Hump-Day Help: Have You Lost Your Natural Creative Instincts?

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As many of you who read me regularly know, I often find connections between my previous artistic career (Theatre) and my current one (Writing) and talk about it. Today will be no different EXCEPT I want your feedback! Ok? So…here we go…

I was doing Sunday brunch here in the city, as you do, and due to my company for breakfast, the conversation revolved around acting school, college, etc. This was because a good friend (we’ll call him Bob) of mine was visiting who holds an MFA in Theatre (amongst other degrees and certifications) and we’d met up with an ex-student of his (we’ll call him James) to eat before seeing Paramour. Thus, I got the honor of sitting in on their conversation. During which, something was said that sat with me hard.

James has been quite successful in the city since moving here and Bob asked him a poignant question prompted by another student of his that James knew. The question: With how all the acting classes these days tend to focus on getting an actor to become a blank canvas, did James feel as if his natural instinct as an actor had been trained out of him? The young woman who had brought this up to Bob said that she was currently working to find her natural instincts again and Bob was curious if James felt he too lost some of that through the study of the craft. He did.

In my opinion, that says to me that all those classes and teachers who had worked to break her down to be that blank slate removed something valuable in the process: the gift that had drawn her to be an actress in the first place. That natural instinct is that spark that starts your acting career, making you stand out in a crowd on stage. It’s what gets you cast when you first begin to audition. To remove that raw, emotional power of instinct in order to turn them into a carbon copy of every other actor is disturbing…though I can see why it is done…but I ask, is that really necessary?

Because this disturbed me, it stuck with me all day, and the next day, and the next…so here we are and I’m talking it out. It bothers me for three reasons. First off, I was an actor for twenty years, in both professional and amateur productions, and the idea of losing my instinct terrifies me. Secondly, because I studied acting from multiple people and schools and I can see what she is talking about and I wonder about what level I’d reached. Thirdly, like most things in my life, I wondered, “Does this question relate to writing?”

That question spurned another: Can you take too many classes/workshops or read too many ‘how to’ books (or bogs posts for that matter, mine included) that tell you ‘how to succeed as a writer’ that you lose your instinct? Or what about: Do you get so overwhelmed with what is the right way and the technical aspects of it that you either freeze up or find your creativity begin to dry up?

I want to know your thoughts on this! 🙂

Me personally? I see both sides of the coin here. On one hand, you need training or you write stuff that is embarrassingly bad (no, I’m not going to name any, you have your list and I have mine, LOL!) but can you get so caught up in that training and worrying about following all the rules that you leave that instinct behind you, losing your flow and flare?  I think that can happen. I think we as writers need to learn but I think we also need to create. I find I have a hard time these days because I’m feeling the pressure to put out something amazing. Why? Because I have friends who are putting out things that are amazing and I know I have it in me…but I feel I’m so much less intelligent then they are.

But is that true? In some instances, sure! But here’s the thing: I’m me and they are them and I can’t be them, they already filled that job position. So I have to be me. That settled, how do I let go of that pressure to be smart, funny, and punny (I know that’s not a real word, but go with me here) so as to write works of art with characters that feel real and worlds that pull a reader in and snuggle them so they never want to leave? Study more!? Read more books on how to!? Read more in my genre!? Read out of my genre!? Jeez, I’m tired just writing all that.

Look, you need to do all of that but man, if you get tied up in all the rules of what you think sells or what you’ve been told won’t sell or how you can’t do _______, you could lose that instinct that made you want to tell stories in the first place.

In my opinion I think we can get so wrapped up in the rules and focused on the logistics that we forget to follow our instincts and write what we love to read. Yes, you need training. Yes, you should learn what sells. Yes, you should have an editor you listen to. Yes, you should never stop learning and reading…but you can’t forget to let your imagination out to play. I think that’s been a problem of mine lately. I’m so caught up in trying to be better that I’ve forgotten how to be me.

The rules are there for a reason and sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes that reason is for them to be broken. *cough cough* Hamilton *cough cough* (Just to name something VERY out of the box that I’m sure people scoffed at).

Seeing as I brought it up, I’ll end with a quote I found in a new book of mine about the show. It’s by Lin-Manuel Miranda about writing: “Be open to accidents as you write.”

