Creativity Rules! A Writer’s Workbook
by John Vorhaus
What is good writing?
In grade school it was keeping the letters between the lines. In junior high, good writing equaled good spelling, plus the arcane skill of diagramming sentences. In high school I heard that the classics were good writing, but the classics put me to sleep. In college they said that good writing was all about conflict. I disagreed; they gave me an A.
So what’s good writing? Right away we see that there are lots of right answers. Hamlet is good writing — but so, in the proper context, is “there once was a girl from Nantucket.” What’s good writing? Here’s one answer:
- Good writing equals honesty plus style.
It’s a notion. Let’s throw it out the window and see if it lands.
To start, write something honest about yourself or someone else. Just a sentence or two, or a paragraph or two; a simple human truth.
First, though, how do you plan to tackle the exercises in this book? If you have a word processor, you can open a file and label it “workbook.” If you have a cocktail napkin you can label it “workbook” and use that instead. Results may vary. In all events remember that this is a workbook, and you’ll really only get out of it what you put into it. At minimum, you may use the space provided. Any time it’s time to write, you’ll see one of these:
So here’s me being honest.
I can’t seem to get anything done today.
Now here’s you being honest.
Now here’s me being honest with style — a specific style we might label fabulism or lies.
First the pencil broke. Then when I went to sharpen it I stubbed my toe on the ottoman. “Damn ottoman,” I muttered, which put me in mind of the Ottoman Empire and off I went to the library to find out more. When I got home, the phone was ringing, and since I realize that my opinion does matter, I spent the next half hour answering yes/no questions on subjects ranging from movies I have seen to my taste in maple syrup. Finally, just as I settled down to start writing, a clot of space aliens burst in and abducted me. That’s the third time it’s happened this week.
Same information. Same truth. All I’ve done is lie it up. That’s one way to apply style: simply lie it up.
Take a whack at it. Be honest with style through lies.
There are all kinds of ways to apply style. You can lie, as mentioned, or encode in poetry, inject humor, invent new words, exaggerate, allude, be bold or a dozen other strategies I encourage you to think of now.
And notice that you attack the task in stages, first being honest and next applying your choice of exciting styles. This is beyond useful. It’s fundamental.
- Good writing breaks it down.
When you can link a simple human truth to a dynamic display of words, you may or may not be in the realm of good writing, but you’ve certainly acquired the knack for tearing things in two. Instead of needing to make some great problematic leap into “good writing,” you have a simple system to follow: First do A) then do B). Try it a couple of times and get the hang of it. First do A) be honest, then do B) apply style. Notice which types of style you choose to apply. We tend to select the ones we like best or feel more comfortable with.
Now you have a simple, effective way to test your work. Why founder on the question of what is good writing when instead you can ask of the sentence you just wrote, “Was it honest? Did it have style?” In the light of this clear-eyed appraisal, you might want to go back and change what you wrote. That’s fine. Good writing is subject to change. Because…
- Good writing comes from rewriting.
You’ve heard it — read it in books like this — a million times before. But think of what this means. If good writing truly comes from rewriting, then interim drafts don’t matter. This should set us free.
Let’s see if it does.
Write a paragraph about anything at all. I’ll tell you now that in about 30 seconds you’re going to rewrite it, so don’t care what you write. For ease of use, select and apply this style: vernacular.
Jeffy looking for trouble? Not even. Me and Jeffy, we’re sack guys, not stick guys. But MacWorter, he can’t let Jeffy skate, not after what happened at the bank. Man, don’t even ask me about that.
Now rewrite it. First clarify what you want out of the rewrite.
I want fewer words and more direct threat to the storyteller. Notice that I’ll get a much different result with this clarification than if I decided to want, say, verbosity and literary pretension instead.
Jeffy? No shot. No way MacWorter lets him live, not after the bank. I saw it slide sideways. They’ll smudge me when I tell. And I know I have to tell.
