I happen to believe – scratch that, I know – creative writing has amazing benefits. Specifically, amazing therapeutic benefits. I also volunteer at S.E.E.D. (An eating disorder charity for those based in the East Riding of Yorkshire and Hull.)
So, when S.E.E.D. asked me to give a short talk on the benefits of creative writing, I gleefully rubbed my hands together and accepted. Actually writing them down and (gulp!) presenting my ideas was a lot harder than I had first thought.
But, yesterday, I finally did it. And I’d like to share it with you:
Last year I graduated from Hull University with a BA (Hons) degree in Creative Writing and English but what I think is one of awesome things about creative writing is that you don’t actually need any training to do it. Obviously, reading up on it can help your understanding of how best to present your ideas or characters but it’s not something You. Must. Do.
The only real rule of writing creatively is to write.
Just pick up your pen and away you go. Write a lot, write a little, it’s totally up to you. It can really help you to release your emotions and understand what you’re going through.
So, first things first, what actually is creative writing? Pretty much everyone knows that writing down stories is creative writing and rightly so. But creative writing is really just any writing that expresses thoughts, feelings and emotions without just stating information.
It comes in a hell of a lot of forms – poetry, novels, screenplays, creative non-fiction – are just a few but for this talk I’ll be focusing mainly on prose.
While at I was studying Creative Writing and English at University I was asked that almost obligatory question by anyone I told I was a student – “so, what are you studying?”.
When I told the name of my degree, I was often met with confused faces and blank stares. Someone even blurted out “Creative writing? What’s the point of that?” Well, actually, there is a point to writing creatively. In fact, there’s a hell of a lot of reasons to write.
You know that feeling when you’re really pissed off because someone’s done or said something that has really rubbed you up the wrong way? And then you go to a friend or a family member or whoever the unfortunate soul is who happens to be closest to you and let rip a moan of massive proportions? And you tell them just how annoyed or enraged or bloody well indignant you are?
As the words erupt from your mouth, your anger rushes out too so by the time you’ve finished telling your epic rant you start to feel better.The problem hasn’t been solved by any means, but your initial reaction has now pretty much gone and you can start to see the problem a bit more clearly and rationally.
That cathartic burst of release is what writing creatively offers you. Whatever you’re feeling – sad, mad, misunderstood – write it down, let your emotions take over and just get it onto the page. Don’t worry about it necessarily making sense or being full of flowery words and literary devices.
Just bang the words down and afterwards you’ll feel that same sense of release. The same weight lifted from your shoulders.
And another awesome thing about creative writing is that you don’t need to show anyone your writing if you don’t want to. No one but you needs to know. Once you’ve written it, it’s yours to do whatever you like with. You may want to keep it to look back on later or you may want to rip it up into tiny pieces or set it on fire or scrunch it up and throw it as far away from you as you can.
Taking your written down feelings and actively destroying them puts you in control. This act tells yourself that you are not a prisoner to your negative thoughts and feelings but can overcome, overpower and literally crush them.
Conversely, if you do decide to keep your writing and you do want others to know how you’re feeling, letting them read what you’ve written can be a great way of telling someone something without having to actually say the words.
The problem with speaking about how you feel is that your words can get horribly jumbled. Half the time you know what you want to say but can’t quite find the right way to say it. Sometimes as you speak your emotions get a bit too much and you find you’ve burst into tears or there’s a lump in your throat that’s blocking any words coming out at all.
Writing bypasses this. It gives you time to really think about exactly what it is you want to say and how you want to say it. Because of this, you’re much less likely to forget important points you really want them to know.
But what I think is the best bit about showing other’s your writing is that you don’t actually need to be there when someone reads it. Once your words are on the page you can put that piece (or pieces) of paper somewhere you know it’ll be found and get out of there. Go to another room or go outside, wherever you feel most comfortable.
This means you can be truly, painfully honest without having that fear of the reaction you’ll get. Helpfully, this also gives the reader of your writing time to have a good think about how to process what you’ve told them and make sure they’re open and understanding if you do come to discuss it.
But if I had to pick my above all favourite thing about creative writing it would be this: the way it helps you to understand yourself. During my first year of University I saw a counsellor who recommended writing down how I was feeling.
Even though I was studying creative writing, I’d never really wanted to sit down and dedicate some time to focusing solely on this. I was suspiciously happy to avoid examining my feelings at all costs.
But eventually, I did it.
I forced myself to focus not on the imaginary stories of the imaginary characters I learning about but, finally, on my own story.
And in gigantic burst of tapping keyboard keys, I regurgitated it all.
Everything that I was feeling right at that moment and everything I had felt all day. And when I scrolled to the top of page and read it back, I was startled. I’d written so many things I’d never even realised I had thought, never mind could write down.
That’s what creative writing can do: it can provide you with an outlet to let out all those thoughts and feelings you may not know you actually think or feel. Once you’ve learned these things about yourself it makes it a hell of a lot easier to understand your own motivations and, ultimately, begin to accept yourself.
Okay, so now we’ve covered some of the many positives of writing creatively, let’s delve right into the juicy bit; actually getting started. Sitting down at your desk knowing that the time has now come, the moment has finally arrived to put pen to paper and pour out a cascade of jumbled musings that should somehow fit together can be a pretty daunting task.
I personally find it the number one hardest thing about writing. That awful moment just before I begin when I think of writing greats like Shakespeare and Eliot and even that frankly crappy book I got for a pound from Tesco that someone must have liked enough to publish and think why bother?
Why bother writing anything when what I’ll write won’t be clever enough, interesting enough, original enough and there are tons of books out there that are? It’s at this moment that I have to force myself to remember the words of one of my creative writing tutors: Don’t think, just write.
