by Jeff Lyons
We live in the age of click-bait, sound bites, and viral memes. On any given day, hour, minute, or second on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram you can find any number of cat videos or fortune-cookie platitudes meant to bolster one or another emotional cliché or bubble-gum metaphysical insipidity. They reflect our moods and emotional states, reinforce happy thoughts, or confirm our darkest vulnerabilities. We read them, consume them, have a laugh or a wistful shrug of self-reflection, and move on to the next.
But, sometimes these little fortune cookies linger and gnaw at us, and ultimately solidify into calcified truisms. These insipid notions, memes, and banalities take on a substance they were never meant to have, and as a result find a level of acceptance and “truth” that endures. This phenomenon is everywhere, in all endeavors of creative life, but is most easily seen in the world of creative writing where, for many, clichés have become the lifeblood of creative process.
Who cares? Buying into the big myths and clichés of creative writing hasn’t done any real harm; people keep writing, books and screenplays are still being published and produced, more creative writing is happening now than at any time in human history—so what’s the big deal?
When you put too much trust in these “truths” you go on creative autopilot and shut down the greatest gifts you have as a creative person: your ability to discern, your ability to assess, and your ability to make informed creative decisions. Reviving and relying on those abilities are at the heart of being a conscious writer, someone who knows what they’re writing, why they’re writing, and how they’re writing. Being a conscious writer honors our true creative process and is the only path to achieve deep, authentic, and meaningful connection with readers.
I have written a great deal about what conscious writing is all about, and how to become a conscious writer, but busting the biggest myths of creative writing has to rank as one of the most important first steps onto the road to becoming a conscious writer. So, let’s take that first step here and now and bust the top ten myths of creative writing.
Top Ten Myths in Creative Writing: (in reverse order of destructiveness: #10–#6)
#10: Show don’t tell.
The lie: If you are not writing visual scenes, or giving the reader a visual experience, then you are failing.
The truth: It’s not either-or, it’s both.
Telling is called exposition. Showing is giving a visual expression to character behavior. The implied sub-lie here is that exposition is not your friend, so you should avoid it as much as possible. Not true. Exposition is a tool and you have to learn how to wield it effectively. Showing is not always the best solution.
Take a simple example: the teenage geek who is put under the tutelage of the grizzled martial arts master, whose job it is to turn the geek into a ninja killer—and he has fifteen years to do the task. The fifteen years that pass cannot be shown to the reader in detail—it would take an entire book to show how the boy or girl goes from geek to killer. You have to tell it in exposition and cut it down to a manageable amount of prose, reducing the fifteen years down to a few paragraphs, or maybe a few pages, moving on to the mainline story with minimal digression. In the movie world the tool for doing this is called the montage.
But telling doesn’t mean you are only giving information, delivering facts, or filling in story gaps between visual moments. Telling can also be setting mood; establishing emotional context; and building the inner life of a character through emotions, thoughts, and ideas. This is all exposition/telling, and often this is the preferred form of prose tool for the job at hand. The key is knowing when to do one vs. the other.
The danger of this myth is in limiting your writer’s toolbox, and missing the opportunity to write the best scene possible.
#9: The blank page is the enemy.
The lie: When you sit in front of the blank page (or screen) you are in for pain and anxiety and angst. The blank page will resist any attempts to fill it, and it is your biggest obstacle.
The truth: It’s just a piece of paper. It’s just a black word processing document. Get a grip. The “obstacle” is not the blank whatever, the obstacle is your head—or more correctly what’s inside your head. You are so jumbled and crowded with ideas that you can’t break the logjam.
The danger of this myth is that it conditions you to give your power away to some inanimate object (piece of paper or blank screen) and hold that “other” responsible for your inability to be productive. It doesn’t have the power, you do.
Clear the mind, clear the logjam, organize your creative thought process and the ideas will flow, because they are there—you just have to get out of their way. More on how to do this in #5.
#8: Write what you know.
The lie: Drawing on your own experiences and expertise will lend truth and depth to your stories.
The truth: This is actually a very good piece of writing advice, but people get the purpose of it all wrong. They believe that writing what you know means you’re restricted by your own life experience, the events you’ve actually witnessed and participated in. But if you only know your life then how boring will your writing be?
