This post is part of the Creative Process series, in which I will whine, cry, and philosophize about my life as a fiction writer. In the worst case scenario, fellow struggling artists will be heartened by my constant failures. In the best case scenario, a best-selling novel just might be written.
When my writer friend Cristian Mihai posted about his belief that writing can’t be taught, plenty of people were offended. My first instinct is to agree that writing, like all art forms, can’t be taught the way calculus can. No matter how ungifted you are at math, if you work hard enough at it (or if your Asian mother beats you enough with a stick), you can master it. With painting, singing, and writing, though, if you have no God-given talent, you’re never going to be great at it. However, and this is where I disagree with Cristian, I believe that you can be taught to be better with an art medium. In painting, you can be taught composition, brush techniques, and thinning/thickening paints. In singing, you can be taught to keep a rhythm, stay on pitch, and increase your lung capacity. In writing, likewise, you can be taught to avoid clichés, restructure sentences, and develop characters.
I also agree with Cristian that writers (like all other artists) are not necessarily the best teachers. I think it’s a bit extreme to say that they’re all bad, but Cristian is right that many of them can’t teach because they don’t understand their own creative process. The skill set needed to be a teacher is very different than the skill set needed to do whatever is being taught. I know this because I’ve been a ACT/SAT/GRE teacher at the Princeton Review for years now and, while I can solve any problem, it is much harder to teach someone else to solve it. This is probably why many were upset that Cristian claimed that is much easier to teach than it is to do. To teach poorly is, of course, easy. Just look at all the useless life improvement gurus out there. To teach well, however, is an art. To be able to teach well, you not only have to master the “doing” part, you also have to understand your process well enough to teach it.
With that said, I’m going to attempt to teach you my creative process. The fact is that it’s not a science and it works for me because of my particular personality/ability, but some of it might help you if you’re somewhat like me. This process can be applied to almost anything — visual arts, filmmaking, computer programming — because creativity is present everywhere. In fact, I even apply this process to writing papers for school.
My Creative Process
- Creativity comes first. What I mean by this is don’t wait until the end of the day, when your mind is cluttered with work, grocery lists, and your mom’s annoying phone call, to be creative. You need a blank slate, a fresh head, in order to produce your best work. This is why I always try to write in the morning, before I’ve even spoken to another human being.
- Don’t create when uninspired. If you’re not in the mood to be creative, then just don’t do it. The result will look as painful as you felt when you created it. When I write papers, I never pick the easiest topic — instead, I pick the one I’m passionate about. Creativity is always easier when you’re inspired. But the problem is that when your creative outlet is also your job, you have to create on a time crunch. To solve that…
- Learn to get inspired. Certainly, creativity isn’t a faucet you can turn on/off at free will. But you can develop tactics to slowly coax that inspiration out of you. Sometimes, I get inspired for my writing when I experience other art forms. My favorite is music, but watching a movie can also be helpful.
- Don’t get burned out. This should be the golden rule for artists. You need to know your limits and end each day when you still have a little juice left. Take time off and don’t push yourself to take project after project. You’re human and you need breaks. This is why I always take the weekend off.
- Push yourself. On the flip side, you also need to know your limits so that you can push yourself to, say, 90% capacity every time. Don’t let yourself be lazy and don’t succumb to your insecurities.
- Rest your mind. When I’m working on a novel, I tend to obsess over it every moment of the day, even when I’m not writing. I’m tempted to gush about my plot to everyone who will listen. However, I’ve learned to entertain other hobbies (such as playing League of Legends with Phineas) to take my mind off of writing. If I focus all my thoughts on my writing, then I quickly exhaust my creative juices.
- When it comes, do something about it. Sometimes, creativity comes in the shower. Or the few seconds before you fall asleep. Or when you’re in the middle of a job interview. I’m the type of person that can hold an idea for days or even months until I get the chance to develop it. But if you’re the type that loses ideas quickly, then always have a notebook with you where you can jot things down.
You know what the best part of teaching is? When you’re finished, if you’ve done it well, you actually learn something about yourself.
Do you believe writing can be taught? Do you consider yourself a good teacher?
À la prochaine,
P.S. The next time I’m posting, I’ll be in China! Get ready for the new travel series.