Don’t think about anything else but the words flowing from your fingertips. Don’t think about spelling correctly nor about using the right punctuation, not even about it making sense. Just write. Do this and you’ll enter what I like to nickname ‘The Zone’.
This is that feeling you get when you’re so completely immersed in an activity that time seems to lurch forward without warning. One moment it’s sunny outside as you begin to write and the next moment you look up with darkness outside your window and confusedly realise the afternoon has zoomed past.
If you’ve ever spent hour after hour obsessing over the same thoughts till your head is pounding and you are so entirely exhausted you’ll know what a blessed relief an afternoon like this can be.
What my creative writing tutor also taught me was to throw away the grand idea that everything you write must be profound and perfect. I think a lot of people hold the view that writing should beautiful; that it should be made up of beautiful words that form beautiful sentences that come together to make beautiful paragraphs of just general beautifulness.
But writing doesn’t have to be beautiful.
In fact, it doesn’t have to be anything. However, it can be a lot of things. It can be sweary and angry, sparse and desolate, simple, elaborate, emotional.
Anything at all.
Just look at all the many different styles of writing that are employed by different authors. There are so many possibilities just bursting to come alive on the page right at your disposal.
Your writing can be about absolutely anything you want it to be. I often like to just list thoughts that I’ve had that day. Sometimes, I’ll write about a particular memory that has been sparked by something I’ve seen or done. I went through a bit of phase of plucking random, interesting words from the dictionary and making up a story focused on them.
Don’t think that your writing must be ‘about’ something serious, either. It doesn’t. Of course, it can be, but it just as much can be a muddle of different words and sounds thrown together for the hell of it.
Now, before you get started with writing creatively, it’s time to indulge. Make writing a gift to yourself. It doesn’t have to be something done because you feel you really ought to do but don’t actually want to.
Writing is fun. And to let it be fun it’s a good idea to treat it as such. If you want to write in a notebook, buy yourself a nice one. Personally, I’m partial to a nice, fresh, unlined notebook and a good black-inked pen.
You could write on luxury paper, use coloured gel pens or even add illustrations to your words. If the instruments you write with are ones you like you’re more likely to relish writing and enjoy its benefits.
I find it’s really important to choose the right place to actually get down to the nitty-gritty of writing. I like write in my room. Draw my curtains, pop a comfy cushion on my chair and make sure I’ve got enough space on either side of me. But you might find that you prefer to write in a study, outdoors, or in true Harry Potter style an alcove under the stairs.
Once you’ve found that special place where you feel safe enough to let loose make sure you give yourself lots of breaks and tell others that while you’re writing you’ll be unavailable.
The time you spend writing is just for you. It’s a time to drop that avalanche of guilt, worry and shame in a place where you feel comfortable and, mostly importantly, safe.
Okay, so once you’ve got your writing utensils and you’ve found that special place to write, it’s time to think about that most controversial of questions: what makes good writing?
If you’ve ever eagerly recommended a book to a friend only to find that for some crazy, incomprehensible reason they didn’t think it was the best thing ever or scoffed at a that good review of a truly terrible book, you’ll know that writing is incredibly subjective.
That’s what makes it so fun and so bloody frustrating.
Pick any number of people at random and ask them their favourite ever novel and they’ll almost certainly come up with a whole host of different books with only a few being the same.
But I think most people can agree that a novel that truly sucks you in so you can’t help but thirstily turn its pages generally contains some combination of three things. A gripping plot, interesting characters and a writing style that is at least somewhat comprehensible. But how to achieve these things?
Let me ask you this: Do you remember a particularly moving scene or character from any book you’ve ever read?
For me, the scene that stands out the most in memory is one taken from All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque . I remember where I was the first time I read it.
It was during the summer after I’d done my A-levels and I was waiting nervously to see if I’d got the right grades to go to University. I’d been given a suggested summer reading list by my English Literature teacher and picked this one mostly as it was at the top. I was laid in bed with the sun streaming through window when I finished reading the passage.
At that moment, I put the book down on the bed beside me and took a moment to really drink in what I’d read:
And at night you realise, as you wake out of a dream, overcome and captivated by the enchantment of visions that crowd in on each other, just how fragile a handhold, how tenuous a boundary separates us from the darkness – we are little flames, inadequately sheltered by thin walls from the tempest of dissolution and insensibility in which we flicker and are often all but extinguished.
Reading this was the first time I remember being truly, horrifyingly aware of the fragility of life. I remember the clenching, twisting feeling it evoked tight in my stomach and the tears that I had to hurriedly blink back.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, this emotion the passage elicited in me could be used to improve my own writing. Evoking feeling in the reader is the holy grail of good creative writing.
If you feel a stirring of emotion whilst reading it means the author has fulfilled their ultimate mission: to make you care. Emotion means caring and caring is a step on the way to empathy: the hook that will ensure you stay with the novel till the very end.
Analysing such emotion-provoking passages will help you find out what to include in your own writing. Ask yourself what is it about the passage that makes it so full of feeling? Is it the way it is written? If so, how is it written? Does the author use simple, sparse description or long flowing sentences full of metaphors and similes?
Does the passage stir up emotion in you because it reminds you of your own experiences? If so, maybe you’ll want to include some of them in your writing.
Or is the passage emotional because it is so achingly honest that it sends a shiver down your spine and you can’t help but believe it was written just for you?
Whatever the reasons, isolate them, harness them and use them. Your writing will reap the rewards.
Always remember this: writing is power.
While you are writing you are in control.
You are the architect who decides what you want to write about. You are the creator of your characters and you can order them to achieve your deepest desires and fulfil your every passionate ambition.
You are the guardian of your every thought, emotion and feeling and can choose to liberate them in cathartic waves.
You are the author. The creator. The authority.
You are the power over the pages you write.