On Trusting Your Creative Process

How do you nudge your way into a story?

Do you start with a childhood memory? A vintage photograph? An overheard conversation?

We all have our own way in. And our creative processes are as singular as fingerprints.

My friend and writer, Sarah Noack describes the gateway to her stories like this: “I do horoscopes and figure out enneagrams of characters, and draw pictures. And invent soundtracks in my mind.”

What I admire about her process is that it’s instinctive, primal, entirely hers. It’s exploratory.

Generating Ideas

Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, calls the early stage of idea generation “scratching.” Rather than wait for the big idea to hit – the theme of your novel, let’s say, or the plot of your story – you start by scratching for a small idea first. The idea could come from anywhere, really. A painting. A random item from your purse. Horoscopes and enneagrams.

Scratching gives you something tangible to start with. A memory. An experience. A sensation.

That one idea, however small, can expand into more ideas.

You know how this works. A single image, scent or sound can set off a cascade of associations. A particular song can launch us through layers of our past. One idea begets another until we have a pastiche of memories and inventions, all sparked from that initial glimmer.

Scratching is not linear or logical. It’s fractured. We can’t see the connections yet. We just have to trust what rushes out.


Ideas are ephemeral. You need to capture and collect them, make them concrete.

My life partner, Ian, is an avid collector of random objects. Broken things. Fragmented things. Discarded things. Ian is fascinated by other people’s throw-aways on roadsides. Or wreckage swept up on the stream bed. His 3,000 square foot art studio is crammed to the rafters with metal scraps, cables, vintage soda bottles, broken toys, mattress springs, even steel sections from the old Chichester bridge.

From the time our daughter Safira could walk, she created art installations all over our house. She hoarded all forms of minutiae — candy wrappers, roof shingles, river worn glass, deflated balloons, stray newspaper pages, magnolia petals, fallen crystals from costume jewelry.

In our house, anything and everything is fodder for art.

And while our Hudson Valley homestead sometimes resembles a junkyard, I’ve learned to surrender to my family’s fondness for what I once viewed as trash.

This is how they scratch.

We writers have our own way. Our scratchings are scattered across our hard drives, in Word folders and files, XMind and, thank God for Evernote. We collect in journals, note books, cafe napkins, sticky notes.

Mining, Recycling, and Transforming

The real fun happens when you examine what you’ve collected, when you mine your material for metaphoric value. You put what seem like unrelated ideas together, side by side, and start to discover the interconnections of ideas that seemed, at first glance, disparate.

I’m always amazed how Ian and Safira’s random objects are spun into stunning works of art, juxtaposed in strange, beautiful, surprising ways. Oil drums are recycled into lit up voting booths, cut up Brio’s Pizza boxes for faux voter ballots. A Goodyear truck tire, tree trunk, and hundreds of pennies become a gigantic tiki good fortune mosaic pendant.

Art by Ian Laughlin

A gaudy costume earring metamorphoses into a glittering chandelier in Safira’s “kitty dream house.” Pink dryer lint transforms into a plush bed for dolls. Magnolia leaves dress Princess Tiana.

Magnolia dress by Safira. Photo by Ian Laughlin.

The transformation happens when you alter your ideas to serve a larger endeavor. You recycle those small objects in service of the story. The bonsai tree that wended its way into your notebook might, for example, suggest a character’s emotionally stunted life. As Twyla Tharp says, you connect the dots.

Staying Open

When scratching for ideas, the key is to keep yourself open to everything that swims in. Trust your mind’s urge to roam.

Ideas are fluid at this stage. They’re intuitive and emotional, not intellectual. Ian and Safira never ask, “Should I bring this home or shouldn’t I?” Never, “How can I use it?” The only question is, “Will this fit in the trunk of the Honda, or in the bed of the truck?” “Can you put this in your pocket, Mom?”

Twyla Tharp says,

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark; random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end is sight.”

This is where a lot of us get antsy. We’re deeply uncomfortable in that space of not knowing what we’re writing about or where it’s going. Scratching can feel a lot like goofing off. But we need to resist our urge to wrestle our ideas into some kind of form prematurely, before our raw material has a chance to incubate.

The beauty of scratching is that you let go of all your preconceived notions of what you think you’re writing or should be writing. This comes in handy whenever you’re stuck. Because all you need to get going is something small.