Was your second paragraph better? If yes, here’s why: Once again, you tore the task in two. First you wrote something, then you rewrote it. I don’t have the specific math on this, but two small problems are usually easier to solve than one large one. Any time you get stuck, remember that you always have the option to break it down. It’s the prime strategy for getting unstuck.
Plus there’s this: When you wrote the first paragraph, you were flying kind of blind, but when you rewrote it, you had the specific and direct experience of the first draft to draw on. With every draft, you learn, and each draft informs and enlightens subsequent drafts. This is true for all forms of writing, from greeting cards to novels, from song lyrics to screenplays. It’s no wonder the work improves; there’s always a more experienced and better informed writer doing the rewrite.
So disconnect from interim drafts. Stop asking if they’re any good. Questions of quality are utterly irrelevant to interim drafts. Now write — and then rewrite — another paragraph. Tell yourself exactly what you want out of your rewrite. The more precisely you can articulate the problem, the more quickly and efficiently you’ll arrive at a solution.
It’s easy to feel lost when you have instruction without information. “Write another paragraph?” What does that mean? You’d likely feel less lost if I said instead, “Describe the contents of your medicine chest” (okay, do that) or “Write about your hobby” (do that too.) Without specific direction, you have too many options. We must make choices to narrow our options down.
I’d love to make your choices for you — writing is easier when it’s just fill- in-the-blanks. But you need to make the choices, because that’s what writing is all about: generating, sorting and controlling choices.
Your ally in all of this is the arbitrary choice. Writing tasks, especially in early stages of development, are dynamically driven by the arbitrary choice.
Should I write an 800-page philosophical magnum opus or an advice column or a comic strip or a fortune cookie or an obituary or a short story? Do I want choppy sentences? Sentence fragments? What about rhetorical questions? Should I write in the third person? Bare his soul? Hide behind wit? What?
The choice — forever and for always — is yours. And here’s a secret: The choice doesn’t really matter at all. Any writing is good writing if it adds to the store of things you know how to do with words. Learn to make arbitrary choices quickly and confidently, and you’ll come away with the ability to make things up on the fly. Does this contribute to good writing? You betcha, because…
- Good writing is imaginative.
Imagine something. Write it down.
I’m sitting in a fountain. People are throwing coins at me. They think I can grant wishes. I wish they’d go away. Eventually they do. Son of a gun, it turns out I can grant wishes after all.
Writing on this level is pure discovery. You grab the first image that pops into your head — pow! fountain! — and hurl yourself into that image. Next thing you know…
Making arbitrary choices also mitigates the fear of making wrong choices. On the level of pure discovery, nothing is at stake. When you work in this no-risk environment, you build a habit of fearlessness that you can then export back to your “big” writing. So crank up your inventiveness — here in this very safe work-womb — and let your arbitrary imagination run wild.
Also let it run long, because good writing is volume. This is not an invitation to bury your subject in sentences, but rather a reminder that all writing improves the writer. Generate a tremendous volume of material and, if nothing else, you demonstrate to yourself the capacity for generating a tremendous volume of material. So try it again. Open the spigot of your raw imagination and let it flow for as long as you can stand, and then for ten minutes more after that.
Okay, so good writing is imaginative. What else is good writing? Conflict. Conflict is good writing, or so the experts claim. I always had trouble finding conflict until I realized that it lived in this three-letter word: but.
I want to work but my dog wants to play.
“But” is a beautiful word. It opens the door to conflict. Someone wants something, but someone else wants something else. When a boy scout tries to escort an old lady across the street, but she doesn’t want to go, that’s conflict. When evil madmen threaten our way of life but we stop ’em, that’s conflict. What’s the largest conflict you can think of?
Denizens of a universe want to annex the universe next door, but the residents of that universe aren’t ready to move.
What’s the smallest?
Gil wanted coffee, but there was none.
If you care whether Gil gets coffee, then that’s good writing too because…
- Good writing makes them care about the characters.
