How to Bring More Spontaneity, Imperfection, & Risk into Your Writing

by Christine Stewart

This article is about not playing fair or being nice.

You're human. You're imperfect. Allow both in your writing. Let's see the struggle, confusion, questioning, disbelief, fear. Make a mess. Yes, you could end up writing 10 poems that end up failing. That's risk. Creativity can't exist without freedom to create anything, including a mess.

Perfect is boring. Perfect is lifeless and flat. Perfect is claustrophobic. Don't connect every dot in your writing, just the key points. An object is stronger for being broken, for having cracks. Let there be cracks and gaps for the reader to enter and fill in on their own. Make leaps in your logic that don't seem logical (but not illogical—there should be a thread of logic). Use a word in the 'wrong' way, a surprising way. Say something crazy. Allow the Freudian slip. Say what you really want to. Free pass. You can edit later. No one is going to grab it out of your hand and send it to the New Yorker and your mother to embarrass you. Allow the unexpected. If any of these happen, leave them and keep going. Let the faucet drip!

Admit you have a problem. Do you keep encountering the same problem in your piece? You can't really see the image you're trying to convey, your lines or sentences are coming out choppy when you'd rather they were long, all of a sudden the poem rhymes or you're slipping in and out of verb tenses, or one character is taking over.

Take another look at what you're calling a problem. This may be the piece telling you what it really needs to be. Go with it. Use another image, let your lines come out short, rhyme to your heart's content. Change your verb tense or your narrator. Stop rowing so hard and just float.

These can also be valid problems, or indications that the way you've been writing is no longer working. Try some new techniques for a while.

Face the critic. Give free rein to the voice of the nagging, negative critic (aka what I call The Great Writer or The Genius Writer). The Great Writer has a standard that he or she wants you to meet. According to him or her, if you can meet it, you will write the best poem or novel or story ever, that everyone will love and envy, you'll make tons of money and your name will go down in literary history. The Great Writer doesn't care if you have fun making this happen, that you want to enjoy the process or that it may be distorting your voice. It's just how it should be done, so get to it.

So let's allow the Great Writer to speak (or call it whatever you like). Let it catalogue your flaws and failures, the reasons why you haven't 'made it' to his or her satisfaction. If it helps, create a sketch of them as if they are a character in a story, then have them speak. Make a list of up to 10 (go for more if you want to, they'll start to get ridiculous, trust me!) of his or her 'comments.' Get it all out in the open. Exaggerate.

Exercise: Read your list. Do you believe any of them? Pick one and pretend it's true. Explore the accusation. Dialogue with the critic. See what you discover.

Break the rules. Even if you've never taken a writing class you've heard "know the rules before you break them." So do it. Even if you teach writing yourself and have said it one thousand times. Pick a rule of form that you've tried before and feel comfortable with and think of it as a curfew and break it. Stay out long past the time your mother or husband would be calling the hospitals and police stations. Turn off your headlights and don't wear your seatbelt while you write on the wrong side of the poem or story.

Exercise: Write down 5 rules in poetry or for a story that are sacred to you. That make you mad when you see other people breaking them. That you've been told not to do. Pick one and write a few opening lines of a poem addressing the rule and why you especially should be allowed to walk all over it. Make sure you actually break the rule or rules in the poem. Or don't acknowledge the rule, just break it.

Hang on to the thrill. You know that moment when inspiration strikes, when you get an idea and your heart surges with excitement and your stomach gets that nervous, night-before-Christmas feeling when you were a kid? Go with it. Don't let The Great Writer step in and start giving orders and making sure the paint matches the curtains. Before you get literary and throw in some mythical allusions or some meter so everyone knows you're worth the MFA you're still paying off, just let the idea be what it is! You deserve it. (This goes for nervousness and fear as well. All are healthy for writing.) Plenty of time to fix it later. This is not the time to repress it.

Write what you don't know. Stop writing about the same 3 or 4 subjects. The best way to do that is to try something new yourself or research something new. Take up surfing. Go to a concert you normally wouldn't go to, or a restaurant serving food you don't normally eat. Go on a blind date if you're single. Take a belly dancing class or a cooking class. It can be as simple as reading a book you normally wouldn't (maybe a science fiction or thriller when you only read literary fiction), looking up an old friend you lost touch with or staying up all night writing and then eating ice cream for breakfast.

Take a new route in your life. You're a writer. That gives you permission to go anywhere and try anything. It's the perfect cover. You never have to feel awkward. Writing what you don't know will give you a new perspective on what you do know.

Secrets, lies, embarrassments, death, hate, power or write what makes you uncomfortable, dangerous, afraid, dizzy, nauseous.

Fall off the cliff. As a writer/poet, you're not allowed to sit at the edge in a lounge chair drinking an exotic drink wearing a really sexy outfit while you jot down a few notes about the view. Get naked and jump! To that end:

Exercises:

a) Tell a secret. Yours or somebody else's. Tell everything.
b) Write about a lie you told or wanted to tell. Embellish.
c) What is something or someone you hate? Write from the perspective of that person, or from the perspective of someone who loves the thing you hate. Give yourself completely over to their perspective and love it or believe in it as passionately as they do. I promise you won't get arrested and you won't go to hell. OR write about how much you hate them and why.
d) Write about your own death. How does it happen? What are the sights, sounds, smells of the moment? Don't pull back and write as an observer watching, be there.
e) Write about your most embarrassing moment in excruciating detail. You're free to tear it up afterwards, but I dare you not to.
f) Write a graphic sex scene (this is usually really difficult for people)

I'm not trying to corrupt you! The above exercises get us in touch with the places that feel the most risky, where we feel the most exposed. Writing from inside these places gives us a greater sense of understanding--of ourselves, others, the world. They are also usually where our very best writing is because we are less in control.

What all this boils down to:

Black box. Pretend you can enter a large black box that cuts you off from everything and everyone. Whatever you write in the black box stays in the black box.

Exercise: Pretend you own a giant black box and can enter it any time you want to and shut the door. It's decorated any way you want and you can change it any time. Want a tree in there? Done. Want rain? Pillows? Christmas lights? A freezer full of ice cream? It's all there. No one can see it but you, no one knows where you are when you're inside of it, no one can hear you scream. Time stands still when you're inside of it; no one will notice you're missing. There are no parents, no husbands, no children, no boss, no priest, no neighbors, no teachers or ex-lovers.

YOU ARE FREE TO WRITE ANYTHING AND NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW.

What are you most afraid to write? Write that. Dare you.


Christine Stewart is program director for arts in education, literary arts, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council and director of Maryland's Poetry Out Loud program. A former artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore, she is the founding director of the wildly successful Write Here, Write Now workshops. She has a M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, and other literary magazines. Check out her Facebook

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