why you get good ideas when you’re in the shower? The reason writers get awesome book, plot, and article ideas when they’re doing the dishes, mowing the lawn or walking anywhere is because our brains are marvellous.
For a creative idea to be produced, our brains must activate a number of different – and perhaps even contradictory – networks. Those mundane dishwashing and body washing chores give our brains a chance to burble and simmer.
Brainiac researchers from the University of Haifa believe that creativity is our ability to think in new and original ways to solve problems (for creative writers, the problem might be “how do I write the best advice on a topic that’s been written about a million times before?”). The problem is that not all original solutions are creative. If the idea is not fully applicable or reasonable, it’s not truly creative. It’s just odd.
So, even before the first piece of advice about creative writing is to give your brain time to do duel diligence. This means allow it to test both the originality and and the applicability of a creative idea.
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Let your brain and spirit, heart and soul, mind and body burble and simmer.
1. RE-READ books for creative writers many times (not just once)
I’m taking a 12 week-long workshop on The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I’ve read quickly through this book three times before, but this time it is having a huge and profoundly positive effect on my creativity, inspiration, writing, and blogging life.
For instance, I now better understand what Cameron means when she encourages writers to let God flow through us. I didn’t really get it before. Perhaps I didn’t allow Him to work because I was too busy trying to make money as a blogger.
One of the Basic Principles of The Artist’s Way is to open ourselves to exploring our creativity and to open ourselves to God. And here’s the best advice that I finally got after reading Cameron’s book several times over several years: I am at my best as a writer and as a human when I allow myself to be a channel or conduit. I must allow God’s insight, wisdom, and creativity to flow THROUGH me. And this 12 week creative writing workshop is teaching me how to do it.
Don’t read a book like The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron or Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott just once. Re-read those books every year. Soak them up, for they will help you find the best advice you need to hear about writing.
2. Don’t spend too much time reading, reading, reading
I know Stephen King’s best advice is to read, read, read. And write, write, write.
But I also know that writers get paralyzed and blocked when they spend too much time reading. Especially when they read great works of art!
Don’t just read. STUDY what makes great writing great. Really notice the use of language, sentence structure, imagery, symbolism. But PRACTICE your own writing. My best advice is that creative writing is a craft that can always be improved on. And the only way to improve is to write and edit, rewrite and keep editing.
“Play around. Dive into absurdity and write. Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.” – Natalie Goldberg.
3. Edit something you wrote 7 years ago
The best advice for becoming a better creative writer? Edit stuff you wrote at least a year ago. Seven years is better. If you have a blog – and if you’ve been been blogging for years – you have a veritable treasure chest of tools for improving your writing!
One of my favorite ways to practice my writing is to rewrite old blog posts. For instance, I just updated (but didn’t rewrite) 5 No-Fail Ways to Write a Great Conclusion. (My goal for this blog – Blossom in Your Writing – is to spruce up every one of my posts. I have 516 blog posts, so it will take time!) Updating my old blog posts helps me see the writing mistakes I most often make.
For example, I know two of my major writing weaknesses are:
- Overuse of !!!!!
- Too many dependent clauses at the beginning of my sentences. The sentence “For example, I know two of my major writing weaknesses are”” is a perfect example of that. I think.
What have you learned by rewriting or editing your old writing? Pay attention to that. This is one of the best pieces of advice you’ll ever get.
This tip may or may not be from a creative writing workshop – I can’t remember from whence it came. Maybe it came outta my own head! But it is one of the absolute best pieces of advice for writers: do a stern rewrite – or at least a serious edit – of something you wrote long ago in a place far away.
4. Be open – let creative ideas come to you
This tidbit circles back to the brain and creativity researched I mentioned at the top of this article: we need to allow our brains to simmer and burble. Our brains and hearts and souls are marvellous! They will give us ideas and inspiration – if we are open to them.
How do you open yourself to receive writing inspiration? Where do you get your best ideas? Julia Cameron’s best advice is writing Morning Pages. Anne Lamott’s best advice is writing “bird by bird.” I don’t know what Natalie Goldberg’s best advice is – perhaps I need to re-read Writing Down the Bones or The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language.
My best advice? I find myself deeply inspired when I go to writing workshops and creativity conferences. Anything learning-oriented gives me so many ideas and so much energy! Especially when I’m the student (I taught Language Arts and journalism for three years, and was not much inspired. I love listening and learning, not teaching).
5. Detach from your creatively written darling babies
William Faulkner’s best advice is to “kill your darlings.” This goes back to my third writing tip above: edit and revise your work with a sense of detachment. I discuss this quote in more detail in How to Find the Courage to Write.
If this isn’t one of the most common pieces of advice at writing conferences, it should be. Why? Because if you view your blog posts, magazine articles, nonfiction books, and based-on-a-true story memoirs as your darling babies, you won’t be able to cull the unnecessary fat. You’ll be wrecked when you get feedback that isn’t laudatory.
6. Know your obligation to your readers
My obligation to my Blossom blog readers is to find and share information that help them listen to the still small voice. I want to encourage people to lay down their burdens and Blossom into the people God created them to be! My obligation is to write articles that are encouraging, supportive, and helpful.
I’m learning that I’m also obliged to listen to God’s still small voice. I’m learning how to balance my need to write articles that will help pay the mortgage (for I cannot work for free) and my need to create a job that is meaningful and purposeful.
What is your obligation to your readers? Once you know that, you will find it much easier to recognize your own “best advice” – and you may not even have to attend writers’ conferences to find it.
7. Learn the difference between Should and Must
In my creative writing workshop, we watched a video of Elle Luna talk about her book The Crossroads Between Should and Must. She says lots of inspirational stuff about creativity and gives her best advice, which is awesome. You have to read the book.
Should is how people think you should be and what the world wants you to be. Must is who you are, what you believe, your calling.
From this video I learned that I feel I SHOULD answer every reader’s comment on my Blossom blogs. I feel I SHOULD give advice when they ask for it, even though I don’t believe in giving advice and even though I’m a writer not a counselor, and even though I put a little disclaimer at the end of every blog post saying I can’t give advice.
What MUST I do, as a creative writer? I must write. I must create blog posts. I must let God flow through me. I must be a channel, a conduit.
So far, this has been the best advice I got from the creative writing workshop I’m currently taking. We’re four weeks through a 12 week course, and I’m stoked about what else I’ll learn about creativity, writing, and God.
7 Bits of Best Advice From Creative Writing Workshops
To recap, here’s a quick list of what I discussed:
- RE-READ books for creative writers many times (not just once)
- Don’t spend too much time reading, reading, reading
- Edit something you wrote 7 years ago
- Be open – let creative ideas come to you
- Detach from your creative writing
- Know your obligation to your readers
- Learn the difference between Should and Must
I know there are dozens or maybe even hundreds of other pieces of “best advice” for writers. The only absolutes that stand the test of time for every writer is to learn as much as you can about writing, and write as much as you can hear.
What is your best advice about writing?
Have you attended a writers’ workshop recently – and what did you learn about writing? Tell me – I welcome your big and little thoughts in the comments section below.
Go well, fellow scribe. Write hard.