The Prague Summer Program is a big advocate of multi-genre workshops, and, as we prepare to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary, we would like to encourage poets considering PSP to pursue new experiences. Be committed to your writing—as you must be if you are reading this blog—and face new challenges as they arise. For poets, we would encourage you to accept the challenge of work outside of your genre.
Time is always valuable to the creative writing workshop environment—even more so if the workshop has high enrollment and a tight schedule. If you have ever taken a creative writing workshop at a university, you know that even with fourteen or fifteen weeks, it can be a challenge to work through more than a few pieces per writer. To get the most out of your workshops abroad or at your local college or university, the Prague Summer Program has a few helpful suggestions.
When you are getting ready to practice your craft, you need to know how to set aside adequate time for transitioning into and out of the experience. Whether you are exploring creative writing to enrich your artistic skills, academic writing to help you through school, or professional writing you have to take on as part of your career, all writing processes require this transition time. They also require time for planning, for editing, and for a variety of other tasks.
Time and again, creative writing students cite the difficulty inherent in carving out times for practice and development as one of the chief reasons for their frustration with their progress. It’s such a common problem for those working on developing their craft to a professional level that Writers’ Digest has multiple articles (1, 2) on the topic. No matter what the take on the subject, writers often get the same advice: make sure you set aside time, make sure you practice every day, make sure you read other writers whose work you admire, to understand what it is that you are reaching for. And, often, the advice comes with the added note that it takes a lot of textual exposure and practice before you begin to lock in to the style and structure that you need to propel yourself to the next level.
It’s just a pity things don’t always work that way.
The Myth of Practice Time
Most of the advice about making time to write is built around the comparison between writing and athletic or musical talents, and that is exactly why the advice is trouble. In a lot of ways, writing is like those other skill sets–it is technique based, it requires both muscle memory and active critical thinking in a real-time state, and the performance of it can be broken down and discussed in ways that help educate the practitioner so that they make better choices at other times. Where writing is different from those other skills is in the cost and the balance of life activities to practice effort.
By and large, musicians and athletes do not live in environments that require them to use their talents day in and day out in the service of goals other than the development of that talent. An athlete might also work a labor-oriented job that is physically taxing, but it tends not to work the exact same muscles and techniques that they need when they step into practice later, and if it does, it does not work them with the intensity of exercise. The same goes for musicians when it comes to developing their timing and dexterity.
Creative writers, on the other hand, live in a world where they are immersed in the use of their skills at every turn. From workplace communication to training and instruction to scheduling, email, social media, and keeping tabs on current events in the world, reading and writing are immersive cultural activities that can not be separated from life, and if a writer is to capture the essence of life, they can not be.
Realistically, this means that carving out a dedicated practice time can leave writers feeling frustrated and spent, because they may have the goal of reaching 350 words in a short session and calling it a day, just to get the practice, only to find themselves in a situation where their kids, work, family, and household management has put them in the position of writing 2000 or even 5000 words in a day, so that last 350 is just not there.
Making Practice in Real Time
The solution is skills transference. The secret to practicing your creative writing is finding the opportunity to practice it as an aspect of life, to make those tropes, descriptions, and structures into guideposts that not only help increase the effectiveness of communication in those other genres, but that also allow the writer to acknowledge and to nurture those skills as the opportunities for practice present themselves. By living in an ever-engaged state where literary practices more generally become specific opportunities to hone an audience-appropriate set of artistic traits, creative writers not only carve out room for craft development, they move themselves toward having a more robust creative stamina that is capable of engaging in a higher workload as it develops.
This post title might seem obvious, but its importance is multi-layered, and it affects every level of a creative writer’s performance. It’s not enough just to read the same genre you write in or to read people whose style or standpoint might share features with yours. Part of participating in the craft in a real and relevant way means reading what you write in terms of genre awareness, but part of it also means learning to be the audience, even when it’s your work.
Reflecting and Responding
Whether you like it or not, readers will associate your work with other work that shares its features. That means that when you write a literary novel that features, say, an autistic protagonist disclosing a disability in the workplace, you will find that readers will associate your book with other books along a variety of axes, including:
- Books on/about autism
- Books by autistics, whether or not they’re about autism
- Books about disability in the workplace
- Books about disabled people living their lives
- Books about relationships between disabled people
- Literary novels about contemporary issues
- Realistic fiction about the present-day
If you’re writing to reach only one of those audiences, then your work might find resonance with a portion of that audience, but it might also find that it is received less well by some of the other audiences that might have found something of themselves in it. Even if you don’t necessarily want to write like the other writers in those other genre intersections, it’s important to know what you will be compared to, as well as what the dominant attitudes and threads of that conversation happen to be and how they are likely to shape the reception of your own work. If you’re not reading around yourself, though, you miss those opportunities to enrich and expand the reach of your own project.
