The greatest thing about writing is that there are NO RULES! And the most terrifying thing about writing is that there are NO RULES! My dearest South Philly wise woman, Maryanne, called writers (and artists) ‘Scribblers,’ which I like a whole lot better than the more formal and emotionally charged title of ‘Writer.’ So let’s be scribblers together and adopt the following motto: “Use Tools, Not Rules,” and open up this wordsmith’s toolkit for a look-see.
I confess that I was once a Writer, and because my early confidence level was low, and I enjoyed the comfort of rules – not grammatical ones – I break those with abandon, but the rules that told me what and how a writer should write, including ‘write what you know’ (we’ll re-define that double-edged cliché later). I also confess to using the ‘W’ title in all my biographical ramblings, but in my heart of hearts I identify as a scribbler, because like Popeye “I yam, what I yam.”
Stop, Look & Listen.
Looking & listening are a scribblers favorite pastime. When you focus your precious attention on anything or anyone; especially the little things that capture your imagination, you internalize all their psychic meta data for use at a later time. Make it a daily exercise, like a scribbler’s mindfulness practice. Notice everything, all the colors, sounds, textures and movements, while paying special attention to anything that brings up a specific emotion, or strong impression for you. These are the creative ‘Power Links’ to your creativity!
A nd make sure to jot them down quickly, and/or take a picture to jog your memory later, because if you’re like me you’ll need the reminder, especially if you’re experiencing a coffee, tea or sleep deficit.
Loosening up is a prime tool in my scribbler’s mindfulness-kit. It’s a form of creative relaxation where you imagine your breath passing in & out of everything you experience. The deeper you inhale, the more creative oxygen you’re accessing to expand the lungs of your personal story. So like any good brain athlete, stretch your imagination and breathe deeply, it feels good. Why is this a primary tool? Well, if you read my previous post on ‘Creative Gravity‘ you’ll see the connection between loosening up, my Seven ‘Creative’ Tweaks, and the concept that a relaxed attitude is key to opening up your mind to the unlimited pool of ideas swimming along your conscious & subconscious bayous.
S tart the loosening process by finding a quiet spot with a comfortable place to sit. Settle in and close your eyes, then take five slow, deep breaths. Park your brain and see what shows up, and treat any thoughts about you, or what you have to do like annoying Tinder photos that you swipe away without hesitation. What you’re looking for is anything: Image, sound, idea, etc. that will jumpstart your scribbling engine and increase the flow of ideas to your conscious mind. And don’t worry, you’ll know you’ve hooked a good one when you feel sparks lighting up your Imagination. Got one? Reel it in and start scribbling…
Feed the Beast.
This was almost a tool attachment for loosening up, but it is so vital that it stands on it’s own. Feeding the Beast is like setting the stage in a play, and prepares the ground for your creative seeds to flourish. It consists of dressing comfortably – got a favorite hat or lucky shirt, wear ’em – and inviting in the emotions that your currently exploring in your scribbling. Next, match those feelings with sights or photos, sounds or music, and tastes (food & drink to scribble by), that help you establish the perfect mood to inspire easy word-flow.
R emember, it’s your play and you’re the star! So enter stage right, start performing, and don’t forget to enjoy the limelight. It’s that simple.
Write what you Don’t Know you Know.
Okay, the first piece of advice that every writer gets is ‘Write what you Know!’ I want you to completely ignore the face value of this simple bot mot and go meta on it! And by meta, I am referring to my solid belief that knowing is separate from experience. Knowing is an act of attention and presence that you enter by loosening up, and when you reach this state you intimately know everything that shows up to greet you. Trust it! Our experiences only go so far, but our knowing is infinite. Need an example? Have you ever used your Dragon Heartstring core Wand to cast a spell to make your family forget you ever existed? No. Have you ever flown the Millennium Falcon? Not a chance, but you’ve driven a car, and perhaps walked away from a troubled relationship, right?! These are examples of what I title: The Emotional Intelligence of Knowing: A vast universe of common human experiences that serve as Emotional Power Links to connect us to the insanely fertile land of our collective imaginations.
S cribble what you don’t know you know, because your act of faith in the Unknown-Known, will make your stories feel authentic, and allow your creativity to soar.
Listen to your Characters.
