10 Strategies to Unblock Writer’s Block

A conversation in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group got me thinking about this issue again. That conversation was initiated by Julianna Baggot’s blog post Is Writer’s Block a Form of Self-Protection.

First, let me just say that I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I do believe there are many reasons why we don’t write, and that some people call these reasons writer’s block. I believe it’s a concept; I just don’t believe the concept is helpful.

I face what some people would call writer’s block constantly. Starting a new poem, deciding what to write next, trying to decide whether the project I’m working on is a book or a bunch of words that I’ve arranged to look like poems, deciding whether I’m a writer or someone who wastes time with words, fighting to make time to write when there are a million other pressing concerns: all these could be considered aspects of writer’s block. But naming them that doesn’t help me find solutions to those problems. Instead, considering those as part of the writing process — an unavoidable part, perhaps, but also a part of the process that every writer must face — does help.

So here are a few strategies I’ve found that can be helpful in overcoming what some people call writer’s block and I prefer to think of as a stage of pre-writing. It is a stage that can feel like a block when we allow it (or even encourage it) to go on too long and consume our energies, rather than allowing it to lead to productive writing.

  1. Rumination. Sometimes what we think of as writer’s block is simply the necessary phase of dormancy. Instead of actively writing, we are searching for the next thing to write. Our minds aren’t ready to put words on paper, and we don’t have a direction to write in. Calling this phase writer’s block makes it sound like a problem, something to be overcome, when in fact it may be a quiet period that the writer needs to embrace. Thinking that you’re ‘blocked’ leads to stress. Enjoy this time to refuel, and don’t push too hard to get a new project started. To keep from getting stuck in this phase, though, you can begin writing without purpose just to see what might come out. Free writing is a good tactic in this phase. The point of free writing is not to create something good, but simply to explore and see what happens.
  2. Finding Direction. After rumination or maybe as part of that process, writers often are searching for a new direction to write. After completing a novel or even a book or cycle of poems, writers often report casting about, looking for the next big project. Writing prompts and exercises can often help in this stage. The goal is not to complete the exercise and get a great piece of writing. The goal of the exercise or prompt is to distract you. The stress of needing to start something often gets in the way of writing. Because we want it to be a poem, a story, an essay, or heaven forbid, the next novel, we don’t know how to start that. Writing an exercise lets us write without worrying about what we’re starting (other than to follow the prompt). As we do that, often something completely unrelated comes out. After writing several exercises, those unrelated elements may start to add up. The exercises didn’t give you the content that will become your next project, but they did keep you distracted from the need to have a project, so you were able to write about those things and then recognize the project in them. Distraction is often the best way to combat what many think of as writers’ block.
  3. Finding Time. Another thing that gets in the way of writing, especially when we are between projects, is the fact that most of us are incredibly busy. If you don’t have a pressing deadline for a writing project or aren’t energized by being in the midst of a project, then it’s easy to let those work projects or house projects that have piled up take over every spare moment of your life. On the one hand, those are also necessary, and completing those tasks can free you to write later. They can also be a vital part of the process of rumination — keeping busy while you think about writing. But ultimately, if you’re going to get back to writing, you need to make time for it. Taking time away to focus entirely on writing by attending a writing retreat can seem like a luxury. But even if you can’t do that, you can schedule time for writing every day or several times a week. In those scheduled times, make sure you have something to write. Doing prompts or free writing can be a great way to get warmed up. Keep your expectations low: plan to write a list or write a paragraph or write random words; don’t plan to write a poem or a story until you know you have an idea for one. Just write. Doing that, and allowing yourself to write drivel is often the only way to get back to writing something you care about. Usually there is something of value in what you write, though you may not recognize it until much later. But even if none of what you write can be salvaged, it is still worthwhile if it eventually gets you to something you do care to write about.
  4. Journaling. One way to keep writing is to keep a journal. A journal is not meant to be published or even publishable work. It is a free space for writing ideas, observations, lists, rough embarrassing drafts, etc. Sometimes, what causes ‘writer’s block’ is a subject that we need to write about but we don’t know how to make it public. It may be an issue that so consumes us that we can’t write about anything else, but we’re not sure we want anyone else to read (or that we think no one else will be interested in). My advice is to write about it anyway, but write it first in a private journal. Write your way through a difficult subject, and eventually you will be able write about other subjects, too. You may well find that there are portions of the journal that can be made into a public document. Write it first in all its raw honesty, and then cull out the parts that you aren’t willing to share and keep the parts you can share with the world. Or change the names and disguise the circumstances so that you can create enough distance between you and that subject. When writing, know that it never has to be public. When revising, choose what to keep and how you want to make it public.
