Posts Tagged ‘Writing Advice’

Through the Desert

I have been reading Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka. Janouch’s father worked in the same building as Kafka and would find reasons to go talk to him. On one of these occasions Janouch found Kafka drawing, he asked to see the drawing and Kafka swiftly destroyed the paper. This happened a few times before Kafka relented and showed Janouch his scribbles, and they were scribbles. Janouch asked him if he had ever taken any classes and Kafka said no. Kafka had wanted to find his own way of rendering things. He used the metaphor of the Exodus saying that he was still in Egyptian bondage and had yet to cross the Red sea. Janouch responded that after the Red sea is the desert and Kafka said, “Yes, in the Bible and everywhere else.”
I love this metaphor especially in regards to creative work. I’ve watched so many people who wanted to be some sort of creative abandon it because of that desert. Okay, backstory for those who haven’t seen The Ten Commandments: Moses secures the Jews’ freedom from Egypt and parts the Red sea so they can cross to the promised land. Unfortunately there is forty years of desert on the other side. It was a long movie. The important take away here is that they do finally make it to the promised land, it just takes way more work than they thought it would. There is plenty of thought that it would have been better just to stay in Egypt.
For a creative just starting out things are nice. They are in a world of enthusiasm and promise. Whatever the goal is, whether monetary success or critical accolade or even just satisfying a personal need, at this point it seems closer than ever. If they can just get over that sea, by some Moses-sized miracle, then they can make it. So they put in the work with confidence and learn what they need to learn then find themselves with that miracle (this being that they are actually any good at it) and find only forty years of work ahead of them with no clue that the promise will be fulfilled.
The old joke is that it takes ten years to become an overnight success. And for artists who want that overnight success, those ten years can be incredibly daunting. Who knows, if Kafka had not died so young perhaps we would have been talking about his paintings and considered The Trial and The Metamorphosis to be footnotes of his career.
When they say one must suffer for their art, I think this is what they really mean. I don’t think you have to go without meals, although that may be a byproduct of spending so much work with little return for so long, or have awful relationships (unless you are Taylor Swift) you just have to spend forty years in the desert of your art.


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This semester one of my assignments was to create an annotated bibliography and post it. It could be any topic so of course I chose creative writing. Class during summer is intense so I apologize for the lack of posting, the next coming is good I promise.


Sorry if the formatting is weird, this has sucked my life for longer than I would have liked and at this point I don’t care.




        The world is filled with frustrated writers. Many of them are hiding in academia. They huddle together on message boards and in coffee shops and console each other with horror stories about writer’s block. Writing itself is frustrating. The writer has this radiant, perfect creation in their heads and they must try to work it into letters. They have to frame it into a form so other people can understand it. Perhaps the writer themself can’t fully understand it. Writing is a discovery process for many, and a release of emotion. More often than not, though, writing is hard work that most likely will not be rewarded. Writers are generally not seen as happy people. There is somewhat of a plague of people who say they are writers and hardly ever write.

        This is why I intend to produce a sort of troubleshooting manual for writers. Not just for the dreaded writer’s block, but also things that may seem to be tertiary to writing, relationships, health, finances, etc.. This research is the beginning of this process and mainly focuses on craft theory and productivity methods. I am also somewhat alarmed by the lack of academic scholarship where it comes to creative writing theory. Most disciplines have droves of journals dedicated to them, even fairly niche disciplines. One could possibly find an academic journal on the Klingon language. Most of the theory is outside of the university system. Professionals and hobbyists are the main source of creative writing theory. I was shocked as a creative writing undergraduate to find that my professor (with a PHD in CW) first heard the common term “info-dump” from me. Classes in many creative writing programs tend to focus mainly on workshopping and the theory comes out but it is usually from the other students and they learned that theory from author blogs or conference panels or commercial advice books. They didn’t learn them in college, or at least not from their professor.

        Creative writing programs tend to be lumped in with literature departments. I would like to see them moved to the fine arts or even business schools. Writers are, after all, artists who are often self employed. My ideal creative writing program would be a little of both. Classes in marketing and finance coupled with classes in theory and workshopping.

