Sunday, November 29, 2009

If You Want to Write

We've been talking about writing and ways to increase productivity in this recent series of posts.  I'd like to take a little side-trip at this point into the realm of creativity and inspiration.

The title of this post is the title of a book I stumbled across a while ago.  Written by Brenda Ueland in 1938, it is described by Carl Sandburg as "the best book ever written about how to write".  For my money, it's the best book ever written about creativity and inspiration--and how to nurture them.  During her 93 years, Ueland published six million words.  The book, "If You Want to Write", contains not only her philosophy about writing, but many examples and inspirational stories from her writing classes and workshops, in which she taught professors, housewives, and factory workers alike.

Ueland's advice is clearly useful for fiction writers, but do any of her insights have relevance for us as technical writers?  I think so, which is why I'm taking the time to discuss her book.  Everything she has to say about how to tap into one's genius is relevant to us, not only in writing but in stimulating creative ideas and innovative ways to pursue them.

Ueland taught all kinds of people to write: rich and poor, educated and those who had never been to high school, housewives and salesmen, professors and students.  This is what she learned:  "everybody is talented, original and has something important to say".  Some of her most amazing examples of enthralling, inspired writing were penned by timid stenographers, lonely unemployed women, and housewives who had no prior training or experience.  Ueland compares these writings to those in glossy magazines of the time written by highly paid writers--boring, uninspired drivel.  The message for us scientists and students of science is that we can just as readily tap into our creative nature and produce something original and worthwhile.  How did Ueland get this result from her students?

Here are a few nuggets:

The imagination works slowly and quietly.  You should not expect inspiration to come like a bolt of lightning.  Instead, you may spend a lot of time just sitting and thinking or daydreaming.  If you are always busy, talking to other people, running around carrying out tasks, or always plugged into your iPod, your thoughts have no chance to grow and develop into creative ideas.  Ueland encourages people to dare to be idle for a time, not always pressed or driven to accomplish something.  I have a long commute from home to work (2 hours roundtrip) during which I just think.  I do not listen to the radio or to "books on tape" (which is always what people encourage me to do).  Ideas don't always come to me during the drive--the drive allows my thoughts to swirl around and begin to gel.  Suddenly, at some later time, the creative idea will pop into my head.

Be in the present.  When you sit down to write or to contemplate a research project, no logical thought comes to mind.  You try to force thought, but paralysis sets in (sounds familiar).  You begin to doubt yourself and to suspect that your mental abilities must be limited because you have no good ideas.  Ultimately, you give up and go do some menial task: washing glassware or filing reprints, and only then you have some original, illuminating thoughts.  You are self conscious in the first instance, not so in the second.

Be careless, reckless.  Many novice writers start out being pretentious and use a lot of jargon and overblown phrases because they think this is a sign of good writing.  Actually, it is boring and annoying to read such writing.  Don't worry about what other people will think.  Write simply and honestly.  Technical papers that are dense and take a tremendous effort to understand are not a pleasure to read.  Why would any scientist aspire to write such things?  You are writing about science, a fascinating topic.  Why not show in your writing how interesting, thought-provoking, and exciting your findings are?

Develop true self-confidence.  Ueland:  "..self-confidence never rests, but is always working and striving, and it is always modest and grateful and open to what is new and better."  That is one of my favorite definitions of self-confidence.  It is different from conceit, which is "a static state where you rest on some past (or fancied) accomplishment."  Today, conceit is additionally colored by a sense of entitlement, based not on any accomplishment or positive traits, but simply on the belief that adulation is deserved.  True self-confidence will carry you safely through criticism of your work, rejection of your papers, and various other disappointments.  Conceit will fail you in such instances.

Be microscopically truthful.  We often write things by rote, repeating the same boring information in our introductions and methods. We may repeat what we've read in other papers a dozen times, trying to reword it in a fresh way.  We may be stumped as to how to describe our results in an interesting way.  To write in a microscopically truthful way is to write "...with exquisite and completely detached exactness and truthfulness."  You say precisely what you observed and what you think about it, even if it sounds awkward at first.  Don't imagine what someone else might say or expect you to say. Think about your topic, your experiment and write about it in your own eloquent way, providing those precise details that make it uniquely yours.

Keep a diary.  Or a blog.  Here's Ueland: "Yes, from writing a diary I am sure that I have learned things. But I don't think the learning process would have moved on so well, if I had not written down today's minute revelation. And that is why, if you want to write, you might try it."  I think she would have approved of blogs.

Write what is next.  Here's Ueland again: "And so try this yourself when you write an article. Do not worry about the whole. Write what is next, the idea that comes now at the moment. Don't be afraid. For there will be more coherence and arrangement in your thoughts than you think."

The essential message here is to nurture your creative side by spending time 1. with your thoughts and 2. writing unselfconsciously--in a diary or a blog.

If you never spend time alone thinking and are always listening to music, commentary, and other distractions, creative ideas are less likely to develop.  Your head becomes so filled with other people's thoughts and opinions, that there is no room for yours.  Some people are afraid to be alone with their thoughts--as if something dreadful might jump out.  But such solitary musings are essential to writing well.

To write well, you must also practice it regularly and deliberately.  Keeping a diary of daily events, thoughts, dreams, or insights helps develop an ease with writing unselfconsciously.  There is no pressure to produce something witty or wise in a diary, so you can learn to easily express yourself in writing.  Even writing about mundane things can produce some amazing results, if you let yourself go and write what is in your heart.  Blogging is a step further in which you put your writing in the public eye and invite feedback.  If you look at your favorite blogs--the ones that really speak to you--you will see that the author is writing unselfconsciously.

The next post describes in more detail how to write spontaneously.

1 comment:

biochem belle said...

Some interesting, thought-provoking ideas about writing. I have noticed that when I lack quiet time (usu. found walking to work or going for a run) that my mind feels much more muddled.

I also spent quite a bit of time on writing 'unselfconsciously' over the long weekend-a little through blogging but also through my creative writing (which I've been working on for years). It is an excellent way to improve writing and to clear one's mind-creating room for more :)