Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Entries in writing tips (37)


How To Keep Creating (In The Word Cellar)

Ligonier Country Market, summer 2007

This week's In The Word Cellar column is an interlude of inspiration. I almost titled this post "Things I've Been Telling Myself (which you may or may not find useful, too)." I had intended to write about the rules of writing this week, but apparently I needed an affirmation of my creative powers instead. Writing has been slow going for the past two weeks, even downright painful at times. So here's a little shot in the arm to keep you -- and me -- going. Come back in two weeks for what I hope will become a rousing discussion on the topic of when it's okay to break the rules of grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. Fun times!

  • When you sit down to write and there are no words, listen.
  • When you look at the blank page and panic, type the first ten words that come to mind, no matter what they are. Then type ten more. It might hurt, but keep typing until you find the thread of some story, even if it's not a story you knew you needed to tell.
  • When you open a jumbled mess of a document to rewrite it and feel physically repulsed by what you are sure is hard core evidence of your shortcomings, breathe.
  • When the call to create becomes a burden, shift your energy from a place of duty to a place of privilege. Stop saying "I have to," and start saying "I get to."
  • When every single word or brush stroke or click of the shutter feels like a slow and clumsy slog through the mud, take a break. And then go back to slogging until you can find an easier way. If the way doesn't get easier, only you can really know if you're on the wrong path or if this is simply a time of learning and strengthening for you. Be honest and proceed accordingly.
  • When you feel certain that your success is behind you and all future attempts will fail, try to chuckle at your own mix of pride and insecurity. And take comfort in the knowledge that other artists have this same mix inside of them, too.
  • When you don't know what to create, ask yourself what you love. Then make that.
  • When all of this fails, remind yourself to create out of a sense of love, not fear.
  • When you feel overwhelmed and sick to your stomach with other people's smarmy inspiration, take these words (and all aphorisms) with the clichéd grain of salt. Then find your own way to keep creating. (And tell us about it in the comments.)

Can Writing Be Taught? (In The Word Cellar)

This week we kick off the first In The Word Cellar feature with a basic -- and often touchy -- question: Can creative writing be taught?

Here's my short answer: Yes.

Of course, there's also a longer answer.

I'm drawn to kitchen analogies lately, so for a minute, let's think of writing as cooking. Can cooking be taught? Of course it can. In order to cook, we need to learn about different kinds of ingredients, how they react to various cooking methods, and how their flavors interact with each other. We need to know about utensils, how to tell when produce is ripe, the best way to chop an onion. To cook, we learn how to measure things, how to read a recipe, and eventually how to improvise without one. In order to create a tasty dish, we need to understand the ingredients, the method, and the art of seasoning something just so. Yes, cooking can be taught. This isn't to say that everyone will have the same cooking style, will excel at preparing the same dishes, or will become master chefs. After all, I did say the art of seasoning. But the building blocks of cooking can be taught.

I feel the same way about writing. Yes, there is a difference between natural talent and learned skill. And yes, I believe that both exist and will impact the way we write. But we won't get very far on the page if we focus too much on innate ability and neglect the learned skills part of the picture.

What is the basis of writing? Language. That's simple, but it gets tricky. Because we use language everyday, it's easy to believe that we can automatically master the art of writing. But being an excellent writer is much more than knowing how to use words to communicate. We need to know how words interact with each other; how to structure a sentence, paragraph, and passage to create the best effect; how to use various writing techniques to create a powerful and beautiful story. Things like grammar and verb tenses matter. They matter because they help us to understand the building blocks of our craft.

Now, if all of this sounds cold and clinical to you, don't worry. I also believe that writing is an art, full of mystery, magic, and serendipity. I'm not an either-or kind of girl. I believe in both-and. Writing is both a science and an art. An excellent piece of writing is the product of learned skills and natural talent. The process of writing is something to be examined and enjoyed.

As we explore the nature of writing here In The Word Cellar, I hope you'll remember this: You can learn to be a better writer. I can't do anything about your natural level of talent, and frankly, neither can you. So why worry about it now? Besides, we're terrible judges of our own abilities. Let's focus on the parts we can control. Let's learn the techniques of good writing, and let's give ourselves over to the joy of creation. By learning about the ingredients, method, and art of writing, each of us can create something lovely.

What do you think? Do you believe creative writing can be taught? Are you ready to learn? Let us know in the comments.

**I'll be answering community questions in the coming weeks. Send your writing questions to jennifer{at}thewordcellar{dot}com with "In The Word Cellar" as the subject line.**

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Check out other articles in the series here.

I'll be answering community questions in the coming weeks.
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