        Orson Scott Card starts his Character and Viewpoint with the line, “Writing fiction is a solitary art.” (1). This is an oft repeated line in one form or another throughout the theory publications. It rings true, but it is a lie. Sure, sitting at a keyboard banging out the words is solitary work, but the art is so much more than that. The idea for the work usually comes from observations made when the writer wasn’t at that keyboard. The research that gives the work grounding comes from someone else sitting at a keyboard. (In this case “sitting at a keyboard” could be taken metaphorically to mean any number of techniques of recording words, carving stone, calligraphy by candlelight, yellow notebook and a ballpoint pen . . . .) Even the work at the keyboard is really communication meant for other people. A writer who sees themself as solitary will have no idea who they are writing for. (And I don’t buy the whole, “I only write for myself,” because that seems ingenuous because if it is true then they wouldn’t need to record it at all.) Being social with one’s writing is one of Robert Boice’s most successful techniques to combat blocking. When a writer talks about their writing and shares that writing with other people is when their writing really starts being true communication with their audience. It turns out that many of the techniques to combat writer’s block have more to do with adjusting the writer’s life than with what they do at the keyboard.

        The phrase, “milage may vary” is apropos here because every writer is a different person with a different problem. My hope is to collect as many different techniques as possible so that there will be at least one ounce of good advice for everyone. Not included here is a source from Paul Ekman, a renown behavioral analyst, whose work I believe would be very useful to a creative writer. Also the work of Temple Grandin specifically Animals in Translation has direct application. Because of a time constraint I can’t fully translate the use for an annotation. The sources that are here are some of the very best theorists I encountered in my research.





Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater, Okla., U.S.A.: New Forums, 1990. Print.



Keywords: Self-talk, Automaticy, Externality, Self-control, Self-rewards, Sociality, Audience, Brain chemistry.


        Boice, a professor of psychology at SUNY, studies the psychology of writer’s block among academics. His advice and methods can apply to all kinds of writers. The core of this work is chapter 7 where he lays out his four step plan. This plan grew out of his studies with his fellow professors as a way to make their writing more productive and get them to feel better about it. The steps are: 1. Automaticy which “comes via unself-conscious methods such as spontaneous and generative” (96) circumvents the inner editor. 2. Externaility means “external controls that ensure writing” (96). This creates outside accountability. 3. Self-control which Boice distinguishes as controlling the inner narrative one tells them self. This comes from monitoring self-talk, stopping maladaptive self-talk, substituting that with positive self-talk, and rewarding yourself for good behavior. 4. Sociality, at the core, is sharing writing with other people. Talking to people about writing and just about life helps the writer build a social network and a sense of audience.



Porter, Carol and Janell Cleland. The Portfolio as a Learning Strategy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1995. Print.


Key Words: Portfolio, Differentiated Learning, Reflection.


        For a creative writer building a portfolio should be a primary concern. There are different kinds of portfolios though and writers often only keep their very best. Carol and Cleland see the portfolio as more than a proof of work being done. They put emphasis on the reflection pieces in a portfolio as an indicator of what was learned by the assignment. “Our purpose in having students reflect on their learning is a way for them to gain deeper understanding of their learning process” (122). The portfolio here is used to diagnose individual problems so the teacher can. They use anecdotal evidence to support their thesis, and they tend to focus on the successes. This works in this particular case because their goal is differentiated learning. They are not claiming that portfolios are for every student.


Card, Orson Scott. Characters and Viewpoint. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 1999. Print.


Key words: MICE, Viewpoint, Character, POV, Audience.


        Card is a successful author of numerous works and has been a professor of creative writing at SVU. He also regularly teaches seminars and classes outside of the university. Character and Viewpoint is mainly nuts and bolts specifics about various aspects of characterization and point-of-view. Interspersed in this is general advice on how to be a writer. He advises the writer to cast a wide net for ideas and record as many details as possible. Card organizes different kinds of stories into four categories using the acronym M.I.C.E.. Miliue is a story about the setting. Idea is about the concept the story is meant to convey. Character is a story that is centered around one or more characters. Event is a story about something happening and the consequences. He also sees a story as an answer to a series of questions: so what? oh yeah? and huh? “When each question is adequately answered, readers go on with the story. When a question isn’t answered well enough, doubts begin to rise to the surface.” (14). There are many sections and looking over the section headings should help a writer find help for a problem they are struggling with. This is easier after having read it.



