Turning Ideas into Creative Writing – LEAP Links Video Conference

Turning Ideas into Creative Writing – LEAP Links Video Conference


[music] So, I thought I’d begin by telling you a little bit about myself. My names is Elizabeth Claire
Alberts, and I’m a Creative Writing Tutor and Lecturer in Creative Writing here in Macquarie
University. So I recently graduated with a PhDin Creative Writing, just this year in September. That was something I probably never expected that I would do when I was your age, but I’m very glad that I did do it because it helped me grow so much as a writer and a researcher. My PhD focused on the Contemporary Verse Novel for children and young adults, which is a hybrid genre that combines poetry and narrative. Now, it’s very possible that some of you will be
familiar with a verse novel. There are many verse novels in Australia. There’s Steven Herrick who’s a prolific verse novelist, Catherine Bateson, Margaret Wild, and there are many
of them, probably hundreds of verse novels in the United States as well. It’s written
for young adults, they’re writted for young adults. So, if you haven’t read any verse novels, I would
highly recommend them, they’re some of my favourite types of books, and a lot of the stories,
they tend to focus on emotional events in the lives of teenage characters, and they
draw the reader into the emotional content of the story through poetic texts. The effect
is really quite powerful. I think the verse novel is also a great genre to read because it’ll help you understand how to write. When you’re reading as a writer, if you’re interested
in writing, it will show you how to create narrative, but also how to create poetry because
it combines the two. SO, doing the PhD at Macquarie University, this
involved producing both a research component – which was the dissertation part – we call it the critical
section of a creative writing PhD, we call an Exegesis – and this was about 50,000 words
that I had to do – and then the other section of the PhD was a verse novel, the creative
work itself, and I wrote a dystopian young adult verse novel entitled, “Homing Poems”, and it’s about
a teenage girl named Tegan who wants to be a poet, but she lives in a futuristic society in which poets are banned and poetry is a forbidden activity. So, I had a lot of fun writing it, and
I’m currently looking for a publisher for my verse novel, which can be a very long,
arduous process. I always have a bit of a chuckle when I’m talking to people, and they
hear that I’ve written a book, and they say, “Oh, so when are you going to get published?” Like, you know, I can schedule it between my dentist appointment and grocery shopping on Saturday morning.
The reality is actually much harder than this. Yes, some writers do self publish and self
publishing is a growing phenomenon. But getting your work published by an established publisher takes a lot more time. This isn’t to say it’s impossible. I’ll talk more about this later. So, while I have been busy looking for a publisher for my verse novel, I’ve gotten lots of other things
published in the meantime. I’ve co-authored a children’s book with my mother. I’ve had poetry published in journals such as Island Magazine and Yarn Review. I’ve published a
lot of creative non-fiction, mainly focusing on environmental and animal rights issues.
And some magazines I’ve been published in include: Audubon, Alternative Journal, The
Great Ocean Quarterly, and many others. I’ve got a lot of different projects on which
is quite normal for a writer. One of the other projects that I’m doing is a podcast series called, “Earth Voice Podcast”, which is all about giving people in organizations who work on the front
lines of environmentalism and animal rights a voice. Today’s talk is about how we find our ideas for creative work, and how we turn those ideas into stories and poems and any kind of other creative texts that you want to create. So, it’s important to remember that every poem, every fictional story that you read started with
an idea. The writer may have based the story or poem on their own experiences, the experiences
of others, or perhaps they were inspired by some kind of visual stimulus like a painting,
or drawing, or object of some kind. So here are a few ideas up on the Power Point of places
where we can get ideas for creative writing. Another really great place is newspaper articles.