Beginning writers are always told about how important peer review, workshopping, and getting feedback is to their development. The emphasis on feedback happens for a reason–writing is a social act, and it is in understanding how it is received that we begin to see the patterns that allow us to gain better control over both the quality and exact implications of our messages. This is true whether you are engaged in creative writing, journalism, or research and practical writing.
What creative types have to deal with that sets us apart is simple: There are no clean templates or style guides for us. We can learn about genre, technique, and even story structure, but the exact shape of our plot has to be structured around the psychological reality of our characters. This magnifies the importance of audience feedback, because mere style is not enough to make sure we are understood. Narrative itself is rarely enough, and rhetoric, while it serves the needs of a story, is insufficient to make it whole.
Workshopping lets us see the balance of these elements, and to hear whether or not they are achieving the desired result. At the same time, though, feedback from an audience with little interest or investment in a particular style, technique, or topic limits the range of productive feedback we can receive. Consider seeking feedback in another form, either through a new workshop or through other kinds of channels, if you’re working with any of the following:
- A workshop audience that is plainly uninterested in the genre or topic.
- One whose background readings and/or writing experience makes them ill-suited to understand the techniques you favor.
- A group of people who have reviewed this same piece in more than one previous incarnation.
- Readers who do not reflect the target audience for your piece.
Local writing groups, online meeting spaces, and even blogging platforms like Tumblr can provide you with the keys to find your next workshop space, and programs like the Prague Summer Program for Writers exist to bring writers into new communities, where their work can connect with more diverse audiences, allowing them the experience of a wider reading. This, in turn, helps build up your own confidence in your judgment as it informs your base of knowledge about the way your work will be viewed by different kinds of people.
Many poets feeling their way around free verse find themselves trapped by its relative lack of constraint. That is to say, they find themselves using formal elements that the form lends itself to very well, and even perfecting them, while remaining somewhat dissatisfied with the musicality in the work. The result can often be frustrating, as these kinds of poems are gems in many ways, and often sound fantastic when read aloud while being elegantly pruned constellations of detail on the page.
Establishment and Improvisation
The key to making the musicality pop out of free verse is to establish expectations or ground rules in the opening stanza, and then to embellish and ornament them as you go. This can be by building up linguistic structures that follow familiar rhythmic patterns, such as an iambic flow or a meter that you can fold and manipulate as you go. Once the pattern is constructed, it can be imported into different techniques and rotated to provide opportunities for change. For instance, if you are running an iambic flow and you are looking to move into a new pattern, breaking your last foot of a middle line in the stanza where you make the change can allow you to pivot to the resulting accent pattern in the next paragraph.
Numeric progressions can also be a big help. Working in sets of three or four and passing patterns at points of change is a popular move in many kinds of performance poetry. For example, repeating a rhyme scheme four times before using four of the same accented vowels in a row to gloss over the fact that the rhyme scheme has been dropped, and then landing back into a new rhyme on the other side of the feat. By rotating these techniques in conjunction with each other, a polyrhythmic structure free of entanglement with absolute rules or form can rise out of the relative emptiness of a free structure.
Notation and Cadence
If you are looking to make a free style pop, one way is to commit to a line length that is measured in something other than simple syllables. Since musicality is the main organizing principle in this particular exercise, mine it for more ways to use the language. Constructing lines around length of delivery time, using punctuation consistently to notate measured lengths of pauses, and spacing the poem so that the distance between words reflects their relative lengths are all organizing principles that can replace the standard rhythmic and metric constraints found in traditional poetic styles with a more open-ended approach to structure, one that allows the poet to use the organizing principle itself as a way of establishing their skills to the audience.
As you develop your story, whether it’s a short-short or a novel, there are a few basic pieces of prep work you need to do. For shorter works, many writers find themselves making this preparation mental instead of writing out every step, but sometimes it’s helpful to write things out, even if you’re only going to be with a character or setting for a short time. This character sketch exercise can be used for book length projects or flash fiction, it’s just a matter of the length you give yourself and your commitment to detail.
Build a Dossier
To give yourself a good character sketch, you need to lay out some background information first. Set aside some time, and let yourself just get information out in bullet-point. You’ll worry about organizing your creative writing later. To make sure you have a lot to work with, consider all of the following:
- Family members and their relationship to the character
- Occupation, primary goal, and/or societal role
- Past experience and skill set, including education
- Current major objective or goal
- Possible secondary/tertiary goals (if needed)
- Recognizable physical features or characteristics
Once you have a bunch of character information bullet-pointed, you’ll want to move on to organizing it into a narrative. Whether this is the protagonist of your story or not, you will want to get yourself organized around a story starring this character, one that helps you map out the ways that the six items above interact on a day-to-day basis.
