The Rules of Creative Writing

once-upon-a-time-719174__340Creative writing is what it is: creative.  And what that means to me is that there are no rules, except there are actually many.

Make a List of Creative Writing Rules

Stop for a minute, if you wish, and make a list of all of the creative writing rules you can think up.  How many on your list?  What are they? Where did you learn these rules?  Which ones do you follow, and are there any that you deliberately break?

My Creative Writing Rules

Here are the first three rules that came to my mind when I asked myself this question:

  1. Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  2. Every character must have a complete bio (if you don’t know your characters, how can you write about them?)
  3. Every story should start with a conflict.

And I could keep going.

Queen of the Writing Rules Hands Over Her Tiara

I’m the queen of process at work.  I keep detailed notes, I’ve created style guides in former lives, and I’m good at following them.  I’m not the very best editor that I know (I know lots of very smart people) but I know how to reference a style guide.  But that’s for writing non-fiction.

I think it’s time for Fiction to have a new Story.  (Yes, I just broke some writing rules with odd capitalization in the prior sentence.)

The new Story is that it’s okay to write something creative that is only a beginning, middle or end.  It’s also okay to write the ending or to write about characters who you know nothing about–yes, I’m granting myself the freedom to not take my characters out for a blood test before they appear on the page.

As part of my self-expression, I’m going to start writing the stories that start in my mind but don’t have a clear end.  In the creativity that is called life, you don’t always have to know the end before showing up at the starting line.

Journal, If You Wish

Choose a writing rule, and break it. It can be a big one or a small one.  Join me in writing story beginnings, middles, or ends that exist on their own and characters who you haven’t background checked.

Rachel

 

Optimizing Your Writing Space

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As a creative writer, there are many layers to your work. There’s the actual writing process, and there’s your writing place.  Today, I’m going to talk about how I optimize my writing space and give you ideas on how you can optimize your own.

Where do you like to write, and how do you optimize your space?

My Creative Space

I like to go to a coffee shop on Sunday afternoons to work on my classes.  It feels good to get out.  On my walk there, I can think about whatever comes to mind.  I like the coffee there, they have free wifi, they have outlets so I can plug in my computer, and they have treats if I get hungry.  Oh yeah, this place is Starbucks.  Because while I enjoy supporting my local independent shops, this is just the best place in the area to work.

The one thing I can’t stand at this Starbucks is the music that they blast LOUDLY in the store. It’s mostly awful with an ok song thrown in once in a while.

So, I have a Spotify account, and comfortable headphones, and I write/work to loud 80’s music and sometimes hip-hop or rap.  This puts me in a good place where I can mentally focus and enjoy the process.  There may be some secret dancing thrown in for good measure.

Now that I’ve learned that I like to have headphones on while writing, I’m transferring this trick to my work at home.  When it’s Tuesday night and I’m grading papers, I can pour a glass of wine or pop up a cold club soda, put on my headphones, and get engaged in a really good grading zone, where I’m enjoying learning from my students and giving them quality feedback.

Creative Writing Teachers

Creative writing teachers, what can you take from this for your students?  I know that I have some students who are barely comfortable doing an in-class brainstorming exercise, but that they’ll do it if they know that they don’t have to share.  How can you encourage your students to find a comfortable writing place in class or out of class?

Your Optimal Writing Space

What’s your preferred writing environment?  If you don’t have one yet, I think you should try a few different ones.  Try different seats (couch, bed, desk chair?), different places (living room, office, coffee shop), different types of music or none at all.  Think about how you feel in each space, how much you enjoy or dislike the writing process in the different spaces, and look for the common denominators.

Journal about what you currently do that works or journal about your discovery process.

A Caveat

Don’t let the “lack” of the “perfect” writing space stop you from writing. Your writing has value, and you can write from almost anywhere.  You don’t need the perfect song or the ultimate desk–those are just tools to help you.

Self-Expression: Art Therapy Activities

Art therapy with crayons
Art and a sketchpad

“The simple act of creative expression connects us with an inner-self of vitality.”–Doreen Meister, MA, MFT

Meister is an expressive arts therapist who practices out of Oakland, Calif.  I recently read an article where she discussed the benefits of art therapy and gave three techniques that you can try yourself.