A lot of these story starters, they might seem to write outside of the process itself
or prior to it, which seems to reinforce that idea that we look for inspiration, or even
that inspiration may find us. But it’s very interesting to think about and to practice how the active
writing itself can actually create ideas. So, for instance, when you create a word pool
which is just – I’ll show you an example of a word pool. This is one that my students did in class. I always do this exercise for my introductory
creative writing class, and I get my students to go up on the board and we put up our favourite words, colour words, verbs, nouns, foreign words, really anything. We just have a lot of fun
in the beginning, and then I tell them to sit down and start playing with combinations
of words. It could be as simple as combining a couple of words together, or if a text starts to emerge I tell them to go with it and to explore with what takes them. And my class has come up with some amazing poems, and also fictional stories based on these word pools. So, with this
idea, you don’t even need outside inspiration, You can just start with words, create your
own word pool and see what comes out of that. That to me is a very exciting possibility.
Another technique that can start the writing process – and this is a personal favourite of mine
– is freewriting, you might have heard of it, freewriting, or it’s also been called
fast flow writing. This involves putting pen to paper and writing whatever pops into your head and writing as fast as you can. So, freewriting is actually how I found my own way into creative writing when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’ll just tell you a little bit more about
that. Much of what I’ve learned to write, or how I learned to write was what I learned
in university. So, as an undergraduate, I didn’t study writing but I studied theater and I took some playwriting classes, and that is what sparked my interest in writing and my supervisor had
encouraged me to pursue it. So, I went on to get Master of Arts in creative writing here at
Macquarie, and eventually the PhD. But before I studied creative writing at university,
my mother, Nancy Markham Alberts, she acted as my first writing teacher. I was pretty lucky to have a mother who was a published children’s author, and when I was growing
up in the United States, I often tagged along with her when she went to her writing group,
and her manuscripts were my bedtime stories. So I was very aware of the process that writers
have to go through, the re-writing, and re-writing, and I saw her novels evolve over years. I probably
didn’t appreciate it as much until I became a writer myself, and looking back, I think,
well, that was a wonderful experience. But I also adored reading, and this is where, you know, you don’t need a published author for a mother, you can just read, and that is very important if you want to be a writer. I’ve come across students who say, “Well, I don’t like to read, but I want to write.”
Well, I think you still need to try to search out, you still need to try to find stories that you’re interested
in. So keep with it, look for stories, use your school library and read as much as you can
because that it also an amazing teacher, and if I hadn’t read as much as I had, then I
don’t think I would be a writer. So, going back to my mother. People often ask me, “Did you always want to be a writer because of your mom?” And my answers was, “No.” In fact, probably, like some kids, I wanted to be anything but what my mother was and I tried doing lots of other things.
But when I was in my 20s, I had lived a little bit and I started to think about some stories
that I wanted to write. I was away in university, but I remember calling my mother and telling
her this and as you can imagine, she was quite excited. I set up to write and opened up a
notebook and I really had no idea where to start. I think I would write, I would start like a few opening lines to a story, like, great lines, maybe a page, and then it would just stop. That was the cycle I was going through for quite a long time. So, there was the idea of the blank page; I just got some quotes from authors talking about
the blank page. Jennifer Gilmore talks about, “What is it about the blank page that makes
me want to hurl myself into a game of solitaire? I asked myself these kinds of questions while
I’m playing solitaire.” So, The blank page is incredibly intimidating, and the best way to get past
it is really quite simple, it’s just to fill up those pages with writing. Maybe that doesn’t sound
as simple as I’ve made out, but I’ll give you a great technique to fill up those pages.