Origin Stories and Other Indulgences
There are a few ways you can organize the information, and since this sketch is for you, let yourself explore. If you can build drama and tension into this exercise, great. It will transfer to your main story. If not? OK. This is just for you. Consider how the following scenarios can help you understand this character from the right angle:
- How did your character get to be in their current job or role? Why do they owe loyalty to the people they do? Give us the place it started.
- Consider the same kind of origin story, but for a code of ethics, honor, or other worldview. Where and how did that begin?
- Write a memoir where the character shows us their most powerful family memory.
- Become Facebook friends with your character. What kind of private gossip do they share about the other people in your story?
No matter what genre you’re working in, these kinds of formative exercises help to build the world your creative writing takes place in. Even when these extra stories live and die their entire lives in your notebook, the extra information they bring to your judgment in your main projects is irreplaceable.
Wrapping up a project can be difficult for any writer, not just the ones who focus on creative genres. What most working writers have that creative writers often miss out on, though, is a prompt from outside. When your goal is to connect a client to an audience, to make recommendations to your management, or to communicate policy clearly to employees, your knowledge about the people who depend on your communications helps shape your choices. Your goals do the same thing. When you tackle creative work, though, finding that way to latch onto the next project can be difficult.
This blog has previously provided some strategies that are useful during the brainstorming process, but they don’t always work if the goal is to generate enough material to give you traction on a major work like a novel. For that, it can often be worthwhile to have a large-scale goal or theme that you need to play out, and to find numerous ways into those through smaller artistic acts. It can also be worthwhile to begin writing from the point of view of multiple protagonists, to generate thoughts about a series of events from conflicting viewpoints.
But what about the core of the idea itself? How do you latch on to something big enough that it takes tens of thousands of words to map its insides? How do you find the conflict that is just that difficult to resolve?
The answer is that you don’t find that conflict, you just realize it’s time to write about it. The broad themes and complex social maps that novels explore are mirrors of the writer’s understanding and experience. Yes, they are invented, but they are invented to explore the boundaries of experience allegorically, to hold a space where a point-of-view (or several) can be explored without repercussions on the physical plane. To find your next topic, you need to look at the things in your life that you wish you were talking about, and then you need to make a choice: Are you going to invent someone who can talk about them? Or are you going to put someone through them?
That moment of choice makes all the difference.
One of the toughest parts of managing a creative writing process is transitioning into new projects. Whether you know what your next project is or you’re letting yourself find it through exploration, there are just some times when the obvious connections between ideas or events don’t pop out at you. During those times, it’s important not to let yourself take too much break time. Walking away from your desk when you are frustrated can clear your mind, but staying away can keep you from having the concentrated time you need to really tease an idea to completion. When you are having one of those days where your next story, poem, or essay idea is just over the horizon, try one of these approaches to see if you can get things back on track.
1. Keep Things Relative
Exploring relationships can be a great way to loosen yourself up. For new projects, it can be as simple as asking yourself about the relationship between two events that stand out strongly in your past. Other explorations might include two emotional themes that intertwine and interact, such as loss and renewal. If you are working on a larger project and you need to help yourself realize the world your characters move in, this can also be your chance to create some family background for your characters so that you know who they are. For poetry, the relationships might be a little more abstract, such as an exercise in exploring the relationship between how words sound and what they mean, or between different words that share a linguistic root.
2. Write What You See
Sometimes, you have plenty of ideas, but making them into words just isn’t happening. That’s okay. Most people think in multiple ways, and finding yourself with a series of images or even a mental movie can be a great place to create from. You do eventually have to find ways to word things out, though, and one way to do that is to just get yourself typing so that your brain starts to play with language more. Starting yourself off with a short exercise where you just write whatever happens to be in front of you can be a great way to unstop your process, converting that imaginary action into narrative. It can also be an excellent way to work on word choice, diction, rhythm, or to just find a new topic for your next idea.
3. Interrogate Yourself
Have you ever played truth or dare against yourself in a public place? Not everyone is capable of it, but trying out the truth part can be liberating. Give yourself five minutes to write out all the questions on your mind right now, and then take an additional twenty to answer them as bluntly, honestly, and personally as possible. The insights you give yourself when no one is looking can reveal contradictions and juxtapositions in your thoughts hat can be used as the basis for characterization, for longer meditations and explorations, or to confront yourself when you are holding back from unleashing the full potential in your vocabulary. Use this exercise to think about the emotional shades of your word choices when you answer, and ask yourself what parts of you are answering each of your questions.
Maintaining your connection to the medium of language is the key when it comes to unsticking your writing process, no matter what genre you find yourself working in. The next time you have a project that’s giving you a hard time, try one of these process starters out to see where it takes you.