I first met Johanna on Twitter, as the creator of the wonderful #amwriting group. Johanna’s enthusiasm and drive make her stand out from the crowd. I wanted to hear more about the source of her creativity, so I invited her over to share her vision with you.
Many thanks to Merrilee for inviting me to guest blog. I feel both inspired and intimidated to be invited alongside such a wonderful group of writers—and it’s in this place of inspiration and intimidation that I often find creativity seizing. Ironic, no?
It does seem that most people enter Creativity from one of these main entry points. Those who are inspired usually enter with muse on arm. Writing on the whims of the muse is a wild experience. With blind inspiration, an idea grabs me and won’t let go. I write without outline, without plan, inspiration burning holes through otherwise normal days. It’s an extraordinary experience, but not one I can duplicate at will.
On the flip side, I’ve written in a state of intimidation. Writers who enter Creativity through these gates often find themselves surrounded by the ghosts of dead authors. Harold Bloom described this intimidation among poets, calling it “the anxiety of influence.” He argued that being too steeped in the words of others leads to derivative (and therefore inferior) works. In this state, I study the techniques of great authors, observing language and structure of their creations, hoping to duplicate their successes. And, while I learn a lot through this method, I tend to agree with Bloom: my writing arrives flat on the page, the fizz of the words gone before poured.
An approach to Creativity that works for me is neither of these, but a path well-worn by children and fools–one of playfulness. Writers on this path don’t bother with the main gates. We’re happy to climb trees and drop down into the city from shaky branches. We cross through thorny brambles, bleeding and tormented, then stumble into mythic watering holes to laugh at ourselves and our adventures. We tunnel under the wall and find new worlds before we reach the other side.
On the path of playfulness, we don’t ignore inspiration or intimidation; we simply take things a bit less seriously. We seek out our self-possessed muse and pull her hair, tie her shoelaces together, threaten to write utter crap, and then run away laughing. (She usually follows, screaming inspired thoughts while we take notes.) We play with the style of dead authors but, rather than copying, we find an irreverent twist. We make up words to suit our writing rather than painfully searching for the correct word. We study sentence structure to enlarge our options rather than limit them.
We use long sentences when it suits us to do so, knowing (hoping) that a bespectacled reader will tsk and count words and ask if we are trying to alienate ourselves from all those who now or ever will read. We also write short. Sentences, that is. And sometimes not proper sentences at all, but fragments. If that style doesn’t work, we dress up our thoughts in pearls and long gowns, the styles of our esteemed mothers leading us into elegant dialogue (while our inner children run screaming through the house).
The path of playfulness not only provides access to the city of Creativity but also brings with it a great deal of joy. It is the armchair on the beach, the writer making herself comfortable within the creative environment. For me, this difference is key.
Inspiration makes me write because I alone have been chosen to tell a particular story—and it must be told before I rest. Intimidation makes me write because I have something important to say and it’s my responsibility to say it. Playfulness leads me to write because I delight in writing. Of the three paths, playfulness offers the most consistency for day-to-day creativity. I still hear from the muse and I’m still influenced by great authors, but my own voice emerges through playful experimentation.
The following question is one only grown-ups ask: how do I do this? For the grown-ups, I provide directions:
1. Set aside time.
Having difficulty getting into the spirit of playfulness? If so, it’s best to spend time around other children writers. I find these souls in abundance on Twitter. I was drawn to the social networking site because I delighted in the opportunities for eavesdropping and character development. I stayed when I realized other writers were loitering there with me, often for the same purposes. I started the #amwriting hashtag to bring writers together to talk about their writing thoughts—as they write. Or, keeping with the focus here: writers discuss what they are doing as they play with words.
Some days when I’m having a difficult time putting myself in the right frame of mind, I have only to read the stream of thoughts at #amwriting. There’s something about watching other kids play: I cannot simply stand by and watch. I have to participate. They’re building worlds and dialog and characters and complex plots and I have to join in or I’ll die. Or at least I’ll throw a tantrum. I will.
Accessing creativity is only part of the journey. Writing requires that we move beyond inspiration and exposure to great ideas. We have to play.
Johanna Harness taught college English for ten years before setting in to homeschool her own children. She writes middle grade and young adult novels in both Northwest and fantastic settings (often forgetting which is which).
Thank you, Johanna! Now it’s your turn, participants. Do you conquer intimidation with playfulness? Do you find time to play in your own writing? Leave your thoughts in the comment trail.