It’s the freewriting, we’re going back to the freewriting. And it was my mother who suggested this book, that I got, called “Writing Down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg, and this is a fantastic
book for beginning writers and it’s filled with exercises and different approaches that
you can take into creative writing. Perhaps your school libraries will want to look into
getting this if you don’t have it already. So, Goldberg sets out these rules for creative
writing; now I say rules because part of the idea of freewriting is there are no rules, but she does have some. One of them is to keep your hand moving; that means don’t stop at all, you’re not
stopping and thinking, you’re just moving. Don’t cross out words. Don’t worry about spelling,
punctuation, grammar – lose control. So let your thoughts just take you somewhere. Don’t think, don’t get logical, and go for the jugular. So just be as aggressive with the writing process
as you want. So I’ll just show you, so with the freewriting process, you can have a prompt. Natalie Goldberg sets out a few prompts in writing down the bones such as writing about a particular event in your childhood, for instance. But you don’t necessarily need
to have a prompt to start freewriting. Another rule of mine with freewriting is that if you
don’t know what to write, just write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,
I don’t know what to write,” over and over until something happens. And I promise you,
it will happen. So, I just wanted to show you what freewriting might look like. Now, I recommend doing free writing with pen and paper, that’s just the way I think, but in this age of computers, I know a lot of people can just type on their laptops. This actually was published
in Janet Burroway’s book “Writing Fiction,” and she shows an example of what her freewriting
looks like. So, as you can see, it’s full of typos, full of misspellings, grammatical errors,
and it doesn’t really even make sense, and she’s being very reflective in the beginning; she’s
wondering, thinking about her writing process. But she talks about how she came up with –
you see the detail at the end when she starts talking about the grandma’s house, and the grass
out the window, and the dog rolling, and the tin pie [chuckles]. See, her words are all
jumbled up. But that gave her something, a kind of image for her to create something
and to go on, and that’s usually what comes out of these kinds of exercises.
So, with freewriting, you might get an idea for a character or a setting, a particular feeling,
some kind of image, and all of these things are great starting points for creative writing. Besides idea generation, which is a fantastic aspect of freewriting, those first thoughts are incredibly powerful, when you’re not judging yourself, you’re not editing yourself, you’re just letting it all come out, and Natalie Goldberg talks about the power of first thoughts that come out at freewriting. But it also just shows you, “Look, I can fill up a page. I have filled up two pages, or three pages,” and you can do these exercises for as long as you want,
so you might you want to spend 10 minutes, you might want to spend 20 minutes – I mean,
your hand starts to hurt after awhile if you’re writing, writing, writing, writing – but it
does give you the confidence that you can write, and you can fill in those pages. And, also, freewriting is a fantastic way to write about things that you know, or to remember things in your past, and many of my students have also said that it’s very therapeutic as well. So, at the same time, creative writing isn’t and definitely shouldn’t be limited to your own experiences. Writers are often told that you
have to write what you know. And this saying does have a valid point – write
what you know – because it’s easier to write about things that you’ve experienced: your
personal experiences at school; your neighborhood; your hometown; your family. But with creative
writing, you have the freedom to go wherever you want to in your writing. You can explore the lives of other characters, create new worlds, rewrite history. They say that writers
live twice, and if you want to rewrite an incident in your own personal history – and you can do that – you can live twice, you can live something a different way. So, I think a more appropriate quote, instead of thinking about writing what we know or
even writing what we don’t know – which is another thing that’s said about writing – “Write
about what you don’t know about what you know,” and this is a quote by Grace Paley, and I think this quote
is great because it encourages this active exploration of the unknown, and allows you
to explore whatever interests you as a writer. You might be exploring something you know,
but you’ll also be exploring the unknown, and you might discover things about yourself
that you had never thought about before. And you can also explore other character’s experiences
through this idea. I mean, I might want to write a fictional story about a stuntman who gets
injured on a Hollywood set. Now, I have never been a stuntman – or, I guess, as you say, stuntwoman – and I’ve never had a bad injury, maybe had a motorcycle accident. I might use my own
experiences or my own memories of what it felt to be sick, or maybe he got down and
became very depressed because he couldn’t do his work. And I might use my own feelings
of sadness to explore what this stuntman went through. Through this process, you might discover
parts of yourself that you never knew were there. Let’s say you’ve found your idea for your story, now you want to shape it into a piece of creative text. So, when you’re writing a fictional story, you’re going to want to use different narrative elements. I also want to just say that this talk tends
to be focused more on narrative, but this absolutely incorporates
poetry as well – especially narrative poetry. So you can use all of the same skills when
writing poems. So, what is narrative, exactly? So, a definition of
narrative could be a perceived sequence of sequential connected events. So, in terms of structure,
this is about getting your piece of writing a beginning, a middle, and an end. But you
don’t necessarily need to present events exactly as they happened. You can have some time shift.
