By Dr. John Yeoman
Teenagers know better than we do, how to write great stories. Sounds absurd? We’re experienced authors, right? We know the craft tricks. We’ve pounded the keypad all our lives…
Yet, it’s true. Because young people often have a freshness of experience that we can’t match. Simply, they don’t know enough as yet. And that’s their gift.
Of course, they might not be great shakes at grammar or punctuation. That’s dog work. It’s quickly learned. What they have, most of them, is a freshness of perception. And we can’t match it.
Perhaps we had it once. Then we lost it, around the time our teacher slapped us down for telling lies. Or we set our hearts on some literal-minded discipline like chemistry or bricklaying.
But maybe it’s still there, whimpering at us like a child locked in a closet. If we’re creative writers, we can hear it…
To see the world as it is, without labels, is the gift of genius. Maybe William Blake had it. For him, to describe a tree as an angel was not just a metaphor. He actually saw an angel.
Hemingway had a similar gift. He didn’t see angels, of course. He saw the bedrock of experience, stripped of its metaphors. He found the words to describe what he saw. Then he stripped off a thousand superfluous words for every word he used.
Can we find that freshness in our own writing?
Sometimes. There’s a trick to it. I teach creative writing at a UK university. As an exercise, I ask my first-year students to wander around the campus for 20 minutes. Stop at random, I say. Just stop for five minutes and look at what’s in front of you. (Be discreet, I tell them…)
Pretend you have never seen that thing before. Use all your five senses to perceive it. Then come back and write a few lines to describe what you perceived.
I tell them: “You can’t just write: ‘I saw a mop propped in a bucket.’” That’s journalism. Bring out the essence of that mop.
Some students ‘get’ it.
“The mop gazed at me like an old man with a grey beard and rheumy eyes.” “The garbage bin was an Aztec god. Cigarette butts lay around it, ritual offerings.” “Parked cars steamed in the forecourt. Beetles with bright carapaces. Roaches stained with rust. Everywhere, the tangled antennae of bicycles.”
Annie Proulx does this in The Shipping Forecast. Every line glows with epiphanies. Maybe she does it too much. The book screams: “Look at me. Don’t I write well?” David Lindsey gets it right in A Cold Mind. Among the routine squalor of a murder hunt, Lindsey hits us with a glittering insight. Again and again. We don’t just see what’s happening. We feel it, taste it, smell it.
Balance is everything.
A lot of authors never try for those effects. James Patterson is as prosaic as cold porridge yet his books top the bestseller lists. Some readers just want plot, fast-paced events, a consumable ‘good read’. Fine. But a novel that also hits us with fresh language appeals to a broader market.
The crime thrillers of the late Lawrence Sanders never stop selling. Sanders had the trick of fresh perception.
Can that trick be learned? For literal-minded writers, it’s tough. Many of my students don’t want to learn it. They yearn to be reporters. Playing with words is for columnists, they say. (Never mind that columnists get paid more.)
But if a writer is creative enough to embark on a novel, the trick can be acquired. It’s a sleight of meditation. Just look at an event, an object, a person. Pretend you’re a little child. You’ve never seen it before.
I remember once walking into an art show. On the wall, some joker had hung an empty frame. Within the frame was the wall itself, plain bare bricks. I stopped. I frowned. I looked.
Suddenly, those bricks became objects of numinous wonder. Their textures, colours, cracks glowed with meaning. Of course, I was sinking in all that ‘meaning’ myself. It’s the trick of modern art. Perhaps that’s what the joker had intended me to understand.
(Or was he really a joker? I seem to remember the exhibit had a hefty price tag.)
That’s the essence of the trick.
Put a mental frame around an object, howsoever mundane. The frame has a distancing effect. It forces on us a new perspective. At once, a fireplace becomes a giant’s mouth; the glowing coals are a magic grotto. It flickers with mystery, fairy lights and invitation…
Do you remember those days? Suddenly, we have regained the viewpoint of a child. If we could once do it before a smoky fireplace, we can do it again – in our stories.
How about you?
Have you tried framing objects or thinking in metaphor in order to get in touch with a fresh perspective on setting? What techniques do you employ when crafting rich sensory detail that will pull the reader into the scene?
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Leslie S. Rose says
Very refreshing outlook, John. Thank you. I love the exercise of going outside for a few minutes to write about what you see – a sketchbook for words.
This was the inspiration I needed to get writing again. I feel at a sudden advantage, being a young (sixteen year old) aspiring writer. Thanks for the jolt of confidence!
Ruth Donnelly says
Great advice for actively seeking an original perspective instead of passively waiting for the muse to strike. Can’t wait to try out your ideas!
kathleen duey says
Well said and true. Thank you!!
Labels are how our brains make sense of the complicated world we live in. They have their place, although I do think they can be overused. Americans (and I can say this with some authority, as I am American) seem way too fond of putting things in neat boxes.
I tend to think in literal way and this presents a challenge in fiction writing. Coming up with those turns of phrase that fall, as Angela said, between sparse and purple can be pretty hard when you naturally get to Z by progressing sequentially from A to B to C, etc.
Reading others’ works is very helpful though. I’ve seen some paragraphs that make me go ‘w-o-o-o-w-w-w!’ Always makes me wonder how much blood, sweat and tears went into it!
