Writing Wednesday — Staying Creative and “The Rules”

Recently, a list has been circulating on Facebook titled “33 Ways to Stay Creative.” (I wasn’t able to trace its origins; when the “My Modern Met” blog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared it in 2011, they couldn’t find the author, either.)

I love this because it’s concrete and specific — these are things we can actually do, and too often don’t. It reminds us that creativity doesn’t just happen by accident; we can feed and nurture it, to better feed and nurture ourselves.

My friend Elaine Snyder, an amazingly creative buckskin clothier, commented that she’d add to #24 “test the rules,” because they can provide insight. And that got me thinking about writers, often beginners, who complain about “the rules” without actually digging for that insight Elaine mentioned. Take, for example, the complaint about “the rule” against adverbs. “Adverbs are perfectly fine,” they say. “X uses them and everyone praises X’s writing.”

This “rule,” and almost every other rule about writing, is really a guideline, a good practice grown from experience. At its core, it’s a reminder to choose every word with care and intention. When you’re tempted to use an adverb, for example, ask yourself first if you’ve used the right verb. Truly think about the action you’re describing, the person taking the action, what they’re feeling at that moment, their motives and inner conflicts, their physical capabilities, the setting—the entire situation. When you find the right verb, you might not need an adverb. If you decide you do need one, like the much-acclaimed X, then it will have been a deliberate choice, not a lazy fallback. You may write an entire story without a single adverb—or you may let them fall drippingly, deliciously, bountifully off every character’s tongue.

So the next time you find yourself griping about “the rules,” test them. Follow, flaunt, fall somewhere in between. See what happens.

And revel in the creativity of it all.

6 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday — Staying Creative and “The Rules”

  1. Leslie:
    Thanks for this. The list (printed it out) and the insight about rules.

    I have several writer friends who complain about the adverb rule–as if it came down on a tablet from the mountain. 🙂 I like your approach about checking your verb first. I have a feeling the complaints come from a place of fear. They fear that they aren’t good enough as writers (don’t we all feel that sometimes?) and the preemptive complaining will somehow inoculate them from criticism. Because if we don’t really believe in a rule, then we can’t be called on it, right?

    You’re right: test the rules and see what happens.

    • Thanks, Lynn. Yes, I think fear can be a factor. What I hear is resistance — “they can’t tell me what to do.” No, but “they” can tell you what they’ve learned that seems to work best. And I think we need to understand those basics — ‘the rules’ — before we can truly understand how and when to bend or break them. That’s what testing them means to me.

  2. Leslie, I love this. My friend Deb Stover used to say, “Rules? What rules?” The point is it’s important to know the rules and/or guidelines then to make a deliberate decision to break them. Oh, goodness, there are so many “guidelines,” out there they are stapled to my forehead

    • Exactly. Slavish adherence is no better than kneejerk dismissal. And what works in one piece or genre or medium isn’t necessarily true in another. (But staples, Donnell? Sounds painful!)

  3. I find I do some of my best creative brainstorming of plot and characters while driving (I know, a menace on the road) and I keep a digital recorder handy so I don’t lose my inspirations.

    • Me, too — I love the recorder on my phone, and also scribble notes. But after a near-miss with a semi on a curvy stretch, I learned to pull over. Stay creative and stay safe!

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