Now, another important aspect of narrative is the idea that there needs to be conflict and complication.
In other words, something needs to happen. Perhaps you’re very familiar with this when
you’ve done writing in school, but sometimes beginning writers struggle with, “what kind
of conflict?” Sometimes, the complication may not be significant enough. Other times it
might be too dramatic. You don’t have to have death or a zombie apocalypse to create an
interesting story – although I’m not saying that you can’t write about those things – but
it can be more subtle. You might have an idea for a narrative and an incident of what’s going to happen, but this is very closely connected to character – character is key.
You have to know who your characters are. How do we develop our characters? You could
base them on people you know – your family members, your friends, your classmates – also
people you don’t know. I take a lot of public transport, I’m on the train and bus a lot
and I love people-watching, and sometimes if I see a really interesting person, or they’re
doing something interesting, I might take out a little notebook and write a few notes
about them. So, I encourage you to do that as well. Just document what you see in the world
around you. So, it could be the people we know, people we don’t know. But we can also write about ourselves. I think that we always put ourselves in to our writings in some ways and we have many different selves – the self that we are when we are in school, the self we are when we’re babysitting a younger sibling – you just need to make sure that your
character is interesting in some way. When I say interesting, I don’t mean that they have to be eccentric or incredibly talented, although they could be, but they
could just be quite ordinary. There might be something, a voice that comes through in your writing, or you might find it interesting about the way they comb their hair, or why
they like ice cream for breakfast. With that said, characters, they just don’t walk straight
onto the pages fully formed. We get to know them through our writing and we develop them through our writing. A lot of this can be done through a pre-writing stage: you can write short biographies, or get pictures of your characters. You might also want to interview
your character, put them on the psychologist couch and find out what they have to say. And in terms of interviewing, you could also interview real people. If you’re trying to write from the point of view of a medical doctor, you might want to see if a medical
doctor will talk to you and ask them questions about what they do, and how they think and
feel about things. Interviewing is a wonderful skill to learn and it’s always amazing what people will tell you. A lot of what happens with characters or how we develop characters happens through the writing itself, and I think it’s very important
to show your characters in action, have them do something. So, I just put a few examples here:
“she hurled her biology book into her cracked leather handbag.” That is showing us that she’s
angry, and that’s going into the idea that I’m showing you that she’s angry, I’m
not telling you she’s angry, but that gives us a very good idea of what
that character is like. There is that saying in creative writing, “show don’t tell,” and writers definitely do a fair amount of telling, as well as showing, but in many instances it is more powerful to show, and we can show through the use of powerful detail, active verbs, dialogue, action, interior
monologue, and it’s always another excellent skill in creative writing is to try to be as specific
as you can. If you say, “a street” just don’t say, “the street” say, “Elizabeth Street”. Or, instead of a tree, say, “the Ghost gum.” Instead of a bird, tell us it’s a Magpie. These kinds of details are
what creates the story world and what will interest your readers, and you as the writer. So going back to that relationship between character and conflict: so there needs to be a problem that needs
to be worked out by the end of the story. And again, the conflict doesn’t
have to be dramatic or physical. Conflict in ordinary situations are often much more
fascinating. So think about conflicts that you experience everyday: disagreements with
your family members or friends; difficulties at school; various decisions you make everyday
that may form a conflict inside of you. If you’re not sure what to create, play the “what-if” game: what if my character saw a friend cheating on an exam? What if their parents told them
that they have to get rid of their beloved pet? And within your story, something needs
to change, and again this can be subtle, this can be just a realization of some kind or something coming to a head, something being answered. And characters is wrapped up with