  5. Banish Your Inner Censor. There is a time in the writing process when we make value judgments, but in the early stages of any project, we really need to keep our inner censor at bay. If we worry too much at the outset whether something will be good enough, we will never write it, so how will we find out? If we have too many preconceived notions about the form or the ending of a piece, we are not free to explore wherever it might lead. If we worry what others will think, we can’t be honest with ourselves. So learning to write without expectations can be extremely valuable. The draft of a poem I write isn’t a poem, but it is a draft that I can refine and rewrite until I’m happy with it. The first draft of a story may be clunky and ill-conceived, but as long has there is something of interest in it for me as the writer, I can revise until that something is apparent to the reader. Writer’s block often happens when we worry too much about the final product and don’t allow ourselves the messy early stages of writing. If we expect the first draft to look like the final product, then we will be continually dissatisfied. If we allow for the fact that all good writing goes through multiple revisions until the final product is distilled from the rough beginnings, then we give ourselves license to begin.
  6. Follow a Form. Often contradictory advice can be useful, and though this tactic contradicts the absolute freedom I’ve been advocating, it can be helpful. A form is essentially a writing prompt. If I try to write a sonnet, I will write something to fit that form. If I decide to write a modern epic or follow any other recognizable pattern, I will find content to fit the pattern. The value of the form is that it forces you to write content that you didn’t intend. To meet the demands of form, you have stretch yourself beyond your limits. Form can lead to valuable surprises. Be willing to reconsider the form at a later stage of the process, but try using a form to generate unexpected content.
  7. Write Different. Sometimes the best way to get out of a pattern of not writing is to try something completely different. The fiction writer who turns to nonfiction or the poet who turns to drama can often stimulate their creativity in the unfamiliar territory. If you’ve been successful at writing in one form, the demands of continuing that success may get in your way, so try a different form where you aren’t the expert. This may give you more freedom to write in ways your inner censor would normally block. Consider blogging or writing creatively on social media or another platform that you’re not comfortable with. Give yourself limitations — novelists might try flash fiction; free verse poets might try haiku. Or break your limits: poets might try prose or longer lines; short story writers or essayists might try longer forms. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone to find the creative tensions that come with new forms.
  8. Set Attainable Goals. Giving yourself a goal or deadline can be helpful in getting back to writing or remaining productive. But keep the goal attainable. It is probably not the best idea to have as your goal that you will write a novel by a specific date (unless you have a contract with a publisher and need to have it finished!). Rather, it is more productive to set goals like writing a certain number of words every day or sitting down to write and actually writing something, regardless of its merit. Once you’ve started writing, then your goals can become clearer. Maybe you’ll realize those words are part of a novel or an essay, and you’ll keep working on that project. Maybe those poems will begin to take shape as a series of poems. Maybe you’ll find the content that you want to keep returning to: whether that is a character and plot or a time and place in your memory or a subject you decide to research for your next project. Set goals that work for the stage you are at in your writing process, and be willing to modify those goals as the project evolves.
  9. Collaborate. Working with others can be the best incentive to keep writing. If your writing partner is looking for your next installment of a shared project, you don’t want to let that person down. Hopefully you collaborate with someone you trust, so that when you send them something you aren’t 100% sure of, they will take what you’ve written and run with it. Another form of collaboration is translation. If you find you don’t have a lot of ideas coming, then work with someone else’s ideas in another language or in another form. If you don’t speak another language, adapt a work from an earlier era to the present. Once you get working with it, allow your own ideas to infuse the work. Listen to music, go to an art museum, go to a reading or read other writers. These are all forms of collaboration that can lead to ideas. If those are specifically about the work of art, then you may have ekphrastic writing. If the other artist leads you to ideas that are mostly your own, then you are simply taking part in the great conversation of art. Often at a reading, ideas for a poem or a character will come that have nothing to do with what the writer is reading: the sound of their words may have called up a memory or a thought, but it isn’t directly related to the other writer’s content. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, in other words, go in search of it.
  10. Let Others Read Your Writing. Often what we call writers block isn’t really an inability to write. Don’t we all write emails, memos, texts, grocery list, and other practical things every day? We are able to put words on paper. We simply think that none of our writing has merit or is creative. This is the perfect time to give it to someone else. Don’t tell them what they should find in it; listen to what they say they did find that was valuable. Often we are surprised that someone else responds to work we think isn’t good enough. That doesn’t mean we can’t still revise and make it better, but the voice of encouragement from someone we trust can be exactly what we need to embark upon that journey.

