Step One To Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

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Here is step one in the six-step, developmental process I’ve created to help you think of yourself as writer. Subsequent steps can be found at The Collaborative Writer’s Online Course website (you’ll need a password for access to the self-directed online courses, so let me know if you’re interested in going forward). 

In the first step, we focus on the idea of ‘inspiration’ and begin with a poem intended to get you thinking about what what we mean by ‘inspiration’—where does it come from? How can we best use our ‘ah-ha!’ moments? How can we harness the energy of inspiration? These are all fundamental questions every writer navigates over time, and it’s where we’ll begin our journey. 

 
Inspiration
As to the flash of inspiration
and traffic laws on writing’s path—
what comes can’t be stopped, 
what leaves will not be restrained.
It hides like fire in a coal
then flares into a shout.
When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back; 
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush
that colors brim out of your ears 
and music echoes in your eyes.
—from The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters
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Inspiration: What it is, what it isn’t

WHAT IT IS

Out of nowhere, a thought, feeling, or response to something you’ve read or heard enters your consciousness. What was unformed energy is suddenly a perception. You have something to say! Quick, write it down, because if you don’t, this idea is so unformed, it will be lost in an instant, and another brilliant thought will be lost to posterity.

WHAT IT ISN’T

This is not a subject, theme, or three-volume novel—yet. You have not yet discovered your subject, what it’s about or the why of it. All you have right now is an idea. This is not the time to call an agent to arrange a contract with a publisher. You are not in pre-writing yet. Nothing concrete might come of this idea. It is a start, a place to begin.

THINKING ABOUT IT

Invention is a stage in the writing process we don’t understand very well and therefore tend to mythologize, largely because it seems so entirely out of our conscious control, yet it’s where creation seems to begin. It often seems like the most magical moment in the writing process. Because of this, I believe we often invest too much in the notion that we must always sound utterly original and unique; otherwise, why bother?

Many developing writers don’t think of writing as a way of discovering what it is they want to say. Instead, they sometimes believe that they need to know precisely what it is they want to say before they begin to write, that writing should reflect a thinking process that is more or less complete. After all, we read only the finished works of Hemingway or Shakespeare. Society praises these works as brilliant, ignoring the writer’s process, with all its complications and confusions.

Something to keep in mind is that we often discover what we think, feel, or believe during the writing process itself. The physical act of writing (whether it’s by hand on paper or by hand as we type) forces us to make connections in our mind that we wouldn’t have otherwise perceived. Likewise, brainstorming, allowing yourself to write freely, without expectation of grammatical or editorial correctness, is an excellent way to allow your deepest, most authentic thoughts to surface.

Focus, at this stage, on exploring ideas, rather than imposing structure on your work.

WRITING EXERCISE #1

There are traditional methods of invention; the Ancient Greeks were using them over two thousand years ago. Coming up with ideas might seem the hardest stage of all in the writing process, but the easiest way to think of something to write is to have an emotional response to something you’ve experienced.

Strong emotion is a useful gauge of what’s important to us. There’s no faster way to know what you value; what’s important to you is an excellent place to begin your writing. You come to know yourself better when you allow yourself to explore your emotional responses.

Find a piece of writing (a newspaper article, a blog entry, an editorial of some kind) that spurs your response. Without editing yourself (especially without predetermining which emotional responses are appropriate) write as much as you can in response to the article. If it helps, imagine you’re speaking directly to the person who wrote the article. Disagree with him or her; tell the writer exactly what you think. 

If you’re angry, let yourself be angry; if you’re excited, let yourself be excited. Write by hand in your writer’s notebook, or write online and save your document. When you feel ready, share your response with me, and we can discuss what you’ve learned about yourself. The next step will be determining whether or not you’d like to develop an idea you discovered during this writing exercise.

Write to me when you’re done; let me know how your process goes. Or, if you’d rather work on your own, go to The Collaborative Writer Online Courses for more information.

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