Farland, David. Million Dollar Outlines.  DFE: 2013. Ebook.


Key words: Plot, Brain chemistry, Outline, Audience.


        Outlines is an analysis of the most successful works, both movies and fiction. Success here is measured in money. Farland admits that this book is more valuable to outline writers than “discovery” writers. Discovery writing is the Stephen King style where the writer more or less freewrites without exactly knowing where the story is heading. Outlining is where the writer prepares the major plot points ahead of actual drafting. The advice found in this book can be helpful to any kind of writer despite this. The main point of stories, Farland argues, is to put the body in a false stress cycle which makes it better able to deal with real stress. The stress from stressful situations in stories activates the endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin in the system. “In short, all forms of recreation boil down to this: recreation is any activity that helps us cope with stress by putting ourselves at risk in some controlled way so as to artificially raise stress for a short period of time.” (25). The successful works accomplish this. If the writer is stuck in a story it might be because they are missing a plot point that would make the story run more smoothly. Browsing through this book may help them find what they are looking for.



        Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. M. D. Herter Norton. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.


Key words: Productivity, Hard work, Solitude.


        Rilke was a German poet working in the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Rike received a letter from another poet and they kept their communication going over the years. Letters only includes Rilke’s half of the conversation. The advice that Rilke gives is about more than just writing, there is plenty about life in general. He goes deeply into the concept of loneliness saying that one must embrace it. He first advises the poet to stop seeking the advice of others and look into himself. Of this inner self Rilke advises the poet to ask themselves if they really want to write and if the answer is a “strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.” (16). This is a lesson any artist must learn, Rilke learned it from Rodin, before they can actually start regularly creating. In other words writing is a lifestyle. It is a short read, it’s only ten letters spread over six years, but contains a wealth of knowledge.



Van, Pelt Peggy, ed. The Imagineering Workout: Exercises to Shape Your Creative Muscles. New York: Disney Editions, 2005. Print.


Key words: Imagination, Blue sky, Brain chemestry, Differentiation, Reflection.


        The Imagineering workout is a collection of exercises from the Disney Imagineers. Each one was given a page or two to give an essay and advice about creativity. Imagineers are people who’s job at Disney is to be as creative in as many ways as possible for their theme parks and other endeavors. There is a diverse collection of ideas and techniques, some arguing with one another, to get your creative juices flowing and strengthening that part of your brain. The editor advises the reader to adjust the exercises to meet their needs and also to “record your experiences, experiments, and results directly in the book, if you want to.” (6). An important idea conveyed here is blue sky thinking which is basically not rejecting any idea right away. This book sees creativity as a muscle that can be built up through work.


        Owen, James A. Drawing out the Dragons: A Meditation on Art, Destiny, and the Power of Choice. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2013. Print.


Key words: Choice, Overcoming, Soul food,


        Owen is an author and illustrator who has faced great adversity in his life, including ruining his working hand in a car accident and having to relearn again how to work with his other hand. Drawing out the Dragons is half memoir half advice. It is a good source for building the writer’s self worth and determination. It all boils down to his statement, “If you really want to do something, no one can stop you. But if you really don’t want to do something, no one can help you.” (7). This slim book teaches creatives the importance of making a choice and living with it, and working to make it successful.


        Mueller, Claudia M., and Carol S. Dweck. “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75.1 (1998): 33-52. Web. 31 July 2013.




Key words: Brain chemistry, Hard work, Intelligence, Self talk, Performance anxiety.