The article “3 Art Therapy Techniques for Anxiety” talks about the importance of art for calming the nervous system and allowing people to work through things that may be troubling them.  Says Meister: “when we’re focused on creating, our minds shift from worrisome ruminations.”

Art Therapy: Another Tool for Self-Expression

I happened to have a sketchbook and box of crayons on hand, so I decided to modify one of the activities from the article: select a crayon, draw a squiggle across the page, flip the page over, decide what the squiggle reminded me of, and turn it into some sort of drawing.

For someone who doesn’t draw, this activity was fun for me.  Starting with a squiggle is easy…and there’s no pressure to draw “real art.”  I turned my squiggle into a ghost family holding hands by a river. I think they must be fishing in a forest because I think the brown lines filled in with green represent a wooded area of trees.  There’s grass on the other side of the river, and they’ve all signed their name: ghost, ghost, ghost, ghost, and ghost.  img_7200

I also had fun just coloring on a blank sheet of paper.  If you haven’t colored for a few years, give it a try.  Even writing your name in crayons or drawing simple shapes can turn into a hour of self-expression!

Journal, if you wish

If you want to take it one step further, you can journal about what your picture means to you or how it connects to your daily life.

Read 3 Art Therapy Techniques to Deal with Anxiety at Psych Central for specific ways to use drawing with crayons as ways to deal with anxiety.

How Not to Teach a Writing Class

Interesting that I’ve been thinking about how to be the best writing teacher, and I happened to come across this old episode of Grace Under Fire that shows how NOT to teach creative writing.  Watch from about 10:52 until 12:40 to see an example of creating a non-safe space writing environment!

Journal, if you wish: I know it’s just a clip from an old television show, but have you ever had a writing teacher be so critical that you had no interest in sharing your work?  If you watch the rest of the episode, what do you think about Grace’s response?

https://goo.gl/YSmxsJ

Psychological Safety and Creativity

Mom and son at La Jolla Shores
Mom and son playing on the beach at La Jolla Shores: trust and fun.

This morning, I was reading a study published in Harvard Business Review about how high performing teams need psychological safety to perform at their best.

This made me think about creative people: I think a majority of creators need psychological safety to perform AT ALL and certainly to perform at their best.

What is Psychological Safety?

The article defines psychological safety as the belief that you won’t be punished if you make a mistake.  I liked these quotes from the article:

Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off .”

“Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.

Psychological Safety in the Classroom

As a creative person and a creative writing instructor, these quotes make me think about the importance of safety for creative writers.  I think it’s important to create an atmosphere where students can take risks with their writing without fear of embarrassment or humiliation, but still benefit from valuable feedback to help them continue to grow as writers.

So, what is the sweet spot and the most effective way to give feedback while preserving creativity?

I think the answer is in the second quote above: building a classroom setting that prioritizes trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration so that students feel safe first…and then work towards resiliency, motivation, and persistence, all important attributes for published writers.

I’ll keep working on a way to put this thought into practice and will share in a future post.

Journal, if you wish:

How do you create your own inner atmosphere that allows you to feel good about creating? What elements are part of your own safety zone?

Write about a time when a teacher helped you feel safe about creating.  Why did you feel that way and how could you replicate it?

 

 

Safe Space Creativity

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My classroom at UC San Diego Extension

I’ve been reading about the idea of “trauma sensitive” or “trauma inspired” yoga.  I believe that some of the same concepts can apply to creative writing.  How many people are scared to journal or be creative because of bad experiences they’ve had in the past?

With this new understanding, I like the idea of creating a safe space for people to be creative. As a writing teacher, I pledge to my students:

  1. To encourage your participation as a valued class member, but to never force it.  You can share as much or little as you like.
  2. To create a classroom free from competition, where everyone’s work is valued.
  3. To respect the fact that you’ve shared your personal writing with me–that takes courage, and I respect it.
  4. To offer you the level of corrections that you are ready to receive, which could range from support and cheerleading to more vigorous copy edits.

As a creative writing student, how do you feel in your writing classes? What could your teachers do to provide you with a better experience?