Creative advice for writers and artists abounds. Much of it is useful, helping us create stronger art. But it can also block our best work. In today’s post I discuss how to navigate that slippery terrain.
Write as if your words were a fire bringing warmth to a freezing cold room. Waste no words, just provide heat.
– Sir Tim Smit, writer and founder of the Eden Project
I don’t remember how it started.
Several editors told me that my poems had too much abstraction. I needed to focus more on concrete imagery.
This is a popular concept in writing circles: Avoid abstraction. Rely on physical images to communicate.
“Go in fear of abstractions,” The famous poet Ezra Pound wrote.
I teach my own students to bring their writing alive with concrete images, images we can see, hear, feel in our bodies, taste, smell. We experience life through the body first and foremost.
In order for writing to be vivid, evoke emotions and draw readers in, writers need strong, specific, sense images.
Not “I felt sad,” but “Tears streamed down my face.” OK, that’s a cliché, so you need to find a better way to describe sadness, but you get the idea.
I started to get very self-conscious about my lack of concrete imagery. (Don’t use “very”—that’s another common piece of writing advice. Ack! I just did.)
Here’s the thing about creative advice, like any advice:
It’s good up to a point. And then it can really mess you up.
The Benefits of Creative Advice
There is wisdom and helpfulness in the oft-repeated maxims for good writing. “Show, don’t tell” or “Avoid adverbs.”
It behooves an artist who is learning her craft to study the guidelines, learn the trade, the tools, before subverting them. To ignore centuries of practice in your art is arrogant foolishness. To snub new advances could be costly to your best art.
So, begin by applying the commonly-accepted rules. See where and how they strengthen your art.
In receiving that feedback about my writing, I started practicing describing things in concrete detail. I went for walks and looked around my room and practiced the art of description on the things I saw, heard, perceived with one of my five senses.
It is wise as an artist, who wishes to grow, to practice what might not come naturally, to strengthen where we are weak, to keep developing our craft.
I often give myself assignments to write outside of what’s easy or familiar, to stretch my capacities as a writer and expand my palette. If I always write poems in short lines, I’ll try writing in extended lines, discovering what it takes to create a strong, long-lined poem. Or I’ll write without using the word “I”.
But be attentive to how creative advice may be holding you back from creating your best work.
The Pitfalls of Creative Advice
There are exceptions to every rule.
Ezra Pound wrote: “To begin with, consider the three rules [of Imagist poetics], not as dogma—never consider anything as dogma—but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.”
Notice that Pound says never to consider anything as dogma, even his own rules. The rules won’t always apply.
There are places in a good story where you need to tell instead of show to move the pace along. There are places for abstraction. You’ll find it used powerfully in the poems of Emily Dickinson, for instance.
What I Discovered
What happened as I practiced describing things in concrete detail?
I got very (there’s that “very” again!) bored by the writing. It wasn’t me, wasn’t my style, wasn’t what fascinates and inspires me. It was tedious to do and tedious to read.
I also realized three things:
1) There are many beautiful sense images throughout my poems. I do know how to use concrete imagery.
Consider this poem of mine recently published in a wonderful literary journal called Sweet: https://sweetlit.wordpress.com/issue-10-3/poet-maxima-kahn/
If you receive critical feedback, check to see where it is true and accurate, but also where it is not.
2) My gifts and voice as a poet lie in a realm of complexity. The swirl of emotions, the abodes of Spirit and soul, the interplay between our physical world and the unseen, whether that be our feeling life or spiritual life or intellectual life—these things are in my “wheelhouse.”
My poems include ideas and so-called “abstractions,” intensely-lived questions and deeply-held values. This is who I am.
Consider what your unique strengths as an artist are, what makes you you. And don’t sacrifice these.
3) I will continue to be alert to the balance of the concrete and abstract in my writing. But without stymieing my flow.
Because the other thing that happened, when I listened to that feedback and got self-conscious about it, was I got writer’s block for two weeks, until I sorted out what had happened.
Keep what you have learned from the advice that strengthens your art. Be alert for your weaknesses. Jettison the rest.
And if you find yourself blocked, check to see if you received some piece of criticism that you took too much to heart or that is gumming up the works. And let it go. Get back to what you do well.
What Does This Mean for You?
You have to get to know which pieces of advice are for you and which are not. You need to develop discernment about when to use that advice and when to ignore it.
The best way to develop that discernment is to:
- Try out the advice in your art.
- See if the art is now stronger or less strong.
You may want to test out different versions (with and without the advice) on a handful of trusted readers/viewers/listeners.
Ultimately, you are seeking to develop your internal compass to the point that you know when your work is more powerful and more radiantly yours, and when it is weaker and/or no longer true to you. But we always have blind spots.
Guard your unique brilliance, but be open to seeing your blind spots and growing as an artist. Learn to hone your skills and strengthen where you are weak.
Most importantly, protect your ability to create, to stay inspired and share your singular vision with the world.
To read the 3 tenets if Imagism plus Pound’s list of “Don’ts” for writers, go here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/58900/a-few-donts-by-an-imagiste
To read some other sets of rules (read: advice) for writers, check out these:
From Stephen King: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/13/stephen-king-on-adverbs/
From Amitava Kumar: https://lithub.com/ten-rules-of-writing/
And from a host of authors: https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/33-essential-tips-for-aspiring-writers?utm_term=.bwXeAZ4Yz#.tnxAglRok
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