The main situation where I encounter writer’s block in others is in the creative writing classroom. There we have a built-in incentive to get over it: a grade. Yet this can also put an incredible amount of stress on the writer. This is why I emphasize the writing process and the reality that no writing is good enough in a first draft. The goal of a class is not to make the writing perfect, but it is to make it better. I value improvement and growth as a writer over perfection. And students in a class have the support system of the class—other students and the instructor, who want them to succeed. Of course, there are also aspects of form that we’ve studied that I want the writer to pay attention to in their finished work. Value is part of my final grade determination, but it shouldn’t be an issue in the beginning, and it shouldn’t be the final arbiter for the grade. I have found that with some encouragement and with some combination of these strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. Sometimes writer’s block is an excuse or a crutch that a student uses to rationalize why they haven’t written. Treating it as a real issue, but not as an insurmountable obstacle, helps the writer start writing. When I’ve faced my own incredibly busy schedules or the lack of direction between major projects (or when yI’ve been stalled on a project), I’ve tried many of these strategies myself. Sometimes have been easier than others, but I’m still writing so they must work.

Value in Residency

We are in the midst of our low-residency MFA’s intense 10-day full residency period. We hardly notice weekends or holidays (except we have the campus pretty much to ourselves on those days, and I need to lock and unlock out building!). This year, we did take a little break on Memorial Day, and that got me thinking about the value of these residencies — it confirmed what I thought as we were creating the program.

Yes, part of the value is that we get to do a different kind of workshopping. Yesterday, we met in the morning, as usual, for 2 hours of discussion of 2 texts that had previously been workshopped in other classes. We haven’t all been in the same classes together, so the texts were new to some of us and familiar to others. We had a couple of poems by one writer and a play script by another. These workshops are cross-genre, so we are exposed to writing that is outside of our comfort zone. We look at the work as art, not just in terms of how to fix it or make it better, but also in terms of what it says about the artist who wrote it.

Then we broke for lunch, followed by our afternoon seminar on writing the thesis. Our two students who had just defended theirs led the discussion and gave some great practical advice. Afterwards, instead of our usual mentoring conferences and evening reading, we adjourned until dinner.

We had intended a cookout at Plymouth Bluff, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate. Actually, it would have turned out okay had we gone, but the forecast gave a 60% chance of thunderstorms, and we didn’t have much indoor room to shelter, so we opted to stay on campus and have our cookout in the building where one of our faculty is staying. We ‘grilled’ burgers in the oven and ate, either on the porch or at a big table indoors, depending on your preference. We ate and talked and joked, and stayed together about as long as we would have if we had had our evening reading.

