Creative Writing 101

So you want to be a writer. However you are not ready to jump into a pricey college or university to register for some creative writing program, which will inevitably push your parents to give you that “be practical/ starving artist” talk. Without handing over thousands of dollars, there are some rather practical ways to get yourself started.

Here are five ways to start.

1. Write: No other piece of advice means anything if you aren’t regularly slaving away by the glowing light of your monitor. Make writing a daily habit, whether it takes the form of journal entries, a few lines of a poem jotted on a café napkin, a few solid pages of prose saved on your hard drive, or even ideas composting in your head. While some writers like to set aside the same block of time each day to work on their craft, others find their creative rhythms more erratic and prefer to write when the urge hits. However unpredictable your creativity, write and write often.

2. Read: Be in love with language and the world of books. Read widely and read deeply. If all you ever read are paperback romances and pop fiction crime thrillers, chances are likely that your literary pursuits won’t immediately yield a masterpiece. Whatever your reading level is (that is, the quality of the works you’re reading), your level of writing will fall just below that in quality. If you want to publish poetry, for example, read poetry – and not just Shakespeare and Frost. Read what’s being written today. Check out the literary journals being published, peruse the bookstore shelves for new writers, talk to your librarians and get their recommendations. Just read.

3. Keep a notebook: The mental picture of the disheveled writer slumped over a typewriter can disappear in favor of the writer alive in the world, if you learn to use a notebook. Bits of dialogue overheard on public transit, images that hook your attention as you move through your day, ideas that pop into your head in the middle of a meeting at work – this is the stuff the notebook is made for. Think of it as a temporary and portable home for the fragments of your imagination, not just as a “dear diary” tool of therapy. Carry it with you whenever possible, and each month read back through everything you’ve jotted down. Some ideas may be worth mining, some lines may find a home in a story or poem you’re writing, and some may be illegible. Still, it’s writing.

4. Listen: Go to literary readings, coffeehouses, and bookstores. In addition, participate in the literary conversation of the writing world. This is not about getting “in” with the cool crowd and sipping endless amounts of coffee; this is about learning. Read what other writers have to say about the writing process, and try out some of their advice. At one time, they were beginning writers too. (Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, and Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative are some great places to start for fiction writers. Poets can try In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit, and The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes.)

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5. Practice: In other words, we’re back to the first piece of advice. No beginning pianist expects to sit down at the keyboard and play a concerto, let alone compose one. Learn to practice by starting small. Instead of jumping into a first novel or a six-volume epic poem, try perfecting an opening paragraph, a character sketch, a short chunk of dialogue, or a single metaphor. This is one rule of writing upon which all writers agree: the more you practice the craft, the better you’ll get.

Carla Funk teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She has published two collections of poetry, Blessing the Bones into Light (Coteau Books, 1999) and Head Full of Sun (Nightwood Editions, 2002), and continues to spend a lot of time practicing.]

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