Get a good job and other tips for writ­ers

The most im­por­tant part of ‘‘cre­ative writ­ing’’ isn’t cre­ative, writes

Otago Daily Times - - OPINION - Gina Bar­reca. Gina Bar­reca is an au­thor and a board of trustees dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­a­ture at Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut.

Ihave an old friend who is start­ing a course in cre­ative writ­ing. I thought he could use some ad­vice and, be­cause I store writ­ing ad­vice the way dooms­day prep­pers store beef jerky, I thought I’d make an of­fer.

My first piece of ad­vice: The most im­por­tant part of ‘‘cre­ative writ­ing’’ isn’t cre­ative; you’re prob­a­bly dis­ap­pointed to hear this, but if you hear noth­ing else, this will serve.

Noth­ing is writ­ing ex­cept writ­ing. Hav­ing in­spired ideas about what you’d like to write, or vividly imag­in­ing your name in­side hard cov­ers, isn’t ac­tu­ally writ­ing.

If you can’t har­ness your cre­ativ­ity with dis­ci­pline, you’ll never achieve ex­cel­lence. Think of it this way: If some­body gave you a vi­olin, would you imag­ine your­self play­ing both pro­fes­sion­ally and im­me­di­ately be­cause you’ve al­ways deeply loved mu­sic? I bet you wouldn’t be­cause you’d have too much re­spect for the in­stru­ment.

Yet some peo­ple be­lieve that the thing they write should be ad­mired, widely read and per­haps given the Pulitzer be­cause they have spent years read­ing works sim­i­lar to what they’re try­ing to write. Why would we treat a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment with more def­er­ence than we treat lan­guage?

For those who re­mem­ber Shake­speare’s Ham­let, you’ll know that I’m fid­dling with a line when Ham­let re­bukes two of his aides for try­ing to play him emo­tion­ally as if he were a flute.

This leads me to piece of ad­vice No 2: If you don’t re­mem­ber your Shake­speare, or never read him in the first place, pick up the col­lected plays. If you don’t re­mem­ber your Dick­ens or your Dou­glass, your Brontes, Bald­win, At­wood or Smith, ditto. Read the great writ­ers and then read the pretty great ones. Take notes. Mem­o­rise your fa­vorite pas­sages. Make them your own.

You’re join­ing a con­ver­sa­tion that’s been go­ing on for thou­sands of years and you need to know where you fit in.

Good writ­ing is an echo with edge. The best writ­ing is a re­flec­tion, a rep­e­ti­tion with a dif­fer­ence, of the deep ini­tial dis­rup­tions re­peated through­out time. It’s your busi­ness as a writer to know where your echo orig­i­nated.

My third piece of ad­vice is to pay at­ten­tion to ev­ery­thing that goes on, good and bad, and to write it down. No great work of art ever came out of a gen­eral idea. It came out of one im­age, one sen­tence over­heard on a bus, one ex­change that hap­pened 20

❛ Good writ­ing is an echo with edge. The best writ­ing is a re­flec­tion, a rep­e­ti­tion with

a dif­fer­ence, of the deep ini­tial dis­rup­tions re­peated

through­out time.

years ago that you never for­got.

Only the spe­cific can be univer­sal. You can’t be­gin a piece of writ­ing by say­ing, ‘‘This will have all the sto­ries.’’ No one piece of writ­ing meets your full daily re­quire­ments for lit­er­ary con­tent. It’s not like a mul­ti­vi­ta­min, and there aren’t la­bels on art say­ing ‘‘po­etic con­tent: 8%; sug­ary con­tent: 22%; salty con­tent: 28%’’ etc. At least — not yet.

Read­ers want to know why they should stay on your page. The first thing any­body wants to know is ‘‘What’s it about?’’ even if what they’re go­ing to read is a haiku. We want to know what we’re read­ing in the same way we like to know what we’re go­ing to be served be­fore the plate is set down in front of us. The ad­mo­ni­tion, ‘‘Just start, you’ll like it,’’ is fol­lowed by the un­spo­ken threat — ‘‘or else.’’

Here’s No 4: No piece of writ­ing, just like no per­son’s life­time, is ever re­ally fin­ished. There is, how­ever, a mo­ment when it’s done. You can pound it on the chest all you want but noth­ing is go­ing to hap­pen. The best thing to do is to leave it for oth­ers to dis­sect.

No 5: If you’re writ­ing for the money, don’t. Al­most ev­ery suc­cess­ful writer I know has either kept his or her day job, in­her­ited money or mar­ried money. From what I know, the last two are tougher ways to se­cure health in­sur­ance. So while I’m all for fol­low­ing your bliss, I’d put it this way: Fol­low your bliss, but first make sure you have den­tal.

Fi­nally, No 6: Don’t give into the voices say­ing you don’t have time to write. You’ll never be able to say ‘‘Now I will sit down and cre­ate art.’’ But you can al­most al­ways say ‘‘I have a piece of pa­per, and a writ­ing in­stru­ment, and now I will work.’’

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PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

If you can’t har­ness your cre­ativ­ity with dis­ci­pline, you’ll never achieve ex­cel­lence.

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