The course content is on part of the value of residency, but the other part — I’d say bigger part, but they really are intertwined and can’t be separated or measured separately — is the social aspect. In residency, we build community. We laugh together, talk together, eat together, and become much more than classmates. I can’t imagine teaching in a fully online creative writing program, though the ease of organizing it without having to deal with food, lodging, travel, etc. would be tempting. Without these times together, we wouldn’t be a program. We would merely be isolated students and teachers in classes, and the experience would feel artificial and impersonal. We would not form the bonds we form when we come together.

Summer Residency

This afternoon our Low-Residency MFA program starts its summer Full Residency class — 10 intense days of workshops, seminars, and readings. It’s been a ton of work to get it ready, and I hope everything will go well! All our food is ordered, and the restaurant reservations have been made. Workshop groups have been set up, and students have been exchanging texts. The syllabus is ready, speakers are lined up… now the time for prep is nearly over (okay, there are a few minor details to attend to and a little food to get), and then everyone will start to arrive (at least one is already in town).

That’s when the real excitement begins. It’s why we set the program up as a low-residency, not a fully online program, which may have been much easier. But seeing our students face-to-face, having a chance to host readings, workshopping together in the same room, trading ideas about how to live the life of a writer in our seminars, and generally just getting to hang out together, that’s what makes the program work as well as it does.

Online classes are great — and much better than they used to be — with video conferencing and discussion boards. It almost feels like you’re in a real class (except for the constant technical difficulties with the server or someone’s connection or software configuration — there will probably always be something!), but almost is never quite a good as the real thing. Yes, it takes an amazing effort to put it all together, and it takes our students an amazing effort to get here, but once we’re all in the same room, it really is worth it.

And this year, we’ll have our first two students defend their Master’s theses. We’ll get to sit down and talk to them about the exciting book manuscripts they’ve been working on — what may still need to be done and what successes and challenges they’ve had. It will be a bitter-sweet moment because it will mean they’ve completed a major project and completed the program, but it will also mean they’ll soon no longer be our students, but will remain our colleagues and friends. And a good number of the students in our program will be here to witness — not the defense itself, but the accomplishment and their public readings.

So let’s hope I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and let’s hope there are no crises like last year (when a restaurant had to close the night of our reservation!). And no matter what happens, we’ll all have a great time!

Talking about Meter

Meter has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in Creative Writing, and how you handle it can make or break your students’ experience of writing poetry. Some teachers probably ignore it altogether, which seems a shame, yet others quickly get into the weeds and make poetry seem complicated and impossible to write, which is another kind of shame that’s easy to do. In my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, I try to take a middle path by introducing concepts of meter and feet, but not stressing them too much. I also try to explain why it’s so complicated, which I’d like to get into in a little more detail here.

When working on the proofs for A Writer’s Craft, the editors wondered why I didn’t give a one-word example for pyrrhic, like I had for all the other feet. About the only example I could come up with is “uh-uh”, but even that could be pronounced differently, depending on the context. A pyrrhic foot has two unstressed syllables. But it’s impossible not to stress a syllable at all, so I like to say it has two less stressed syllables. Less than what? Less stressed than the other syllables that surround it.

In performance, I might pronounce “uh-uh”  with the accent on the first “uh” or the second “uh,” or I might pronounce them the same relative to the other stressed syllables around them. Any examples I find for the pyrrhic foot (or dibrach) can be viewed the same way, and most examples of the spondee (with two stressed syllables) are suspect: viewed in isolation, we probably stress one syllable of a pair more than the other, but in a sentence when surrounded by other unstressed syllables, the spondee stands out. (The word is a pretty good example of the foot, but whether you say SPONdee or sponDEE or SPONDEE may depend on your preference and the words in the sentence around it.) With no words around it, our example, “uh-uh,” might sound like a spondee (“UH-UH”), an iamb (“uh-UH”), a trochee (“UH-uh”), or a pyrrhic foot (“uh-uh”). The way you pronounce it may also affect the meaning. So I chose to leave the example blank.