In the ancient world, the first scribblers cast images – our most primal language – on cave walls to tell their stories. They translated their experiences through imagination, and created the opening lines of our forty thousand year long human tome by presenting their characters in handprints, animal and figure sketches. How would you like your scribbles to last forty thousand years! But what makes these, and any story worth reading, is the characters. We connect with the images and emotions the scribbler word paints for us, and see & feel ourselves in their actions. Listening to your characters is all about inviting them in to join your ‘Whole Sick Crew’ (see V. (Perennial Classics) and thank you Thomas Pynchon); and learn their backstories until you know them like the back of your hand. Their entire stories may never directly appear in what you’re scribbling, but your familiarity with them will help you translate their reality into words with fewer hiccups. If you don’t know your characters well enough, you might try to make them do things that are not in character. If that happens, they will fight you tooth and nail to stop your scribbling engine dead in it’s tracks.
M y mentor, the wonderful British Filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick, gave me this advice about directing actors that translates perfectly to authors and their characters: “Never show an actor what to do, it always results in a flat performance. Your job is to guide them, not control them. Use little hints, or suggest colors if it helps, and remember, they’re the characters and this is their movie.”
Hammers and Chisels.
These two are a set, think of Michelangelo – no hammers and chisels, no statue of David, no Pieta! The hammer and chisel are your edit tools, knocking out unruly prose & distracting wordplay, and shaping or smoothing rough dialogue into crisp, tangy bites. I like to keep these two holstered while I plow through the first draft, so I can flow the story out without editorial distractions – and then break them out to help shape subsequent drafts; using smaller and smaller sizes, until I see the finished story emerge like Venus on her half shell.
I love reading and scribbling poetry and prose, because it forces me to use the least number of words to create the most powerful images. Our Mr. Buonarroti said “I saw the Angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.” Let this quote be your guide as you chisel the contours of your story down to the skin, and pay careful attention to the way they make you feel. The happier you feel, the better – positive emotions open us up, and set our imaginations free.
Read, Read, Read – then Read some more.
When I reach a point where I have to stop scribbling, I finish the scene or chapter that I’m working on. Type a few lines of the next scene. Put my laptop to sleep, and find a book to start reading. This is akin to savoring a spoonful of sherbet at the end of a meal, a combination of palette cleanser and mind relaxer – a sweet reward. Reading is a scribbler’s constant shadow partner. It provides the guilty pleasure of joyful distraction, while filling your head with the intellectual & emotional voices of authors that you resonate with. But what makes reading a true power tool for your kit, is it’s sublime ability to help you define & refine your own voice.
I was listening to my twenty-something Daughter the other day and marveled at how much she sounded like her mother and I. Then I thought, of course she sounds like us, she started life bathed in the rhythms of her mother’s voice, and learned to speak by listening to the steady patois of our daily conversations! This is proof that the voices we spend the most time with shape how we speak to the world. It also means that the voices of authors you spend the most time reading, help shape your own artistic voice. So fill your library with works from your favorite scribblers and let their sympathetic rhythms fuel your scribbling engine, just keep in mind that old truism, ‘Garbage in: Garbage out.’
Okay, lets line the tools up in order of appearance:
1 • Stop, Look & Listen – Stay present, notice the ‘little things,’ record your impressions, and enjoy “Being There“
2 • Loosen Up! – Relax! Let your breath fuel your imagination, and read the ‘Creative Gravity‘ post for more tips.
3 •Feed the Beast – Set the stage and feed the beast with the food it loves. After all, it’s a scribbler’s best friend.
4 •Write what you Don’t Know you Know – You already know everything you need to know, so scribble on.
5 •Listen to your Characters – Let them tell your story, it’ll make your job easier and take the pressure off!
6 •Hammers and Chisels – See the angel or angels on the page, or screen, and edit until you set them free.
7 •Read, Read, Read – then Read some more – Read the things that inspire you, and balance distraction & action.
Please feel free to use these in any order that suits your scribbler’s groove.
Chapter One Epilogue
Does being a scribbler make you a creative anarchist? Darn right it does. But if you need rules, that’s okay too, whatever works are the first two ‘w’s’ in ‘www.movieist,’ just be mindful of how tightly they’re binding you. I remember when my daughter was a baby, swaddling her made her feel comfy, but not all the time, so loosen that rule blanket when you start to feel too constricted, because you also need freedom to play in the magical Sandbox of ideas.
SPECIAL BONUS TIP: You can apply these rules to any form of artistic expression or work that you do, just swap out the scribbling parts and insert your craft or job! And be sure to check back later for new chapters of The Ultimate Writer’s* Toolkit saga.
P.S. Here are a few books on Writing and Creativity that I enjoyed reading:
Photo credit: Mervyn Chan