this. Character cannot be separated from plot. You have to think about your character wanting
something, and wanting it very badly, and they have to be the one driving the action or driving
the story through a series of events. Don’t let your characters be passive participants,
letting things happen to them; they should be the ones making things happen. So, sometimes when I’m writing
and I’m trying to focus on what my character wants, I will just write
on a piece of paper, “My story is about” – I’ll say my character’s name: Tegan – “and she wants
this and she will do anything to try to get it,” and I use that to help me, to remind myself
of what the story is about. So, other things that you should consider when
you are writing your story is focalization choices and point of view, that means whether
it’s first person or third person, and if you’re shifting point of view between two
different characters, that’s a very important decision you need to make in your writing. – because a story that’s written in first person is going to be a very different kind of story than a story
in third person – so if your character really wants to speak, if their voice really wants
to come through, try writing in first person. But if you’re interested in shifting point
of view between a couple of different characters, then you might want to try third person. Setting: every story takes place somewhere. So you need to think about how to draw the reader
into the setting and help them experience this. Setting is a lot more than what a place
looks like; it’s what a place smells like, and sounds like, even tastes like. So try to
use rich sensory detail when you’re describing setting. Dialog: this is where eavesdropping
really helps; when you’re on a train, or a bus, or any kind of public place, listen to
the way people talk. It helps you to understand how we tend to speak in fragments, how we
tend to interrupt each other. There’s lots of different things to think about. Another
thing is that we often don’t address each other by name, especially if we’re looking
at another person while we’re speaking. We also don’t usually say what we want very directly,
although some people are very direct, but the majority of people might say something
a little bit more indirectly to try to be polite, and that can create quite an interesting
effect on the page. So, you want to look at your dialog and also time shift as well. Even the simplest stories, they tend to involve some kind of time shift: going back in time,
some kind of flashback – what we call analepsis – or going forward in time. Now, if you’re feeling
overwhelmed with all these different things that you need to consider in your work – point
of view, setting, dialog – you can just write it all out like you have done with your freewriting.
Just as quickly as you can, get that first draft down. I would also recommend writing
short stories; don’t try to write the great Australian novel as your first thing, like I was
trying when I first began writing. Concentrate writing a short story, and get it all down,
and then when you go back and you start revising and reworking, then you could think about,
“This time, I’m just going to look at setting. And the next draft, I’m going to look at my
character development.” They say that, “writing is rewriting.” I do think
this is very true. It can be a very long process. My mother would look at published books on
the bookshelf in the bookstore and she would still want to change things in her books.
In some way, the process never really stops. But I take a lot of comfort in this. I know sometimes
it’s like, “I don’t want to rewrite this. Isn’t it good the first time?” But, for me,
it’s so comforting to know that I don’t need to be perfect my first time; I can be as messy as I want. I can write as badly as I want, no one’s going to see it – I don’t show anyone my first drafts, I always show people my third, fourth draft – and I know that once something’s
down, it becomes easier to rework it and rewrite it. If you do find your self stuck, which
sometimes happens, you can go back to those story-starting techniques that I covered –
the freewriting, the word-pooling – and you’ll see that you do have the power to fill in
page, after page, after page. Another thing my mother always said to me was that she never believed in writer’s block – She said it was writer’s laziness. She said there was always something that you could do to work through it. Sometimes it would just be as simple as taking a walk,
and there’s actually scientific research showing that walking does help stimulate the imagination
and I find that it really works for me. Feedback is also fantastic and it’s very valuable.