Disclaimer: all of my examples of metrical feet in the textbook are a little misleading because they are words. Typically, when scanning a line of poetry, the feet in the line and the words in the line don’t match up. A word may have parts of a couple of feet in it, or a foot may be made up of more than one word. Often the foot starts in one word and ends in the next, and the next foot starts in that same word. Some polysyllabic words may even have parts of more than two feet in them.

Looking words up in the dictionary is only a partial help. The dictionary usually marks the strongest stress in the word, but when scanning poetry, relative stress is also taken into account, and sometimes there is a syllable in a polysyllabic word that has more stress than most syllables, even if it isn’t the most-stressed syllable in the word. “Polysyllabic” is a good example, since I would stress the first and the fourth syllables, though I would probably stress the fourth slightly more than the first. Syllables two, three, and five definitely have the least stress.

When looking for examples of metrical feet, I came across an example of a scanned poem by James Merrill that illustrates my point of how difficult and subjective it can be to  scan a poem. The example is at the OWL at Purdue, which I respect, so I don’t raise it to criticize them but to consider the challenges of scansion. For now, I’ll ignore the fact that the example poem, “A Downward Look,” is in free verse, so scanning it may be anathema. Their attempt, though often good, raises some issues. For instance, in the third line of the poem, they scan the word “luxurious” as having 4 syllables, which is true, but in performance it often sounds like 3 with the accent on the middle syllable. In the scanned line, OWL seems to end the line with an anapest (they don’t mark the divisions between feet, so it’s a little hard to tell). I’d probably call it an iamb with “ious” sounding more like “yus” than “ee-ous” and ending on the stressed syllable “bath.” The full line, scans well either way: “Foam on a long, luxurious bath” with one trochee and then 3 iambs or 2 iambs and an anapest, depending on your pronunciation. Both the trochee and the anapest would be acceptable variant feet in a mostly iambic line.

Another bothersome line is the first line of the third couplet, “Over the protuberances fault,” which OWL scans as having only 3 stresses: “OVer the proTUBerances FAULT.” The dictionary would agree that the most stressed syllable in “protuberance” is the second, yet it also notes a secondary stress on the last syllable. Scanning, “erances” as three unstressed syllables is problematic, since that’s rare. You could say this line contains a dactyl “OVer the” followed by an amphibrach “proTUBer” followed by an anapest “-ances FAULT.” But that would be a very muddy rhythm indeed, with no clear pattern and completely different from the rest of the poem. More likely is that the line falls into iambs after an initial dactyl “OVer the | proTUB | erANC| es FAULT.” The stresses aren’t all even, but they are all more stressed than the surrounding syllables. And if you wanted to scan it as a trochee followed by an anapest and then two iambs, there wouldn’t be much difference other than where you divide foot one from foot two.

There aren’t always hard and fast rules for scansion, in other words. You need to listen to the pattern of stress in the line, not only think about the stress in the words. And ideally, you begin to recognize a pattern of stress in the lines and stanzas of the poem, which will help you decide how hear the dominant rhythms and variant feet.

In this example, I would also hear two stresses in the word “radiates” of the fifth stanza, which makes that line a regular iambic line. And in the last line of the example “Happens upon the plug,” I would scan it as a trochee followed by two iambs, stressing the second syllable of “upon,” rather than the first as OWL does it. The dominate rhythm of the poem seems to be iambic, and there are a few alternate feet for variety or for effect. Usually there is only one alternate foot in a line or the difference isn’t very noticeable, such as an anapest in a mostly iambic line (which only adds an unstressed syllable).