So they say. Then again, they also say…
Good writing is the simple expression of complex concepts. Good writing is entertainment. Good writing is instruction. Good writing moves the reader. Good writing challenges the reader. Good writing makes the reader want to keep reading. Good writing is easily understood. Good writing is a call to action. Good writing is fresh and original. Good writing is cause and effect. Good writing is art.
So they say. So what do you say? What is good writing to you?
Good writing is any of these things and all of these things. Good writing is what you say, because everything you designate as good writing becomes a target for your abilities and skills. If you say that good writing is a delicate melange of poetic images, sly references to Biblical text, and linguistic borrowings from Raymond Chandler, then that’s what good writing is. You now know the target you’re trying to hit, and you can set about hitting it efficiently, logically, and (dare we hope?) easily.
Finally, how about this shocker: All writing is good writing, because all writing scratches the itch. All writing scratches the itch. Everything else — quality, elegance, coherence, meaning, money, praise, fame — all that stuff is secondary, after the fact. After the specific fact of scratching that itch.
So what’s good writing? Don’t ask me; I still can’t diagram sentences. But I can believe that all writing is good writing, because all writing contributes to our experience, builds fodder for subsequent drafts, and, most of all, lets us keep scratching the itch. Sometimes it seems like scratching the itch is the only good thing about writing.
But at least we get to do that.
Show of hands, who wants to write badly? We want to write well, but when we set that as our goal we’re burdened by expectations and the fear that we might fail. On the other hand, if you set out to write badly, you detach from the need to write well and that, at least, should ease the burden of expectation. Let’s find out. For ease of use, start with this strategy: Alliterate the crap out of something.
Burt barely burned Bob’s big butt behind Barb’s black-beamed barn before Ben bent Burt’s back backward.
Is this bad writing? Well if all writing is good writing then it’s not, but I vote it is. If I treat it that way — bad writing, as such — then I get to leave behind all the baggage I normally lug toward good writing. Which leaves me free to concentrate on this given challenge to my problem-solving ability: Can I write like crud?
Here’s a good trick for bad writing: Set a task; execute a plan. (If you see that, once again, we’re breaking things down, award yourself a gold star. If you recognize this also as a trick for good writing, you get two gold stars, extra credit and a study hall pass.) In the exercise above, the task was over-alliterate, and the plan was throw a bunch of b-words on the page. In the exercise below, the task is write a run-on sentence, and the plan is simply to put off the period as long as possible.
Trying to avoid the inevitable confrontation between his will and his desire, Ngokl climbed to the top of the castle wall and looked out over the green heather and he noticed that the setting sun was setting in the west, as usual, and Ngokl thought about how strange it would be if the sun set toward some other point of the compass instead, but he had to admit to himself that now was neither the time nor the place to contemplate shifts in the celestial norm, not when the king was approaching, which, from the look of the train of wagons and horses now nearing the castle walls, certainly seemed to be the case, so Ngokl set aside the conflict between his will and his desire, and went to meet his lord.
Now you go. Use the same strategies or try ones of your own. Play twice, just because it’s free. And freeing. The task of writing becomes pretty easy when you set the bar so low.
That’s the beauty of bad writing: there are no wrong answers. And there are so many ways to write badly.
You can write nonsense…
“Cymophobia,” nattered Leandra, her horsemint kugel clinging in an almost scorpioid loculus. Later, in the sea dahlia threnody, her eleemosynary cribwork yielded to Snell’s law, and she divulsed.
… or be derivative…
“I have a gun,” said Joe.
“But you don’t have the guts to use it,” said Ed.
“Bang,” said Joe’s gun.
“Ooh,” said Ed’s gut.
… wallow in lame analogies…
The cowboy jumped on his horse like a pogo stick with boots.
The writer sat at his desk like Truman authorizing the Bomb.
The pitcher threw his changeup like a pitch slower than his fastball.
… or be repetitious…
Start to turn the handle by turning the handle. Turn the handle until the handle stops turning. Once the handle has stopped turning, stop turning.
