Turn creativity on like a faucet

You know the feeling. You finally screw up the courage to sit down and put the thoughts in your head on paper. There’s a story in your chest itching to burst forth and be born onto the page. You sit at your computer to deliver your newest bundle of literary joy into the world, and… crickets.

Only moments ago your mind was swarming with the possibilities of what you would write, but now they vanish as a wisp on the wind. Where did they go? Will they ever return? You still have a story inside you, clawing to get out, but now the beast has bone timid. It sulks at the back of it’s cage and glares at you for not releasing it sooner.                

What’s worse is the memory of not long ago when you opened the cage and the beast pounced out and roamed freely. Creativity flowed like water from the falls of inspiration. Before you knew it, a whole day passed and several thousand words had tumbled onto your page. Where’s that day now?

The good news is you can learn to turn your creativity on like a faucet. It doesn’t always need to be a slow drip in the back of your mind, only temperamentally gushing of it’s own accord. It will take time, but you can learn to control the flow at will.

Know your language

It should go without saying than an author needs to know the English language. But it’s a far cry from knowing the English language as a layman and understanding the English language as an author.

It’s the difference between knowing how to drive and knowing how to drive in New York. Anyone with a drivers licence can drive anywhere in North America. I could go from Ottawa, West to Burnaby, South to Sacramento, and east to New York. Maybe I could even muddle my way through the streets of New York if need be. But unless I drive the streets every day and steep in the rhythms of the city, I will never become as proficient as a New York cab driver. They will know routes and shortcuts based on the city’s topography, patterns, and quirky habits that I could never know.

And so it is with you and language. The written word is your New York. Anyone can put pen to paper and craft an email or story. But your work deserves better. You need to steep in the English language. It’s rules and shortcuts need to become as familiar to you as the streets are to our cab driver.

But don’t confuse this with a license to become long winded. The Pareto Principle applies here. The principle states that 80 percent of our results come from 20 percent of our actions. 80 percent of the time you spend in your home is on 20 percent of the floorspace. 80 percent of a businesses sales come from 20 percent of its clients. 80 percent of complaints come from 20 percent of customers. It’s one of those rules that seems to hold true across many disciplines and boundaries. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s good enough to make plans by.

It’s also shown that 80 percent of the words we speak compose of only 20 percent of our vocabulary. That might not sound like much, but in the hands of a skilled author it can be incredibly robust. Consider that, despite the vast amounts we spend on education, even most high school graduates only read and write at a 10th grade reading level.  Even Ernest Hemmingway only wrote on a 6th grade level. And he was Ernest Hemmingway!

Being a good author doesn’t mean being long winded.  But it does mean being proficient with your craft and the tools you have. Expanding your vocabulary will allow you to express your ideas more fully to your audience. Rather than making your writing long winded, many authors have noticed the opposite. Their writing gets much tighter and more succinct as they grow. It gets easier to read because you need fewer words to get the same message across. Each sentence gets more densely packed with information because we use more precise words in their creation. And it’s your job to deliver this precision, even if your audience may not always appreciate it.

Your audience won’t always notice the subtle difference between a dictator and a despot, but you need to. They may not know why they like a certain passage, only that they do. They may not know why a character resonates with them, only that they like him. This is what you should strive for. To be the invisible composter in an orchestra of ideas. The particular tone of each instrument may be lost on the individual.  But the whole should add up to a harmony of ideas that strikes at the heart of your audience.

To reach this level, your writing needs to become subconscious. You need to be able to pull the exact word you need from the ether of your mind on a moments notice. That may sound daunting, but it’s completely within your grasp. It will seem unnatural at first, but that’s part of the process.

Know the path to mastery

There are four stages of learning on the path to mastery. And this is true of anything, not only the craft of writing. The first stage is unconscious incompetence. This is where you are doing something wrong, but you don’t know you are doing something wrong. You’re oblivious.

The second stage is conscious incompetence. This is where you become aware of your wrongdoing but don’t know how to change it. You begin your journey of learning to overcome ignorance and embrace mastery.

The third stage is conscious competence. This is where you begin to practice what you have learned. No one likes this part. It’s what makes us feel fake. Like we are the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, waiting to be exposed for our fraud at a moments notice. But rest assured that we are learning, despite how deceptive and unqualified we may feel.

The final stage is unconscious competence. This is where our hard work pays dividends. Writers at this stage will notice that their writing seems to “flow.” You decide where you want to go and you go there. If asked how you got there you may need to stop and think because you never put much thought into it in the first place.

Have you ever started your car and drove somewhere you’ve been a thousand times before? Can you remember pulling into your destination only to realize you can’t remember the drive? You recall the strange, and eerie, feeling when you realize you’ve made the entire drive on autopilot. That’s the holy grail of the process.

The good news is that you know you can get there because you’ve already been there. It was in those moments when verses seemed to flow like water. Inspiration perfumed the air and the words tumbled onto the page effortlessly. You were there before, and you can live there permanently.

The bad news is that you need to pass through stages 2 and 3 to get there. The worse news is that, in a real sense, this is where you need to live as a writer. This is where you’ll spend most of your time.

Consider your home. Most of your time isn’t spent at home, is it? For 8 hours a day you’re at work. More once you consider travel time and some of you work more than 8 hours a day. Some of you work 10, 12, 14 hours a day.  Sometimes on weekends. You have other commitments as well. Church, volunteering, family, friends, yard work. Even unproductive sleep prevents you from actually living in your home. But why do we do this?

We do this, spending so much time away from the home and people we love, to support the home and the people we love. And so it is with your writing.

