There’s nothing worse than a blank page, the impulse to create and the fizzle, crack and pop as your energies diffuse into frustration. It used to be so easy, but as we grow up we tend to complicate the process of writing with our expectations of perfection, the desire to control the narrative and the inclination towards complex plots before hitting on the basics. Before you know it, you’re dragging your readers along with a few lines of forced text and screaming about your misplaced mojo. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably time to rewind.
Kids are intimidated by blank pages too, but they have less holding them back once they get started. Writers can learn a lot from children – they have limitless imaginations, bundles of creative energy and only a fraction of the self-awareness that we tiresome adults have developed. Here are some creative writing tips for those wordsmiths struggling to find their flow, cherry picked from observations of primary school children visiting the Fighting Words*creative writing centre in Dublin.
There’s no need for happy endings
Like adults, kids are influenced by the world around them – their favourite story books, video games, foods and more often than not their pets – but this doesn’t necessarily shape the narrative structure of their stories. If a boy called Billy has to choose between rescuing his best-buddy the talking pineapple-head – who is haemorrhaging juice after a hungry so-and-so took a bite out of him – and getting his hands on the prized ‘iPhone 300million’, primary school students have no problem taking Billy’s decision away from the moral constraints of this world and conjuring surprising and fantastical endings. This is important, because it is too easy to write clichéd, two-dimensional stories that fall into well-worn narratives – this can cause a lot of frustration for writers, which totally stunts all that creative activity in the right-side of our brains. Next time you’re wrestling with a blank page consciously try to free your mind from the cultural norms that complicate your thoughts – imagine you’re six, that anything is possible and you’ll be laughing.
Write what you want – forget everyone else
Kids own their stories. Once they get going, there’s no need for prompts – with ideas flying they will write their story exactly as they want to… So there. This is great and would be a helpful attitude to adopt for those writers that get caught-up wondering what their readers will think. Stay true to your artistic intuition in order to let the story flow and fill those blank pages with the zeal of a seven-year-old! You can edit the story as much as you like once the first draft is complete – so worry about commercial or social expectations afterwards. Fighting Words emphasises the importance of enabling children to think freely, writing original stories and simply getting those whacky ideas onto the page – a brilliant strategy for any struggling writer.
If you’re stuck, draw a picture…
This is great advice from Fighting Words and the kids love it. When the words dry up, trying another mode of expression can trigger all kinds of ideas. It’s okay if you can’t draw. Just find a blank page and whether it’s in biro, pencil or coloured pens: start to doodle. Psychedelic drawings of glitzy ponies and floating segways help the kids to conjure their characters and to understand them. For adult writers, this process can also be therapeutic, enabling your mind to gently free itself so that you can go back to that page afresh.
It’s okay to show off your work
Even the shyest primary pupils blush with pride as they read out their stories to the rest of the Fighting Words class – it’s really heart-warming to see. Writers tend to be very hard on themselves and often won’t let you see their work until it’s ‘worthy’. While understandable, this attitude can cause writers of all abilities to stagnate and underestimate their own abilities. This is bad and totally unproductive. As the budding young writers receive their round of applause, it is clear to see how naturally they are supported – adults are no different. The sooner that a writer’s confidence is built up by accepted praise for their work, the sooner they will be able to take on board constructive criticism – without this it is very hard to progress.
When the time’s right, good spelling matters
Fighting Words is all about teasing those ideas out and onto the page – so good spelling is not part of the agenda… Try telling that to an eight-year-old who prides herself on her neat handwriting and spelling. Just as she will lose her train of thought as she rubs out a misspelling, adult writers may lose their way if they attempt to edit their work as they go along. Fighting Words is dead right to focus on creativity first. However, the kids unwittingly hit on an important point: once those pages are brimming with ideas, it really is all about the editing. Spelling mistakes are distracting to readers and could dampen the ‘kapow!’ factor of your story. This may seem like an obvious point, but in a society that spends half of its time in a virtual reality that is littered with poor spelling, abbreviations and non-existent grammar – it is necessary. So do hold off on that spell check, but don’t lose that instinct to polish it up later and never assume you’ve nailed it – the English language is a bastard for tripping us up.
*Fighting Words is a creative writing centre established by Roddy Doyle and Sean Love on Dublin’s northside. The center welcomes primary school pupils in the mornings and secondary school pupils in the afternoon, facilitating a fun writing workshop in which pupils write the beginning of a story together and write their own endings in the second half. No rules, no teachers, just creative writing.
** Featured Image: ‘Reading at a Table’, by Pablo Picasso