The Secret to Good Writing is…
the way you think as a writer. And excessive finger quotes.
Just kidding. But finger quotes do have something to do with it.
Don’t groan. It’s true. And I’m not saying it’s true because “great minds” have directed their finger quotes at me when they said, You’re...”different” aren’t you? Creative people “think differently.”
But we do. Gresham College London even has an excellent lecture exploring common myths about the creative mind, its “necessary” link to mental illness, and why many creatives “live on the fringes of society.” When I need a good laugh, I play it in the background. It’s like James Herriot for psych students, country doctors, and poets. It takes duende to a whole other level.
So, I digress. But did I?
I’m a huge Bob’s Burgers fan, and not just because Louise and Gene remind me of my brother and I when we were kids. Have you seen this episode, The Belchies? It’s a great example of, “Great artists
borrow steal.” – Pablo Picasso Banksy. If you know the movie The Goonies, you’ll know what I mean.
When the Belcher family et al. are stuck in the tunnels under the old taffy factory and demolition starts, Gene saves them by following his creative instincts. Raw and impulsive, he needs to play Aqua Boogie one last time and when beating his brick against the wall, discovers its hollow. Bob kicks his way through the wall and everyone escapes to safety on the beach.
Its the weird and the strange, your own artistic instincts and how you see your world that make you an interesting writer. Good writing happens as you learn to elevate your craft and combine your talent with intention and technique. You need your own authentic ideas to do this.
It often takes years for a writer to develop the skills they need to tackle their most ambitious ideas. But it is these ideas—their imaginations, what subjects attract them, and how they are called to execute them—that are most valuable.
How do you think about snow? Or finger quotes? Or taffy? What kind of metaphors come from you? It’s never what you think, but how you think, and this is one of the secrets to good writing.
Diction, diction, diction. Or maybe I should say, “Word choice, word choice, word choice.” I’m sure at some point in your life, someone said to you, “Choose your words wisely.” Unfortunately, that is the infinity loop of the writing life. When I mentor new clients, especially in poetry, they almost always ask for two things: 1) How can I make my writing like yours (or any successful writer’s)– is it just focusing on details? and 2) Why does it matter what word I use?
As an INTJ female, I always have at least five answers to one question, but my go-to answer is usually…strategy! First, what do you want? Then, how do you think you can get there? How can two potentially contrasting ideas be made to fuse together? In writing the answer is always language. A fulsome vocabulary is a must for writers really looking to parse their own minds and grow their writing experience. As a young writer, I scoffed at word choice– until I read my first James Joyce story and learned that as a fiction writer, he agonized over each word.
Agonized. That concept was drilled into me. Joyce agonized over every word. I didn’t think that fiction writers were so particular. I ruminated on this idea for a quite awhile. It certainly gave me more food for thought when I came across the erotic love letters he penned to his dear wife, his “dirty little fuckbird“. But Joyce’s writing is seamless and evocative of many things, not just of atmosphere or time and place. His precise word choice draws us into his narrative, so that on a humid July day we shiver as snow falls in Dublin.
Evocative writing, or writing that encompasses the identity of a person, place or thing, or just generally creates resonance within the reader typically comes down to word choice. Word choice says as much about who you are as a writer or person, as it does about “good” writing. As writers we “craft”, we evoke, we “call up” or cast a spell.
When it comes to poetry, the word is the poem; a word can make or break a poem. Stretching your mind for the best word is an invocation to life for your poetry. I began using a thesaurus and was so surprised at how many worlds opened up before me. (Nerd alert! This is my favorite thesauraus.) It was like string theory– “brown” led to “auburn” and “umber”, umber led to “pigment” and the wikipedia page of acrylic paints, then to “earth” and soil levels, “charcoal” and “anthracite”, to parchment and brazier.
So, in summation, the answer to 1) is explore the ideas around what you’re writing and find what inspires you. What makes you hungry to learn more about it– to find the best words to describe it, to paint it for your reader? 2) It matters. It’s everything.
In the Beginning…
In the beginning, there is only you and your desire to write. Some begin to write publically and others prefer to work away quietly until they gain the courage to share their first attempts. All of us eventually share our writing with someone or join a writing group, but this can be a daunting experience. Although my life is now surrounded by all kinds of writers at different stages in their careers and they all agree that in the beginning, it was rough.
I love my family, but I’m what most people would call their growing eccentric. I have a few friends who like to introduce me with, “This is Kayla. She’s eccentric.” And I shake their hand and say, “I’m not really eccentric.” “What do you do?” They ask. “Oh,” I say, “I’m a writer.” “You’re eccentric,” replies my new acquaitance. And in some ways, my family has treated me like their technicolour sheep sporting liberty spikes. At five years old when I announced I wanted to be a writer, my father did a face palm and my grandmother consoled him with, “She’ll be the next L. M. Montgomery.” Well, maybe if Anne and her imagination meet a classier form of Fifty Shades of Grey. Truth be told, I prefer the Emily books. I digress.
So, it’s that moment when you’re so excited, but a little nervous, to show your work to your family or friends and they read it, and you wait, and they read it again, and you’re getting more excited, and they take a moment to collect their thoughts…and you start to feel a little sick to your stomach. As they hand it back to you, some say, “Good job. Love the butterflies.” Others, “Why is it so dark. Do you need to see a professional?” Or my father when I handed him my first real in-print poem: “I don’t understand poetry.” Oh.
But, what’s not to understand? At the time I was working on clarity in my writing, but I thought it was straightforward enough. My friends weren’t much better. They said, “Good job. Loved the colours. It’s like you painted a picture with words.” Others, “Are you in therapy?” and my brother, “I’m not good at poetry, but I’m really proud of you Sis.” Awwww.
So I did three things. I stopped showing my writing to people who “didn’t get it” or weren’t able to help me as a intermediate writer. I formed a small group of writer friends, and we edited and encouraged each other. Lastly, I embraced my family’s idea of me as their punk-haired technicolour sheep. It made things easier. Honest.
Easier, perhaps, because at my core I am one of those people. I’m used to not fitting in with the status quo, but it’s a rough transition when you’re weird and a writer. If you’re moving through something like this, I feel for you. So, what can you do?
Find a writing group. Create a community for yourself and others. Be honest, be kind. Listen. If your group is telling you something doesn’t work in your writing, it probably doesn’t. You will learn who “get’s you”. There will always be a few individuals who understand what you are attempting. So edit out what doesn’t work because that will hold you back, and move forward with their suggestions and encouragment. Then go to the sheep salon and change your hair. It’s best to keep everyone guessing at what you’re up to next.