He says this about the song, Dear Theodosia, in regards to the music he wrote for a section of it. I’ll let him tell the rest:

“This bridge came about because while playing back a section in Logic Pro, I accidentally looped a random fragment of a measure in the verse. I liked how it sounded so much that I isolated it and wrote these words over it. I am so moved by, “My father wasn’t around.” He goes on to discuss why, talking about parents and how they try their best. But it was the last part that also grabbed me: “The time I spent on my own was when I learned to keep my own company and pursue my own creative endeavors, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, despite any loneliness I might have felt at the time.”

So please, go to the comments and tell me what you think of this modified version of the question:

With all the writing classes, blogs, conventions, books, and so on these days pulling you this way and that, telling you what sells and what doesn’t, do you feel that some (if not all) of your natural instinct has been taught/trained out of you? Or maybe more rightly put, has it been shoved aside for rules, ambition, sales, and trying to live up to your own high expectations?

If so, how did that occur?

If not, how did you keep that instinct alive?

And overall, what do you think about this concept/question in general? 

That’s it for me this time around…write hard, bathe in imagination, and don’t forget to keep a solid hold on your instincts…let your creativity take flight!

Tamsin 🙂

MW bio pic of meBIO: Originally from Michigan, Tamsin L. Silver is the creator/writer of two YA Urban Fantasy Series, Windfire and The Sabrina Grayson Novels, as well as the Web Series, Skye of the Damned. She graduated from Winthrop University with a BA in Theatre/Secondary Education and a minor in Creative Writing/Shakespeare. She has taught both middle school and high school theatre and run two successful theater companies, one of which in the place she currently lives: New York City. You can learn more about her and find links to all her things at www.tamsinsilver.com

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9 comments to Hump-Day Help: Have You Lost Your Natural Creative Instincts?

  • JReizes

    Well, I’ll speak up. I recently shared a very funny incident that occurred during my critique group’s review of two chapters I had submitted. I had warned them ahead of time that these were the first two chapters in a novella and that the series was 4 novellas total so there would be a lot of world building in this first part. Turned out one of men were aghast that I had written a sex scene and given to them to read. That was, to me, the funny part. But what it led to was a picking apart my whole project by two chapters. Everyone had their own ideas about the characters, the setting, the world building, and the pace. Our teacher questioned my tone, surprising me by asking if I wanted the novella to be serious or funny, like humor can’t exist within a serious world. The entire half hour was useless to me. I learned nothing and it didn’t change my project one iota. I AM following my instincts here, but only because I am mature enough in my writing (and age!) to do so. If I was younger, I’d have been completely confused would have doubted myself. Point being, I think that too much training and teaching leads to paralysis because we lose our True North. My approach has been, find a few writers you love. Read their stuff. Ask a lot of questions without being afraid to look stupid because that is going to happen anyway. And make sure you have a great editor. Cheers!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    A nice, thoughtful topic – thank you! Actually, I think this applies to all *sorts* of creative endeavors. I once heard a singer counseled not to take voice lessons because her distinctive sound would probably be trained right out of her. I think we definitely need to keep our *goals* in mind when we seek any sort of training. If we’re sure of our native talent, then that can also help us go for very specific goals, e.g. ‘better breath control’, rather than very broad goals (‘get better!’) that I posit will open us up more to this potential stripping out of instinct that you mention.

    For me, for writing, my pet-peeve has always been the no-adverbs advice. It is true, the longer I write the more I find that I am likely to edit out some adverbs. But I’d much rather edit them out then not have them show up in the first place. To me, adverbs are all about ambiance, and so leaving them out entirely would just be sad.

    I *think* I’ve mostly been able to retain my creative instincts/joy, but this is partly because I’m very contrary, and whenever someone offers writing advice I almost always think ‘but but but!’ (which can, of course, be another sort of problem). But questioning is an important part of any real learning process – otherwise it’s just rote memorization. Also, for me, I try to keep the writing pressure pretty darned low (easy for me, since I’m not trying to make a living at it) but even still I sometimes find that I have to stop and reassess my current goals because they’re not working. This month I’ve decided to take a break from my ‘serious writing project’ to just do the writing equivalent of doodling. I haven’t been really having fun with my writing in many months and that’s sort of dumb. ‘Serious writing project’ will not benefit from me forgetting how to have fun writing!

  • As Victor Wooten says, “You can’t hold no groove if you ain’t got no pocket.”

