I learnt this liberating writing tip from the poet, William Stafford, when he was a visiting writer at Ohio State University where I was doing a Masters in Creative Writing: You need to write the bad poems to get to the good poems.
Get the bad poems out of the way; express the ideas however slight they might initially seem, for perhaps the idea you are conscious of is but the tip of the iceberg of the idea you are not conscious of. Write it down; sharpen your writing skills; improve your technique. And then you are ready for the good poems when they come.
If, however, you second-guess the poems: the subject is slight, it’s sentimental, it’s boring, it’s done before, it’s too abstract, too cliched–you become a critic, rather than a creator. More and more embryonic poems will have this shadow of judgement thrown over them. Your mind will become a self-cancelling system. Ideas will go from your mind to the waste-paper basket without ever having been written down.
And good poems may go this way too. You may begin to lose the confidence and self- belief to write them down.
William Stafford’s famous advice for dealing with writer’s block helps me as a blogger: to be willing to lower my standards. To be willing to write slight posts, express slight thoughts.
Then writing becomes as instinctive as breathing, my brain moves to my finger tips, and I keep current with the flow of my inner life and thoughts. Not being willing to post slight posts leads to perfectionism which as Ann Lamott says is the voice of the oppressor and the enemy of the people.
The willingness to fail. The willingness to take risks. The willingness to try something new, even if it is far below your usual standards. These are all essential elements of creativity.
And they keep blogging easy, pleasant and a joy, rather than one more self-imposed chore.
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I love William Stafford’s liberating essay, A Way of Writing.
“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity that brings to him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays, laws, philosophies…
Back in school, from the first when I began to try to write things, I felt this richness. One thing would lead to another; the world would give and give. Now, after twenty years or so of trying, I live by that certain richness.
The importance of just plain receptivity… When I write, I like to have an interval before me when I am not likely to be interrupted. For me, this means usually the early morning, before others are awake.
I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble–and this is where receptivity comes in.
To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs, of course, to any of us. We can’t keep from thinking. Maybe I have to settle for an immediate impression: it’s cold, or hot, or dark, or bright, or in between! If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen.
If I let them string out…. Along with initial receptivity, then, there is another readiness: I must be willing to fail. If I am to keep on writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards. I must get into action and not let anything stop me, or even slow me much.
By “standards” I do not mean “correctness” spelling, punctuation, and so on. These details become mechanical for anyone who writes for a while. I am thinking about such matters as social significance, positive values, consistency, etc…. I resolutely disregard these. Something better, greater, is happening!
I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on. I am making something new, something that has not been judged before. Later others–and maybe I myself–will make judgments. Now, I am headlong to discover. Any distraction may harm the creating.
So, receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes. If something occurs to me, it is all right to accept it. It has one justification: it occurs to me. No one else can guide me. I must follow my own weak, wandering, diffident impulses.
A strange bonus happens. At times, without my insisting on it, my writings become coherent; the successive elements that occur to me are clearly related. They lead by themselves to new connections.
Sometimes the language, even the syllables that happen along, may start a trend. Sometimes the materials alert me to something waiting in my mind, ready for sustained attention. At such times, I allow myself to be eloquent, or intentional, or for great swoops (Treacherous! Not to be trusted!) reasonable. But I do not insist on any of that; for I know that back of my activity there will be the coherence of my self, and that indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again.
This attitude toward the process of writing creatively suggests a problem for me, in terms of what others say. They talk about “skills” in writing. Without denying that I do have experience, wide reading, automatic orthodoxies and manoeuvres of various kinds, I still must insist that I am often baffled about what “skill” has to do with the precious little area of confusion when I do not know what I am going to say and then I find out what I am going to say. That precious interval I am unable to bridge by skill.
What can I witness about it? It remains mysterious, just as all of us must feel puzzled about how we are so inventive as to be able to talk along through complexities with our friends, not needing to plan what we are going to say, but never stalled for long in our confident forward progress. Skill? If so, it is the skill we all have, something we must have learned before the age of three or four.
A writer is one who has become accustomed to trusting that grace, or luck, or–skill.”