John Yeoman says
Indeed, labels can be dangerous! They’re a form of prejudice. That said, I like to shock my students by saying that Prejudice is good. Without prejudice, we couldn’t cross a busy road. Prejudice, like labels, is a form of automatic thinking. Even better than prejudice is Discrimination, I say. (That has them calling Security…) Discrimination is what we apply to Prejudice to put it in the right context.
Labels are wonderful things. (What if a surgeon cried ‘Thingummmy, please’ instead of ‘Scalpel!’?) But they get in the way of creative writing.
John Yeoman says
Thea, that’s an interesting question: is creativity an innate trait? Yes, I think it is, up to a point. I have seen one or two journalism students in tears because they simply could not do the ‘epiphany’ exercise. They could not switch off their literal minds long enough to perceive an object as it ‘is’, rather than how it’s labelled.
They sometimes managed a workaround, a retreat into metaphor. Result: more labels.
Yet other students ‘got’ it instinctively.
Perhaps it has something to do with left versus right brain thinking? Or is that just more labels?
It’s curious that you point out that the younger folks have better ideas for great stories. I agree that their perception is different due to their lack of experience; however, I think that the real question becomes how can we maintain and encourage that fresher perception?
It’s been my experience (both as a student and a teacher) that there isn’t enough focus on creative writing in public schools (in the US, anyway). These days, it seems that everything’s geared towards standardized tests and spitting back facts. I wonder what the outcome would be if we encouraged that creativity all throughout the mandatory schooling.
You say that some university students ‘get it’. I assume others do not. That makes me wonder – is “creativity” an innate trait, or is it something that can be “taught” if we do, in fact, decide to make it a priority for younger students?
(Oof, that got more rambly than I expected!)
Rachna Chhabria says
Its nice to meet John and read this interesting post.
Great post! I try to do this when I write, to stop and consider the scene with all five senses. I often forget, though. Need to do it more often, most definitely.
Heide Braley says
I like your statement about teenagers writing more creatively – even though I never thought about it. I have four kids between the ages of 18 and 24 and their writings always impress me. They write in a whole different voice than I do and I find it refreshing….
Traci Kenworth says
Approaching writing with a fresh eye can determine whether we find the spark we’re looking for in a piece we’re writing. Thanks for the reminder to look with the imagination of a child.
Mr. Yeoman I want to thank you for this awesome post! I’m 19 and looking to start a novel of my own. My high school AP English teacher always said I was a good writer but it never occurred to me to actually have fun with my writing and try to come up with a good story. I’ve had it in me to start one lately and this has inspired me to actually put forth the effort! So again, thank you sir for the motivation you’ve stirred up in me! I’m looking forward to keeping up with the blog!
Good luck to all the writers out there! I hope to one day read some of your work!
-An Aspiring Writer
John Yeoman says
True, Angela. Too much fine writing yells ‘look at me’. The trick is to slide it in so the reader feels ‘ wow, I didn’t know I could think so beautifully!’ It’s a trick and we’re all still working on it 🙂
Karen Lange says
I’ve been thinking about framing this week, actually, so this is timely! One thing that’s helped is this book called The Emotion Thesaurus. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. 🙂
Cynthia Chapman Willis says
Great post. I love when writers observe their worlds with fresh eyes and I embrace the times when I fall into that place in my own writing. However, it’s true that a little bit of poetic description goes a long way.
Angela Ackerman says
Creating vivid writing is something I struggle with as well. I am still trying to find the magical point between sparse and purple. 🙂 I tend to write economically, but worry sometimes it might be too plain.
Great guest post and very helpful. I know many have said that writing poetry helps them better connect to describing in detail. I envy writers who can manage lyrical prose that doesn’t feel heavy handed. It is such a skill!
Happy writing, everyone and thanks for the comments!
Lovely and inspiring post. So very well said. I’m working on that very thing right now in my current wip, going in and trying to freshen up the language. And cutting like crazy.
John Yeoman says
Thank you so much, Tracy and Rosemary. It’s wonderful to hear from you and I truly appreciate your kind comments.
I’d love to hear from other writers too. Keep commenting here and I’ll keep replying!
Rosemary Gemmell says
Thanks for that very interesting and instructive post, John. I was lucky enough to have one of my stories commended on Writers Village in the past and I appreciated the critique for another.
Dr. John Yeoman offers an excellent writing course.
I entered one of his writing contests. Although I didn’t win, I received a wonderful and helpful critique which has improved my writing.
The Writer’s Village is the only contest I know of that provides invaluable feedback.
Thank you, Dr. Yeoman for the awesome writing tips.
Donna K. Weaver says
I love great creative phrasing and description. Perhaps because it’s so hard for me. But as said in post, there needs to be a balance. All beautiful language and I’ll move on to something else.
Becca Puglisi says
I’m a total sucker for a unique turn of phrase. I’ve got a little notepad full of phrasings I’ve read in books that caught my eye (ear?). Seeing the new ways that other authors were able to write inspires me to keep trying, keep looking at things from new angles to come up with something fresh. Thank you, Dr. John!
LM Preston says
I write because I love it. Approaching it with a fresh new eye each time is something I love to do. To stretch my creative horizons. Thank goodness for beta readers, because they let me know if I nailed it or not.