    He’s a bass player and jazz composer, of course. As a (very) amateur musician, I’ve noticed that the only barriers to my creativity are my technical challenges. When I learn a new method of playing music, my creativity runs wild through the new avenue I’ve opened up.

    It’s the same, in my experience, with writing. Learning new ways to improve my style only gives my imagination more tools, more opportunities to get out of my head and onto the paper. I recently read an article about improving readability by managing the ends of sentences, and my prose improved drastically in everything I’ve written since. It’s just like adding another tool to the toolbox–they’re all useful at the right time.

  • Rules aren’t evil, and, once you learn them, they become an instinctive part of what you write so they don’t stifle creativity.

    Some rules like grammar and spelling should not be worried about except during the edit stage. Others, like genre and storytelling rules, should be included in the creative process because they shape the story which is much harder to correct during the editing process.

    Those who say rules stifle creativity and what they write is original without rules, for the most part, write dreck.

    As a writing teacher and professional writer of over thirty years and a reader of tons of self-pubbed books, I’ve seen way too much “original” dreck from those who think they know better than everyone else.

  • Razziecat

    For me at least, it IS possible to read too many “how to write” books. I’ve read some very good ones and I appreciate the advice they offered, but after a bit my brain starts to say “I’m full!” I need to process what I’ve read before I can make use of it. One thing I learned is that, although a specific method might work great for another writer (including ones whose work I love), it might not work for me, no matter how much I want it to.

    I started reading one book that included loads of questions about the character. The reader is supposed to answer these questions and in so doing, get to know the character. Well, to be honest, it really doesn’t work that way for me. I can fill out character sheets until the cows come home, but, well, two things: (1) Most character sheets include many questions that don’t fit my written worlds (things like “who was your character’s best friend in high school?” or “how old was your character when he/she got their first car?” don’t work in my fantasy worlds); and (2) it’s like answering census questions: There’s no heart or soul in it. I learn who my characters are by writing about them as people. These practice pieces may never end up in the story, but they teach me enough about the character to start on the main story, and sometimes they give me side stories as well.

    So all of this is to say that for me, there can be too much advice. After a while it all melds together into one big buzzing sound and I have to shut it down and just do what I love most: Write! 😀

  • THESE are all wonderful comments! I agree with all of them, actually…because I’m torn between things I sit in middle ground and think that, much like cupcakes (which I LOVE), you can have too many. Do you need some in your life? YES! (ok, maybe not cupcakes, maybe I should be using water as my example, but I like cupcakes better…forgive me, sugar-is-bad people!) But if you find you are full or that your writing doesn’t sound like you anymore AND isn’t better than before (in more eyes than just your own), I think it’s important to step back. Just like I think you don’t want to write dreck, as MByerly says above.

    That said…

    DeepForestGreen, could you post a link to that article about improving readability by managing the ends of sentences, please?

  • My mistake. It wasn’t an article; it was a chapter from ‘Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.’ (I read so much stuff I can’t keep track of it all.) I read an older edition, but I’m sure current editions have the same lesson.

    After reading this book, I wondered where it had been all of my life. Some of my friends grasp writing style easily, but I tend to write like a robot without style guides to correct my course.

    https://www.amazon.com/Style-Lessons-Clarity-Grace-11th/dp/0321898680

  • I think there’s a Catch 22 here, which is that the reason we go to these rules is to figure out how to fix things when instinct isn’t working. I recently learned that scenes should be limited to one emotional arc, which, I realized I obviously knew as a fanfic writer. I didn’t have a problem with that in fanfic, because emotional change was the most essential part of the story. But when it came to writing original fiction, I was so worried about getting the plot in, getting the backstory in that I forgot that basic truth.
    The more difficult the challenges we give ourselves, the more we need the rules so that we can do what we do instinctually on command.
    Rules are great–they’re diagnostic tools. But there’s one thing that they can’t do at all. Rules can’t create story.
    Rather than worrying about being broken down to a blank slate, I feel like the more likely fate is that sometimes you just don’t have a story idea, you have a premise and you graft a plot on top of the premise and you paint by number the thing in. You think, because you have all these rules, that you can do that. But that’s when stories die for me. I need to have that understanding of what is the important thing that’s changing, what story is it? Where is the emotional truth that’s driving the bus?
    If there’s no story, then all you have is an exercise in blocking.

  • […] Silver, writing for the Magical Words blog, asked recently whether too many books on writing, too many classes and too many rules can […]