You show it to you friends, show it to your family, but you want them to say more than,
“Oh, it’s great.” It’s good to get praise, but at the same time, you want people to comment
on the narrative. Was everything clear? How was the language? What about
the point of view choices? And critique groups and university are a very big part of what we do. All the students are actively giving feedback to one another. And, back to what I said before, was “read
as much as you can,” because you can have all of these teachers – all of the authors who
have published books can be your teachers – read, see how they do it, and you will
absorb it on a subconscious level. I just wanted to quickly point out a couple of places where you could submit work. There is “Voice Works,” which is an Australian journal that publishes young Australian work. Also “Yarn Review,” I’ve actually published work in there but as an adult writer, but they do publish young adult fiction and poetry as well. Now, I think it’s great
practice to get your work out there and to try to submit. Now, you’re not always going to
be accepted – sometimes you will get rejections – and I don’t want you to feel discouraged because
it happens to everyone. My mother used to say she could “wallpaper a house with the number
of rejection letters that she got.” What I have up on the screen there is actually
a picture of some of my mother’s rejection letters that I put up on the wall; I found 81 of them, and this picture doesn’t even show all of them. It wasn’t really a house
that she could wallpaper, but it was quite a lot. I had a lot of fun going through them
and to show the process that she went through and the work she went through, she was very
persistent; she got a rejection, she might rework things, she sent it out again. She
got a rejection, she sent it out again. But I’m not telling you this to discourage you. I’m
telling this to galvanize you. She did end up publishing a few books. So this is what happened when she just persevered. I was just going to leave you with an exercise that you could possibly do after the talk. Here are some paintings, and I want you to write from the point of view of one of these characters for ten minutes, and when your time is up, you can brainstorm with a partner about how you could develop your idea into a short story or narrative
poem. And based on the idea you developed from the painting writing exercise, write an entire story or narrative poem in 500 words, and that’s not a lot of words but it will help you learn how to get all those story elements into a small text. And make sure something significant happens, some kind of conflict or complication. Think about how it will change, or what will change by the end of the story. If you have time in class, perhaps you can also critique each other’s work, and when you do that you want to give praise and then give suggestions.
That’s a valuable learning process. The last piece of advice I wanted to leave with you
was just to write, okay? That is the best way for you to learn. Don’t wait for me to tell
you, just start writing. Thank you. [music] I wasn’t actively trying to mimic dystopian features in other texts, but at the same time,
it draws on the idea of creating a story world in which a government, perhaps, has taken over. For me, the thing that I think made my book very different was because I was writing in poetry. I was concentrating on my character’s voice. I wasn’t necessarily thinking, “Well, how can I make this dystopian?” I was thinking more about my character, Tegan, and what she wanted and needed. I think that’s what you should be focusing on – Instead of thinking about plots or generic convention, think about character. [music] I have co-authored a children’s book with
my mother called, “Joselina Piggy Cleans Her Room,” and I’ve also contributed to a book called
Stories of the Great Turning”; still looking for a publisher for my first novel, but I’ll
sure to let you know if it does get published. [music] The most exciting thing about writing? I think I could probably answer that in a couple of
different ways, but I think the most exciting part about writing is just the exhilaration you
feel when you create something new, or when you’re able to capture an experience that
you had, or that you want to write about, or express some feelings that you had on the page, and I think it’s very rewarding when you can finish a project. Sometimes when I have assignments
– I do a lot of journalism – I have a deadline and it’s two days away and I haven’t done
it yet, and the first day, I’m trying to write and I panic and I think, “Oh gosh, I have
to tell them I can’t do it. I’m not going to be able to do it. I’m a failed writer.”
And I go through this every single time and you’d think I learn, but it’s so rewarding
to just keep on it and to end up with something that is finished, or finished to an extent and to see it published. That’s the most exciting experience for me. [music] Absolutely! And that’s a fantastic way to develop characters, is to put them in different situations and to see how they react, act and react to different
things. And you do think about them a lot. What I talked about before, a lot about those
exercises like writing biographies, interviewing them, or just spending time with them. Sometimes
it’s nice to spend an entire day with your character that you’re trying to create, and
think about all the different things that your character would do. A lot of that is
thinking about it, but it’s also you can think through the writing process itself. [music] I don’t necessarily wait for inspiration to
find me, I go out and make it. I knew I wanted to write about things and I’m very passionate about environmental issues and animal rights issues, I’ll look for stories myself, I don’t
necessarily wait for the story to find me. [music] My favourite authors? I just spent four years in a creative writing PhD where I read a lot
of verse novels, and I have to say – this is just the verse novel genre – I absolutely
adore Sonya Sones, who’s an American verse novelist. Steven Herrick is wonderful, he’s an Australian author, perhaps some of his books will be at your library. Steven Herrick, Sonya Sones, I don’t know, there are just so many. It’s like choosing a favorite child,
isn’t it? [chuckles] Thank you very much. Thank you for listening. [music]

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