What makes it a free verse poem, rather than a metrical poem, is that the line lengths vary  from three to five feet (trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines) and there isn’t a consistent pattern. The fourth stanza is even one line, whereas the rest are couplets.

It may not make sense to scan a free verse poem, but doing so can illustrate that rhythm is important, even if there isn’t a meter. Free verse has patterns of rhythm, though they can be looser and less regular.

Introducing meter as something to listen for and learn about is worthwhile in the introductory classroom, but it’s important to stress that rhythm often varies by performance and virtually no poem in meter holds slavishly to the dominant foot. Most will include variant feet for variety or to better show the emotion in the line. This is one reason I introduce rhythm in an early chapter on language, and then look at meter again later when talking about poetry.

Scanning poetry is complicated and frustrating, but it can also be a good group activity where everyone can laugh at their own attempts to figure it out. I’ve had students clap, tap their desks, or even bring in percussion instruments to break the ice and help them recognize the more stressed syllables in a line. Make it a game, and acknowledge that there’s rarely one perfectly right answer. Even the experts can get it wrong, and poets rarely scan their poems — they listen. Develop an ear for meter, and you can ignore all the Greek terms and diacritical marks, and just enjoy the rhythms of language.

Another Creative Writing Myth Debunked

Stories and Poems Were Written the Way We Read Them

This isn’t a myth we teach, which is one reason I didn’t included it with my previous post: 5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked. Instead, it is one I find a lot of students have when they come to my class. Maybe we all have it, but it’s one we constantly need to remind ourselves doesn’t have to be so.

Stories and poems usually aren’t written from the first sentence to the last in the order we read them. Yes, sometimes that happens, but often the first sentence of a story or the first line of a poem may be moved or discarded before a draft is finalized. The conclusion may be written first, or the first written paragraph may end up somewhere in the middle of the final piece.

Writers don’t sit down with a poem or a story in mind. We sit down to write. We write some things on the page, and we find the story or poem in it. Revision is about more than  ‘fixing the problems’ in a draft. It is about re-envisioning that draft and finding the best way to write what we discover.

It’s probably easier to write down a poem in the order you want it because it’s easier to carry a poem around with you in your head for awhile before you ever write a draft. Many poets work this way, and they may have a pretty good sense of the final poem before they ever commit it to paper. That doesn’t make that the best strategy! Sometimes it’s better to just write words on paper and not worry about how to start a poem. Many poets don’t even think about line breaks or stanzas in their first draft. They just write the words and worry about the form later.

Many times, writers block seems to come because people don’t know how to get started, but if you start in the middle or if you start before the beginning, then the pressure is off. Of course, we want a great opening line to a poem or first paragraph to a story! But the pressure to start with that great opening makes it nearly impossible to write. So just start writing, and worry about what the opening will be later.

In the same way, we want to keep writing until we get to the end of a piece. But often I talk to students who are stuck at a given point in a story, and I encourage them to take a scene they do think they know and write it. Don’t worry about how to get from point B to point G. Just write what you know you want to include and connect the dots later, if you need to.

A poem is the same way. It might be written in perfectly reasonable stanzas and lines, yet lack energy. Taking those lines, rearranging them, changing the line breaks, cutting out the dead wood, finding new connections between images or just allowing the images to resonate without any explanation, putting the poem through the blender, in other words, and then sorting out the pieces, all can lead to a better final draft.

But the myth comes from the fact that we tend to read finished stories and poems. We don’t see the messy process that led to the final product. We think that the writer had an idea, wrote it, then refined it, and ended up with the final draft. What often happens is that a writer has a vague idea of what he wants to write, stumbles towards it, gets lost, finds another path, discovers something worth pursuing, then comes back later and tries to make sense of all the mess. What we see when we read the final draft is the sense that was made. We don’t see the messy process that led the writer there. So when we sit down to write, we criticize ourselves for the mess we produce, rather than digging in, rearranging, sorting and sifting to find the meaning and the form that will reveal it, and obstinately stumbling forward to that final product.