Improvise, riff, scale on that small idea, no matter how minuscule.

Don’t question or over think it.

Scratch for something small in the hopes that it will evolve into something bigger.

Don’t know where you’re going.

For now, just scratch.

7 Truths About Writing Nobody Tells You

1. Writer’s block doesn’t exist.

That block you feel? It’s just stage fright. Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, we’re exposing our most hidden, vulnerable selves.

Which makes writing in and of itself an act of courage.

The fear of how others will judge what we’ve written – judge us – is part of the deal. It’s also what can keep us playing it safe. This is the most insidious form of self censorship. The more we let go of our attachment to what other people are going to think about what we write, the more we give permission for our voice to emerge and deepen.

2. Writers will do anything to avoid writing.

Writing is hard. Writing something worth reading, harder. As soon as we hit a snag, or can’t translate what’s in our head into something coherent, captivating or beautiful, we feel discomfort. So what do we do to resist that discomfort? We organize the papers on our desk. Stack the dishwasher. We hop on Facebook or refresh our email. Before we know it, we’ve lost an hour down the social media rabbit hole.

Resistance. That resistance is your greatest opportunity to get closer to the story you want to tell. That resistance is telling you precisely where you need to push through, to reach for something that you haven’t until now, been able to reach. The only way to get unstuck is to figure out a way through. It’s in those moments when you get stuck that you’re on the brink of a breakthrough.

3. Writing requires purity of attention.

It’s not about the quantity of hours, it’s the quality of time spent. You need blocks of focused time to birth your best work. Morning is the best time to devote to writing. It’s when we’re most receptive and alert. And for most of us, it’s when we have the most control over the quality of mind we can bring to the page. Your best work demands that you protect your creative space. It’s okay to tell your kids or your spouse that you’re going to shut the door and write for an hour or two.

4. “The essence of creativity is fucking around.”

~ Neil Strauss

Approach your work with a sense of play, experimentation and, above all, curiosity. Give yourself permission to fail, to write the most boring, banal, shallow dreck. It’s only through rewriting that you’ll see where it needs more life, where you need to fill in gaps with the techniques that help you align your work with your highest vision, what Ira Glass calls “your good taste.” This how your voice will emerge. From letting go, and to a certain extent, losing control.

5. Writing is rewriting.

Our first drafts are often heady, intoxicating rushes of inspiration. Follow that. Write where the energy is and ride the emotional momentum to its end. The 1st draft is only for you. It’s where you write uncensored with no need for it to be anything other than an exploration of what you have to say. Let go of this idea that it has to be brilliant right out of the gate. The first draft is chaotic. A sprawling mess. Somewhere in that mess is your story.

That first draft will need carving, cutting, and shaping before it becomes a story that readers can receive and be moved by. This is where the real work and joy of writing begins.

6. The story has a life of its own.

And it’s smarter than you. Writing is largely an unconscious process. It comes from the place where we dream. Your job is to listen to what your story is telling you about what it wants to be. Say receptive to what’s made it onto the page. Sometimes you have to allow the story to become something else. And it will most likely be something entirely different than what you set out to write. Forget about “Write what you know.” It’s one of the most overused and poorly misunderstood writing mantras out there. Writing what you know is not just about surface events or experiences you’ve had. It’s what you believe to be true and valuable about the world.

7. Your story matters.

You have your very own IT factor. Something within the you of you is unique from every single other human being. You are the sum total of all your experiences, your memories, your impressions. The way you see the world and the way you project it onto the page is yours and yours alone. Your job is to discover and develop your uniqueness and, above all, to share it.

A Few Things About Revision I Wish I’d Known Sooner


I used to dread revision.

The more I’d try to fix my story, the more lost and frustrated I’d become.

After dozens of rewrites, convinced my story was an irreparable mess, I’d shove my story into the drawer and move onto the next new draft.

Which would lead to more revision. More confusion and frustration. Utter despair.

Fast forward to today:

Rewriting is not only manageable, it is, hands down, my favorite part of the writing process.

To quote Bernard Malamud, revision is for me, “one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”

What changed?

My misconceptions about the writing process. And some gradual, steady realizations.

