Good writing is often instinctive – if we get quiet enough, the poem or story seems to come through us, instead of being directed by us. But how do you get to a point where that can happen? We are bombarded by opinions and rules about what makes a good piece of fiction or poetry, what we should or should not reveal about ourselves in our writing, what we can or cannot say. It’s hard to fight against the norms, find our own inner voice, and trust it. And how can we be sure the voice we are listening to is really ours?
I found that when I went back to school in my 30s, I became adept at figuring out what my professors wanted me to focus on and regurgitate back to them – and I was good at that. Later, when I started freelancing, I learned to give my editors what they wanted and, as a ghost writer, write in other people’s voices. And since I make my living as a freelance writer, it has been a good strategy. It is not, however, a good approach for fiction, memoir, or poetry. Even today, I still find hard sometimes to shift between the two types of writing and honor my instinctive ways of creative writing, because business and article writing is so tightly controlled.
So, how do I do it? I let myself go wild on my first drafts – write anything, don’t try to control it, get into the zone, and throw caution to the wind. And, for me, that works best putting pen to paper and not starting off on my laptop. When I finish the draft and head for my computer, my editing cap comes on again, and I start to notice what belongs and what doesn’t. The editing cap stays on during the next few drafts. Then I put my writing aside and let it mellow – and let me have a chance to forget it. When I pull it out a few weeks later, I once again go into the flow – usually getting very quiet before I start reading. I have the piece printed out and keep a ready pen. What happens at this stage is that I follow my instincts again to see where the story needs to go – I may feel the need to have more description or have my characters talk less. I see new images, new connections, new possibilities; and I trust and follow each and every one of them, again, letting them take me where they want. The piece goes back into the drawer for a day or two and then the editing cap comes on for the final drafts.