5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked

We all do it. We perpetuate these myths, and often they can be good advice and even good teaching tools, yet just as often these five catch phrases can create stumbling blocks. They aren’t right for everyone in every situation.

Know Your Characters’ Motivation

This is the myth that started me thinking about writing this post. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with knowing your character’s motivation when writing a scene. In fact, it’s one piece of advice I give in the chapter on character in my textbook, A Writer’s Craft. It’s just that this advice often leads to the assumption that writers always have to psychoanalyze our characters. Sometimes you don’t have to understand why your character does what she does. It may be enough to know what and how she does it, and let yourself and your readers wonder why. Writers are keen observers. We watch what people do and how they act. We often wonder about what motivates people, but we don’t have to have all the right answers. Our characters don’t have to figure out all of their foibles and be perfect humans by the end of our stories. Sometimes the motivation is a mystery for the writer, the character, and the reader, but the mystery is precisely what is intriguing. I haven’t stopped handing out this advice, in other words, but I do it with the reservation that there are some things we just can’t know.

Write What You Know

Here’s another valuable piece of advice that I’d like to reexamine. It’s true that it can be easier and more comfortable to write what you already know. You are on more certain ground and are less likely to make mistakes that would lose the trust of your readers. But it can also be exciting to write about places you’ve never been or subjects that you are only just learning about. This can provide a level of mystery and exploration for the writer that can drive a piece of writing in ways and directions that writing about familiar terrain can never reach. So I prefer to rephrase this as “Know What You Write.” This may mean you know it already or it may mean that you need to do significant research, and probably this means experiential research — going out and doing the things you’re writing about or digging deep into the study of the subject you want to write about. Surface knowledge is rarely enough. You need to live and breathe what you write until it does become what you know. By the time you are finished writing, “Write What You Know” makes sense, in other words, but in the beginning, it could be that you decide to write about an unknown subject in order to explore it thoroughly and intimately in the process of writing.

Show Don’t Tell

This is one myth that I firmly believe — most of the time. I’m an advocate of the image, and I’m always trying to get student writers to show me more. But even as I do that, I am always a little uncomfortable treating it as a rule of law. There are plenty of times in writing that we do want to tell. A poem may have no images and still be a poem if it has form or if it experiments with language. A story may begin with a scene or it may begin with narration. I’ve known a few stories (and have even written one or two) that relied primarily on narration with very little scene. The flow of language in a prose paragraph can be just as inviting as an image, and the thought behind a story is sometimes best placed in the foreground. So I want images, sometimes I even demand them, but I also want to acknowledge the times and forms where showing might take a back seat to telling.

Write From Your Muse

We all want to be inspired. We all want to find the subjects or the material that make us eager to write. We long for the moments when writing comes natural and feels like it’s hardly any work at all. But we also can waste a lot of time and energy waiting for the muse to arrive or being frustrated that the writing feels more like a slog through the mud than a sprint to the finish. When inspiration becomes an unattainable muse, then we may feel like we aren’t writers or that we have writer’s block when the muse doesn’t show up very often. When we instead acknowledge that the inspired moment is the rare anomaly, or that inspiration comes more often when we put in the work than when we wait for it to happen, then we are moving down the path of the professional writer. Writing without purpose, not knowing if the work you are doing will be productive or not, but doing it anyway because it is writing: that’s the hard part. But writing for the sake of writing, trying out an idea even if you’re not sure if it’s ‘inspired,’ is often what’s needed to get you to the inspired moment you long to have. Without the first stumbling five lines or ten pages, the poem or story may never get started. Once you have a sense of where you’re going with a piece, you’re more likely to feel inspired about it, but getting there takes courage, dedication, or just pure obstinance. Worshipping a muse can make it seem unattainable; bringing it down to earth and thinking of writing as a process that sometimes takes effort can also make it seem more manageable.