Stages two and three of the learning cycle are the fertile hunting grounds where you find the meat to sustain your life in stage four. It’s not always pretty and it’s not always comfortable, but it’s always necessary. You’ll uncover things about yourself that you wish remained hidden. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, but you need to learn to live here. You need to get comfortable with discomfort of learning and, over time, you may learn to love it. Even as a hunter, who relies on the woods for his life, learns to love the wood in which he hunts.

The point I’m trying to make, and the thing to take away from this entire article, is you need to devote your life to constant learning.  Turn everything into a lesson.  Look for lessons in thing you didn’t even know had anything to do with the craft of writing.  Even something as simple as a childrens show on YouTube can inspire you if you approach it from the right angle. 

When the process make you feel uncomfortable (and it will) just remember, all you’re doing is moving from stage two to three in the learning cycle.

The REAL Hero

You may also have noticed a certain similarity between the four stages of learning and the Three Act Structure of traditional western storytelling.  I don’t think this is by coincidence.  All stories are about growth.  How do we grow but by learning?  So, it should stand to reason that your characters, just like you, experience their own stages of learning as they grow.  I think the important thing to take away is that your characters aren’t the only ones on a journey.  You’re on a journey, too.  In a very real way, you are the hero of your own story.

The first act is analogous to the first stage of learning.  The hero (you) are in your ordinary world and you think things are going great.  You have no concept of your deficiencies as a writer and ignorance is bliss. 

But something happens.  This is your second act and you’re well into the rising action of your own story.  You’re awakened and you suddenly realize your skills need serious leveling before you, or your reader, can take your writing seriously.  You need a mentor to offer you the call to action and set you down the road of trials and the goal of literary mastery.  Maybe I’m that mentor and this is your call.  Maybe you’ve had other mentors and I’m just another stone on the path. 

Now you’re at the midpoint of your story.  In a way, you’ve attained your goal.  You know how you’re deficient and you’re taking steps to grow.  You were a passenger in the process, but now you’ve taken the wheel and are guiding your own education and destiny.  You’re still in over your head in some ways and you often feel like you’re faking, but you’re learning.

In this, your second act, act you face the greatest antagonism one can face: yourself.  Your own arrogance, ignorance, lack of experience, and naivete stand in your way.  But you’re at the Pre-Climax and there’s just one more push to mastery.

Now you’re in the third act.  You’ve stared down your demons in the Climax and you’re well into the denouement.  You’ve learned your lessons and you’re now a Knight of the Word instead of a Scribbling Squire.  In a way you’ve returned home.  You began in a state of comfort and bliss, but you’ve been transformed by your journey.  You’re again in a place of comfort… but not bliss. 

It’s a state of calm that only those who’ve seen the rage of war can attest.  A calm not of ignorance, but competence.  A knowing that you can handle any challenge that comes your way, because you’ve handled every challenge that has.

Now all you need to do is repeat the process and do it all over again.  And again.  And again.  Delve into the sequels.  Become the hero of your own story.

Like I said, it’s daunting. But you’re not without help and I’ve prepared a few tools to guide your journey.

Know your vocabulary

Your first task is to expand your vocabulary. The absolute best way to do this is by reading. These are the kinds of books you should be reading:

1. Read books that interest you, because what you have a passion for is what you’ll write about the most.

2. Read books that interest others. Don’t live in a bubble. By reading genres that are of interest to others, you will broaden your intellectual palette and find ways of thinking and doing that are new to your genre. Adapt these to deepen and enrich your writing in your genre or discover a new favorite genre.

3. Read the classics. It’s a slog sometimes, but a necessary one. I’m very much a product of my time. If what I watch doesn’t have aliens, heroes in stupid costumes, and explosions, it barely registers on my radar. But I force myself to pick up a classic from time to time and I’m better for it.

4. Read books on writing. You wouldn’t design a building without at least reading one book on the craft of architecture. You wouldn’t perform open heart surgery without reading at least one book on anatomy. So why wouldn’t you read books on writing If you want to learn the craft of writing?

An upside of reading on the craft of writing is that, besides getting excellent advice from experienced masters, they often recommend more books for you to read. Fiction and nonfiction. You can add these to your reading list and be enriched by them as well. I already have a growing list that I will never get through until the day I die. As it should be.

I’ve made the two books that are the basis for this article available here. [LINK] They are “The Art of Fiction,” [LINK] by Ayn Rand and “Stein on Writing” [LINK] by Sol Stein. I highly recommend both of them.

You should also have a good quality dictionary and thesaurus. Yes, I know you can Google almost any word you can imagine. That’s well and good for a beginner.  But there’s still something to be said for a good quality writers dictionary and thesaurus at your side. Preferably hard copy, in my opinion, but an eBook will do as well.

You should also have at least one good quality thesaurus beyond Mr. Google. There are so many good quality volumes it’s hard to pick just one. A specialized thesaurus exists for almost any need you have. Some topics include character descriptions, vocations, emotions, psychology, romance, naughty words, and many more. You can find a thesaurus on any topic. I’ve compiled a list of helpful volumes here [LINK] for you to peruse.

In his book, “Stein on Writing,” writer, editor and publisher, Sol Stein, recommends “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.” [LINK] This is an encyclopedic dictionary.  That means it has definitions that go beyond the mere classifications of words and includes short articles and pictures. If you would like to check it out, Click Here [LINK] for more.

Thank you for reading and I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Expanding your vocabulary is one of the best and most basic ways you can tap into the flow of your creativity.

Good writing, and Calamus Gladio Fortior!


Shaun McIntosh