The Practice of Creative Writing

For years, I taught creative writing the way it had been taught to me, taking my students through all the prescribed lessons on character, voice, point of view, and theme, line breaks, meter, and symbol. But after a while, I felt like a fraud in the classroom; I didn’t work this way myself. The fiction and poetry and essays I published, I created by a very different process.

First off, I always started with an image, exploring a specific, grounded moment in time, on a very physical level. I devoted a lot of energy to what is called “creative concentration.” And I didn’t ever think consciously about point of view or symbol and theme as I did when teaching in the literature classroom—writing poetry and plays and narrative was a lot more like going for a long run, dreaming, watching a movie, or the kind of focused imaginative play we entered into as kids. I have always found my way as I work, concentrating inside of an image. In interviews with artists and writers, I see this very same sort of method described, again and again.

When we make something, whether it’s a three-point shot from the outside or a poem, we have to figure out what to do with our heads, where to put our doubts, our analytical minds, our fears. We have to get out of our own way.

One of my students, Bethany Katerberg, both a writer and a runner, describes it this way: “You don’t really want to go for a run, or start writing. You have to kind of trick yourself,” says. “But then you start, and after a while, this thing kicks in. By the time you are done, you feel great, inside and out. You can’t imagine not having done this. I think it’s mostly a head game.”

In developing my courses and writing about them, I paid close attention to this state of mind. I researched creativity, play, and the “zone” athletes talk about when every shot swishes, when the goal just vacuums up the ball. At the outset of any writing class, teaching students how to focus, how to work with distraction, what to concentrate on (sensory visual images—the lifeblood of creative writing—seems more important and more helpful than anything else).

Next, instead of separating out the genres, and learning their conventions, we bring to the forefront the strategies and techniques common to all good creative writing.  Once new writers know how to get hooked into the writer’s world and habits, they concern themselves with what makes a poem a poem, a story a story, etc. Images, intensity, wisdom, and energy first, and genre conventions follow.

But first, we teach ourselves how to play. We warm up. We work out. We learn how to locate our weak areas, we practice a little every day. Wind sprints. Scales. Exercises. And as we practice, we get better at what we’re good at, and we can grow a capacity for awareness based on a habit of looking more closely. We build skills that help us become fearless observers of the world and people around them, all in the service of the reader’s experience—we learn how to take readers, with words, through emotions and feelings that really matter. This approach to the creative writing classroom privileges the writer’s way of knowing, the writer’s way of seeing, and makes it possible for a wide range of students to come into the room and play.

My message: Of course it takes time to learn to write well, but you can do this, and it’s worth the trouble to try.

Find out about upcoming creative writing programs with Heather Sellers at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students, by Heather Sellers.

Heather Sellers, PhD, is the author of numerous books, including three volumes on the craft of writing. An award-winning teacher, she is a faculty member at the University of South Florida.

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