Writing is Rewriting

I used to get discouraged whenever I found that my first, second, or third draft needed more work. I thought rewriting meant my work was a failure. Or that I lacked talent.

I’d look at a story from workshop, or read a magnificent novel and think, Wow. I wish I could write like that. Writing must come so easy to him or her.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Every piece of literature we love and revere has been written under incredible doubt, frustration, confusion, and many, many, many rewrites.

Hemingway rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms 39 times before he felt satisfied.

Dorothy Parker said it typically took her six months to write a short story.

And John Irving says that more than half, maybe even two-thirds of his life as a writer is spent rewriting.

Once I banished the misconception that there was a distinction between writing and rewriting, I was able to stop chasing the result and just flow with the process.

I learned to embrace chaos. To trust that some kind of shape, order, and relevance would, in due time, emerge from an inchoate mess of imagery, episodes, memories, abstractions, and so forth.

And I stopped berating myself for not having produced a brilliant draft right out of the gate.

Our First Draft is the Raw Material

It flows. It’s cathartic. Exhilarating. It feels brilliant. And it is.

But rarely do we get to write a first draft and say we’re done.

That’s because our first draft is for telling us what our story wants us to say.

Revision is where we dive back into our material and see what the work needs. It’s where we expand, enhance, refine, and crystallize what’s inherently there.

Revision is an Investigation

For years, my biggest misconception about revision was that it was about “fixing” my story. Doing it over.

My job was to alter, amend and correct all that my teachers and peers had prescribed as “problematic.”

But the harder I tried to improve my story, the more disconnected I felt from it. And the farther away I strayed from the internal impetus that had driven me to write it in the first place.

Once I understood that revision wasn’t so much about changing my story — that it was more about giving it air and letting it breathe — I gained much more control over my material.

Revision isn’t just about retooling sentences and paragraphs, changing words, fine-tuning grammar, cutting and adding scenes. That’s an essential part of it, sure.

But revision is also about probing what’s already on the page, however submerged it might be at the moment. It’s about digging deep, learning not just what we’re writing about, but why it matters to us.

Because if we don’t know the what and the why, all the changes we make to structure, word choice, description, and so on, don’t bring us any closer to the story we were meant to tell. They might even lead us farther astray.

Revision Is a Receptive, Intuitive Act

Listen to your draft. Our work is smarter than we are. Embedded inside it are clues to what our story is trying to become.

Consciously or unconsciously, all those disparate images, symbols, objects, and memories you dialed up made it onto the page for a reason.

When reading your work, tune in to the recurring elements, images, and so forth that strike thematic chords. Which of these have an emotional or psychological charge? Unwrap them. Even the most seemingly random detail can unlock the emotional essence of a scene. Examined closely enough and from enough angles, a single image can bear the meaning of your entire story.

Rewriting is Essential

That’s because we evade our material more than we realize.

We’re often motivated to write because of certain memories, emotions and events that are far too powerful and complex to be fully grasped or articulated in our early drafts.

As memoir writer Larry Sutin says, “We rewrite because we didn’t have the courage to face it the first time.”

Each time we revisit our material, we gather more courage and momentum to dive a little deeper.

And if we stick with it, we come out on the other side with something coherent, unified, artful, and above all, moving.


Creating Drama Sentence By Sentence


Drama. Conflict. Surprise. It’s what we all want in our writing.

So when I recently revisited a very old novel draft of mine about a twelve-year-old girl corrupted by her career criminal father, I despaired over how flat it read.

At face value you might think such a story would have drama in spades. There’s grand theft, wiretapped phones, prison, betrayals and power reversals.

The story itself is inherently dramatic. Yet there’s nothing to tug the reader from one sentence to the next. The drama is not yet alive on the page.

Drama involves conflict.

And the standard advice for generating conflict goes something like this:

Give your character something to want passionately, throw some heavy hitting obstacles in his/her path and there you have it: conflict and, as a byproduct, drama.

Solid advice. Without conflict, you have no drama.

But conflict isn’t just about what happens in a story; it’s the contradictory responses it creates within the reader.

So what if instead of manufacturing conflict in the broad strokes of our work, via action and plot, we provoked conflict within the reader instead?

We can do this right on the sentence level, using contradiction as the lever.