Write Every Day

This is probably the best advice I’ve given, yet it is also advice that I’m rarely able to follow. To not sound like a hypocrite, the practical advice might be: write regularly and often, and try to do it more and more often. The problem with the advice to write every day is that we feel like a failure when we don’t. And who is able to really keep this up all the time? There may be periods when you can write every single day (or 5-6 days a week)  and there may be periods where writing a few times a week is a struggle. We have to learn to live our lives and still call ourselves writers, yet we also need to strive for good writing habits. The more regular your writing time is, the more likely you’ll be ready and able to write when it arrives. But professors have different daily schedules, so I often have some days when its easier to work in writing and other days when it’s more of a challenge. If I can write three days a week and find ways to work in some writing when I can on the other days, that’s pretty good. If I can build in some writing retreats or extended periods where I focus on nothing but writing, that’s even better. But the reality of most days is that writing competes with so many other obligations that maintaining a daily writing time is a challenge. Finding ways to cope with a challenging schedule and to keep the writing going helps, but sometimes it is also good to acknowledge that life happens and the goal of writing every day can be unattainable. Rather than beating ourselves up for failing at that goal, isn’t it much more productive to try to do the best we can to write as often and as regularly as possible?

These were the five myths I came up with when I sat down to write on this topic. There are probably more. What myths do you struggle with in your writing?

 

Creative Writing Final Exam

This is a follow-up post to my series on teaching a 4-genre introductory creative writing class: Why 4 Genres?How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part IHow I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part IIHow I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part III, and Teaching Creative Writing with Literary Magazines. All have been written as worked on the proofreading for my multi-genre textbook, A Writer’s Craft, which has now gone through final proofing. Exam copies should be available soon!

This semester, I’ve tried to describe my process of teaching creative writing, and now that we reach the end of the semester and our Full Class Workshops are over, we are turning to the final exam.

When I first came to Mississippi University for Women, I was told we were required to have a final in every class — in part, this was due to meeting the contact hour requirements for a semester. When I started teaching creative writing, I initially chafed at the idea, thinking the final portfolio ought to be enough. However, since it was a requirement, I set about creating an exam that made sense for the class. One reason I didn’t mind, especially since I require hard copies of portfolios, is that it gave me one last chance to see my students and return their portfolios. It also allowed students some more time for reflection.

Over the years, I’ve given many different permutations of the exam, and I realize there’s no perfect one, but a few things have remained constant or at least been popular variations. One has been to include a writing exercise. I might bring in a number of objects or photographs and ask student to write about whatever they like related to the prompt. I’ve had some good work come out of this last exercise, and it relieves some of the stress of the exam.

Another question that I’ve used, which I’ve usually given in advance, is to write a self-assessment of their writing. I assign this after they turn in their portfolio, and I collect it after the portfolio is graded and as it is returned, so my comments don’t influence their self-assessment, and they know their comments won’t affect my grade. I find this a very valuable exercise for most writers.

I may ask questions about the genres that we’ve studied, but I try not to ask for the kind of detail I’ve quizzed them on earlier in the semester (I give them 4 tests in the early weeks of the semester, so they can show they understood the material as we covered it.) On the final exam, the questions are more open-ended and allow students to tell me what they know and to use some of the terms we’ve discussed, but not to have to define terms or recall specific ones. They can describe the topic in their own words, too.

I often ask a question about the workshop experience and about the comments from other students that were most influential to their revision or the comments they gave others that were most insightful (in their opinion). I want students to reflect on the workshop experience, and I often get their opinions of the small group workshops and the full class workshops at the beginning and end of the semester respectively.

I want students to review and reflect before they come to the final because that will help reinforce what they’ve learned. But I don’t want them to have to memorize or cram for the exam, since that would defeat the purpose.

I always enjoy grading these exams, and they give me valuable insights into what has worked well this semester and what I may want to try next semester.