Here’s a letter I received in 1983 and saved since then, which shows you what kind of compulsive packrat I am. And by the way — sad to say — it was written by a college-educated American, and not intended as a joke. Honest.
I am sorrie that this letter is not Addressed to you personaly, but time does not afford us that luxery. We have not received an answer back from our first letter to you. It just might be that you did not receive it? In summary, what I ask was that you be very spacific, about the position you are applying for weather it is full time or part time. The letter also explaned the difficulties that arose in putting our publication together, hopfully they are in the past. We have scheduled an interveiw period, the week of Aug 22, 1983. Please write and let us know if this is a good good time for you, also include the position you are seeling. Our New Production Address is above.
That’s some stinky bad writing — but I’m confident we can do worse. The challenge here is to reproduce the style, grammar and garbled syntax of this artifact. The other challenge is to commit the creative energy it takes to compose something so (minimally) large as a business letter. (This might be a good time to jump from the <SPACE PROVIDED> to a notebook or document file of your own.) The other other challenge is to leave your baggage behind. Remember, it’s only bad writing, and the worse it is the better you’ve done.
Dear Tehcnical Support,
I have been playing your comptuer game PIPES for sometime now and I have aproblem I’m hopping you can help me with. When I reach the level of 23 (password=fooz_ I finding that it sticks. rlet me say that I get a msg of “systme not reponding’ so that I have to over again from the outside in, what gives? Maybe please send me one new copy, thats not not good such as thik one is. Or less tell me what I am dowing wrong; Plus also plese tell me what is the last level of the game, is 23 near the end or is there meny more to come, I would like to knw so I don’t spent all time playing game of not every winning.
PIPS is good game, but working would be better.
Look, look, look, I know that language is code. I appreciate that we all have to encrypt our thoughts with common structure, or communication breaks down. It’s so crucial for a writer to be effective. But sometimes its fun to just have fun. Also, by writing badly we become more attentive to language, and that’s never a bad thing.
What would a badly written page in a teenager’s diary look like? You can approach this exercise any way you want, but if you’re strapped for strategy, try breaking it down into these simple questions: What is this teenager honest about? How does this teenager talk? What are this teenager’s conflicts?
Write a paragraph summary of a very bad movie.
BOZO’S GOLD. Party clown wins the lottery, makes daft investments, loses everything, freaks out, robs a bank, takes hostages, dies savagely. Former title: BOZO’S LAST STAND.
With a clear enough sense of task, you should be able to write at least something about anything. Could you give me 500 words of an article for Amateur Surgeon Magazine? Could I ask you to conceive your own magazine and write its table of contents?
These are stretching exercises. They should be easy, and if they’re not now, they will be with practice.
You could write this: The wedding vows for a hopelessly mismatched couple. Or this: The obituary of a man of miniscule fame. Or this: Technical writing from a clueless technical writer.
(It’s a challenge to my inventiveness to challenge your inventiveness.)
Write a Christmas letter. You know, one of those Skippy broke his leg in August deals. Make up the family, make up their history. For style, pursue a subtext. What grim secret is this family hiding?
Last summer we drove to Yellowstone Park, where everyone had a great time. Little Sally learned a valuable lesson about not teasing the bears. Now she’s learning to write left-handed.
Suppose I were in the market for travel trash, some pulpy paperback I could read on the plane. Can you give me a tawdry title and three cheesy paragraphs of a back-cover blurb?
The neighbors are complaining about your 4 a.m. bagpipe practice. They’ve written a threatening letter and asked you to reply. It so happens that you are a sociopath. How do you respond?
Now set your own task. Conceive and execute your own bad writing.
After practice, when your muscles are tired and sore, but in a good way, you look back and realize you really haven’t suffered. Somewhere in the middle of the workout you even lost track of time. And if you feel stronger after your workout, it’s not because the muscles are any darn bigger (they are, a tiny bit) but because you darn used them. You used them for a long darn time. So therefore, bad writing is good writing because it’s a good workout.
And what could be bad about that?
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