Contradiction happens when two opposing ideas occupy the same space, and both are right. This creates conflict on the page, but more important, it complicates the reader’s reaction, creating an insatiable reader.

In my Writer Unleashed course, we examine our own contradictory responses to fictional characters. Why, for instance, in Andre Dubus’s story “The Killings” do we feel more sympathy for the murderer than for his victim? Can a character who does an abhorrent act simultaneously gain our admiration?

We’re often drawn to a story that’s disconcerting in a way that sneaks up on us. The author has orchestrated that response by consciously layering complexity, opposites, juxtapositions and paradox into his sentences.

Here’s a technique I learned years ago from Douglas Glover, one that I only recently fully grasped thanks to his brilliant essay, “The Drama of Grammar” in his book, Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing.

His essay drives home the point that we can create drama, mystery, and exciting juxtaposition right on the sentence level using what he calls a “but-construction.”

The idea is to take any declarative sentence and add a “but” at the end.

For example, take the opening line from Denis Johnson’s story, “Dundun”:

I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium from him

Look happens when Johnson adds a “but.”

but I was out of luck.

The “but” embeds conflict within the sentence. And it sets the story in motion.

Glover defines a but construction as “…any use of the conjunction “but” or synonym, also any functionally similar punctuation marks including line-breaks, in a sentence of a paragraph to set up an antithesis, surprise, reversal, contrast, paradox or comparison.”

Turn to any passage in a book you’re reading and you’re bound to see this in action.

Here’s an example from Elizabeth McCracken’s, Niagara Falls All Over Again, a novel rich in but constructions.

In the following passage, Mose describes the second time he meets his vaudeville partner Rocky, drawing contrasts between his stage persona and his private persona.

Said partner, I had thought, was a dark-haired clown in makeup up and baggy pants. A patsy. An overexcited fat man. I looked around the Busy Bee, and all I saw was a blond guy in a good suit, puffy from drink but handsome, who waved at me. Then he waved a little harder.

When people ask me what he was like, I always want to say the one thing they won’t believe: he was good looking. They have eyes these people, and they’ve seen the party in question plenty. Dark hair sticking up, sloppy fat, useless with this hands and feet, squeaky, breathless. With rare exceptions, if you wanted to make it in the movies you had to choose between funny and handsome: Fred Astaire and Stan Laurel could be brothers, but which one’s the heart-throb? Even a voice makes a difference in how good-looking you are, and Rocky’s real voice was knowing and slow. He could have made a living off of it, if things had gone differently. The stuff he colored his hair with washed out. (Rubbed off, too, I learned later. I was the one who told him to either dye it or give up: I was tired of finding boot-black on my good clothes.) He was handsome the way Babe Ruth was handsome, a combination of confidence and being glad to see you. A backslapping man. A handshaker. A kisser of babies and pretty girls.

Note the contradiction and contrasts built into the structure of the sentences.

Mose thought Rocky was a dark haired clown in makeup, “a patsy,” an “overexcited fat man.” But no, he’s a blond guy in a suit, and he’s waving at him. He’s fat and sloppy, squeaky and breathless, but he’s also good-looking. He dyes his hair “boot black” for the stage. But off stage, he’s sandy-haired. He’s flirtatious, charming, a “kisser of babies and pretty girls. He’s puffy from drink, but handsome.

So there’s an implicit “he’s this, but he’s also that” woven throughout the passage.

The “but” creates what Glover calls mental drama “…the clash of ideas, motives, expectations and outcomes.” “It is the mental drama,” he says, “the element of surprise and mystery implicit in the plot of every sentence we write, that contributes to the feeling that a piece of prose is alive, and further contributes to that density of action, interest and delight which we expect from good writing.”

As a reader, this mental drama is irresistible.

And as the author, the “but” creates space for your story to breathe. Your imagination is forced to fill in that empty space. So you’re not just delivering a static statement: Rocky was fat and sloppy, squeaky and breathless. You’re ushering in possibility, depth and surprise. But…he was a heartthrob. Conflict and drama right on the sentence level.

Try this:

Go through something you’re working on. Take any declarative sentence (for example: It was raining.) and add the word “but” at the end. This two millimeter shift in your sentence can create conflict and drama, and may even help you shape the content of your story, spinning it in directions that surprise you.