Writing what you know isn’t writing about events in your life (necessarily), it’s about the emotional content of what happened in your life. If you felt abused, write what you know about that. If you felt loved, write about it. If you felt afraid, write about it. The actual events could be part of your story, but it’s what’s under the emotional hood that will grab readers. It’s what makes your writing relatable to readers, because those that felt abused, or loved, or afraid growing up will relate accordingly.
The other truth here is that you can’t write about stuff you don’t know. In other words, you are forced by circumstance (i.e., life itself) to only write what you know, because you don’t know what you don’t know. Even if you make everything up in a story, it can only be sourced from what you know—as a writer you have no other experience other than your own. Writing what you know is unavoidable.
The danger of the myth is that misinterpreting the meaning of the advice can artificially restrict or constrict your ability to write, whereas the real function of the advice is to do just the opposite.
#7: Real writers write every day.
The lie: The best way to be productive and accomplish success is to always exercise the “writing muscle,” so that means never losing momentum—write every day.
The truth: No, writers don’t write every day. You don’t have to write every day. I’m not sure who made this rule up, but it is total bunk. Other than eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom, there are few things we have to do every day. Writing is certainly not in that list.
The fact is, most writers are not writing every day, and because they buy into this dumb myth they beat themselves up and feel guilty because they’re not writing. But they are doing something else (probably every day): they are thinking about writing and thinking about story. So much happens when we writers stop writing and just mull over ideas in our heads. We’re thinking about story all the time (I certainly do). This is actually more important than writing because it is what gives fuel to the writing process. It’s called story development and this is something writers do almost daily and certainly more often than physical writing.
The danger of this myth is that it might make a writer discount their internal story development process as less valuable than physical writing. Just the opposite is true. If you write every day, fine, have at it. But, know that doing so doesn’t make you more of a writer, or even make you more productive as a writer. The writer that thinks and ponders more than physically writing is probably going to produce more useful work product than the one that blindly writes every day hoping for real productivity.
#6: Storytelling and writing are the same.
The lie: Writing is storytelling and storytelling writing. There is no difference and any perceived difference is just semantics.
The truth: Storytelling and writing are two different things, and they have nothing to do with one another. Storytelling is about story. Storytelling is about us. Story is what we tell ourselves about what it means to be human. We’ve been telling ourselves stories for forty-thousand-plus years. We’ve only been writing for six or seven thousand.
Writing is about language/rhetoric, it is about the rhythm and musicality of using language to convey meaning, thoughts, and ideas.
There is nothing that intrinsically connects writing to storytelling. Storytelling preceded writing and a story doesn’t need to be anywhere near the written word in order to be told. Think about it; stories can be danced, mimed, painted, sculpted, sung, spoken—or written. Stories need storytellers, not writers.
Writing and storytelling, because they are different, also represent separate kinds of talent and separate kinds of skill sets. Because you are good at one does not mean you will be good at the other. In fact, most writers are good at the writing function, but bad or poor at the story function. This is why learning story structure and story development craft is so critically important for creative writers.
The danger of buying into this myth is that writers will assume because they can string two sentences together, and turn a nice phrase, they can tell a story properly. The myth gives them a false sense of security in their own skill sets and talents. Writers have to learn how to do both well, that means learning the craft of story development and the craft of creative writing.
The previous six myths are the least destructive of the ten overall myths, but they are each still capable of derailing your creative process and hampering your productivity. As you read Part 2 next week, always keep in mind the idea of the conscious writer, and the abilities you have as a conscious writer to bust these myths and thus re-empower your personal writing process: the ability to discern, the ability to assess, and the ability to make informed creative choices. In Part 2 we look at the last five, and most destructive, myths:
#5: Writer’s block is real.
#4: There are no rules when it comes to creative writing.
#3: Good stories and good characters write themselves.
#2: Outlines and story structure kill creativity.
And the granddaddy of them all:
#1: Just do it; just write.
Jeff Lyons is a published fiction/nonfiction author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories. Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, University of California at Riverside’s Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American’s “Power of Diversity Producers Workshop,” and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His new book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in summer 2017.
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