How Do You Create?
Despite the plethora of how-to-write books that promise surefire recipes for writing success, there is no right way to write.
The way a person creates is a mysterious thing, similar to a person’s favorite color. Why do some people like a certain color and not another one? Blue has been my favorite color for as long as I can imagine. Yet some people like red, others prefer periwinkle, and then there are those who like fulvous (a brownish orange). Why? It just is. And it’s a good thing, right? We need the world to be painted a variety of colors. We need to walk through rooms with different hues, to feel life as a celebration of color in its many forms, to make life, well, colorful.
When I begin a story, I sit down with an itch of a story idea stirring in my mind, and I write a sentence, without too much thought, without any maps of logic, and then I write another sentence, and then another, one thing leading to the next, writing in pursuit of faint inklings and distant whispers, writing to discover, writing just to write.
It’s a fun way to write — to write as a quest.
It’s as if I’m lost in a foreign city, and I’m trying to find my way home, but I can only follow hunches, scents in the air, wisps of memory. I’ll eventually find my way home, or I believe I will, but I know I’ll take wrong turns and end up in places I might not know how to get out of. I know there will be moments I’m scared or frustrated or desperate, but I also know I’ll wander into magical places I couldn’t have possibly found in any guidebook.
It’s a fun way to write — to write as a quest. I get to walk through a dark forest and discover something new each time I write. No one tells me where to go. If I get a sudden and impulsive idea, then I can indulge that story line and explore all its tentacles and tributaries. If I want to include a character’s diary entries to add a layer of characterization — yes, why not?
The downside to this approach is that I tend to explore my characters’ worlds and meander down their highways and byways more than I stitch everything together into a tight and suspenseful plot. I’m not especially adept at writing the kind of novel where everything is there for a well-considered reason, where one thing leads to the next and the dramatic trajectory is always rising with taut tension. In some ways, I tend to plot after the novel has been written.
So my constant question has been whether I should abandon my loosey-goosey ways and buckle down and outline my novel ahead of time. And not just with a sketchy outline, but a tightly orchestrated game plan. I wonder this when I begin every novel, and then I wonder it more and more as I proceed.
Experimenting with your process is a way to open yourself up to new possibilities.
Here’s the thing, though. I have outlined stories and novels. While it’s fun for me to think through a narrative arc and plot it out, if I write with an outline — with so much of the story already formed in my brain — the joy and meaning of writing is diminished. With an outline, I write to determine, not to explore. Instead of walking through a foreign city without a map and looking all around to find my way, I look at the map more than I look at the world around me. For me, planning a novel — at least in any deep and meticulous way — violates the very spirit of why I write.
Now I’m not arrogant enough to assert that my way is the right way. I often question it myself — even now, I wonder if I don’t outline because of a character flaw or a lack of discipline. I deeply respect writers who use outlines, spreadsheets, Post-it notes, and white boards to delineate their stories. But I also know that every writer creates in a different and mysterious way, so I try not to chastise myself too much.
I often think of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin that addresses different creative types. The title is a reference to a phrase attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus who wrote, “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” Berlin used this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences, and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea.
I write like a fox. Others write like a hedgehog. And then others write like another animal, let’s say an anteater, and whatever defining characteristic an anteater has guides them to create their stories in their way.
There’s no such thing as the way to create good work; you just have to find your way. Ann Beattie’s favorite hours to write are from midnight to three in the morning. James Baldwin liked to rise before dawn, before there were sounds of anyone in the house. Legend has it that Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin before she began her day’s writing because a foretaste of the grave was supposed to inspire her macabre sensibility.
Some writers thrive in solitude, while others seek to write with others. Some writers are vitalized by background noise, while others are horribly distracted by it. The most creative people often contain contradictory extremes, inhabiting a multitudinous personality.
I did NaNoWriMo the first time because I’m such a slow, plodding writer and wanted to experience my imagination at a different pace. I’m an early morning writer, but sometimes on a Saturday night, I’ll make a pot of coffee at 10 and plan to write into the dark silence of the night. I might just write my next novel on note cards, as Vladimir Nabokov did. And I’ll never quit dallying with different types of outlines (and chastising myself for pantsing [winging it] anyway).
So find your way, embrace your way, but don’t become too rigid. Experimenting with your process is a way to open yourself up to new possibilities.
Try This: Identify Your Creative Process
Reflect on your process and work to make it a habit by taking steps each day. If you have a solid process in place, consider mixing something new in to see how it changes your work. If you’re a meticulous planner, try pantsing your next chapter. If you write first thing in the morning, try to write for 30 minutes before bed. If you write alone, write with a friend, or in a café.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.