        Mueller and Dweck did a series of studies where they worked with children. The children were given a series of I.Q. test problems, and afterward some of them were told they succeeded because they were intelligent and others were told they were hard workers. There was also a control set who were given no feedback at all. They expected the Intelligent children to be more motivated than the Hard Workers but the opposite turned out to be true. The Intelligent children were hesitant to do harder problems in the next session for fear of looking bad, whereas the Hard Workers were more confident to take on any challenge. This is an important study for creatives because there is so much talk of talent vs hard work. Whatever the importance of the elusive concept of talent is on creative works, this study shows that it is far better for any creative to think of themselves as hard workers. Talent is like a set value and when the creative reaches that value in the problems they face they plateau and can not progress further. A hard worker knows no limit.

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Yes there is something after the credits, and it’s worth waiting for.

Monsters University may just be the best University/Sports movie of all time. Hyperbole out of the way it does many things right. I heard a great deal of groans when it was announced, despite the beloved classic Monsters Inc. was, people are weary of sequels. Disney sequels especially. The presence of the sequels included with the recent Blu-ray releases of the Disney films makes some people not want them at all. Planes comes out soon, Finding Dory is on the horizon. We may even get Wall-S, Braver, The Uncredibles, or perhaps even . . . A Bug’s Death. (Cast after A Death of a Salesman, as A Bug’s Life was cast after The Seven Samurai. Poor Flick is old and never lived up to his great potential. Flick Jr. and Biff don’t know how to help him. You get that one free Disney/Pixar if you promise not to actually make it.)

But Pixar is good at sequels. The trick to a good sequel that wasn’t planned from the beginning is to not try to replicate the first movie. To try to find a different story to tell with the same characters. Toy Story 2 could have been Buzz and Woody spending all their time coping with the new dog. Vying for Andy’s attention against a new, more compelling toy. It would have been the same story again. Instead we got a story about toys that aren’t played with, owned by a man who only see them as investments. Toy Story 3 gives us something new also, Andy moving on is an ineffable reality instead of the danger they were fighting against in the first movie. It was about coping with an unavoidable change of life. Not that they have a perfect record, Cars 2 seemed more like an extended CarsToon. (As some of the Disney “sequels” were just reprints of tv episodes.) They’ve earned my trust with sequels.

And another thing, “prequels” are usually actually just sequels. They just happen to be sequels that chronologically happened before the events of the quel. Rarely are they designed to be seen first. It angers me to find many omnibus versions of The Chronicles of Narnia putting The Magician’s Nephew before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Sure it happened before, but it isn’t the introduction to Narnia that LWW is. It is written to an audience that has already had much adventures in Narnia and knows Aslan. The Star Wars prequels mean much less when you haven’t seen Darth Vader’s redemption.

The thing about MU, is it treats the characters seriously. Yep, it’s silly it’s filled with all the Monsters gags, as well as the University gags. But the movie doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to consequences. Most movies do. The thing with consequences is they are vital to storytelling and it’s something that has been lacking of late. The more common way of talking about consequences when it comes to story is resolution. The ring falls into Mt. Doom and the movie is over after a quick “where are they now” montage, even though that happens halfway through Return of the King. They should put MU on the syllabus in film schools right away.

MU can also be seen as a treatise on the conflict between Talent and Education. There is a need for both, although Education — or better stated, Hard Work — is the more important. But it is fascinating when someone without talent works and works. (I guess that’s why they make movies about it.)

Yes, the film is hung on a frame. It follows the script of a University/Sports movie quite well. It’s plot has been seen so many times before. Why does a creator do that? Can’t they come up with something unique and new? My incomplete answer is: the reason to hang your story on a frame/form like that is because you want to 1. comment on said frame. 2. tell a story without worrying about the plot. There is more to story than plot. In fact the only time you don’t use one of the standard plots is when you want people to comment on what a wonderful non-regular plot you have. Heller . . . cough, cough . . . 22. Nothing wrong with that, but if you have something to say about education, as MU does then it is far easier to say that with a stock frame.

I think Monsters University strikes a wonderful balance between their high concept arty style (Wall-E, Up) and their gag-filled fun style (Cars, Rat-patootie). All of their movies have heart though, that’s why even the weaker ones are loved and successes.

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