Professor Wu's Rulebook Writing tips: from writers for writers

New Year’s resolutions inspired by some of humanity’s most creative thinkers

New Year's resolutions to boost your creativity and expand your horizons, inspired by the thoughts and wisdom of some of humanity’s greatest writers, artists, philosophers and all-round creative geniuses.

What if we could replace the typical bucket-list of New Year’s resolutions – dominated as they are so often by commitments to physical workout regimes, or a promise to spend less time eating biscuits in nothing but our pants – with higher aspirations that expand our mental horizons and deepen our connection to our creative souls?

Here, we’ve put together an example of what some of these resolutions might look like, based on the thoughts and wisdom of some of humanity’s greatest writers, artists, philosophers and all-round creative geniuses.

1. Walk more – and focus on the present

We’ve written before about the connection between often solitary physical activity, and inspiration; particularly for writers. But few people have made a more compelling case for the physical and spiritual value of walking than Henry David Thoreau. In his 1861 treatise Walking (free ebook | public library), Thoreau gently extolls the value to be found in putting one foot in front of the other, arguing that it helps connects us with something primal – a spiritual vitality that is often lost among our sedentary civilisation (built so often around time spent at office desks in front of computer screens). Read more here on Nothing in the Rulebook.

2. Let go of the need for your writing – or art – to be absolutely perfect

Entire novels lie uncompleted or half finished in draws and on hard drives. Canvases remain unpainted and songs remain unrecorded. Worse still, countless more pieces of creativity lie crumpled in garbage bins the world over – or stuck inside the confines of their inspired owners minds.

Often, this is down to one thing; a fear of somehow getting it wrong, or the reality of the art being somehow inferior to the perfection of the idea. It is natural, of course, for creative folk to want to chase perfection – why would you try to create something that wasn’t perfect? But there is a difference between perfection and making something as good as it can be – and for many writers, artists, and other creatives, the fear of producing something less-than perfect can be the cause of the most severe creative block – preventing you from getting your work out into the world.

In his 8 rules for writing, Neil Gaiman sets out clearly why movement and progress – getting things actually done – is way more important than trying to achieve some impossible ideal:

“Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

3. Find your purpose

Coronavirus lockdown has done nothing if not given us time to think. Of course, some of these thoughts might be drawn towards the anxious questions that come up when facing a global pandemic. But what if a more positive way of thinking was to take this moment to reflect on what we are, what we do, and who we are and who we want to be? Are the lives we lead the ones we want to live? What would we say to our younger selves? What would they say to us?

Few creatives have captured the need to find your purpose as eloquently as literary great Hunter S Thompson. The author of the Rum Diary and Fear and loathing in Las Vegas knows a thing or two about life’s changing paths and how they can affect you. In a letter to his friend Hume Logan, Thompson offers deeply thoughtful ideas, suggesting that the most important thing we can do is choose our lives and our paths for ourselves; because if we don’t our choices will ultimately be made by circumstance.

4. Start keeping a diary

It may seem odd to suggest keeping a diary when so many of our days can appear to bleed into one while living under lockdown. Then again, Daniel Defoe did something similar with his Journal of a plague year so it’s not the craziest suggestion.

For creative folk, the benefits of keeping a diary are found in multitudes: it helps us practice the art of solitude, encourages us to study and examine our own thoughts, feelings and experiences, while simultaneously providing writers and artists with a foundation of good creative practice; that is, to set yourself a task which you follow every day. In other words, journaling is a good habit to pick up.

Few have extolled the value in keeping a diary better than legendary author Virginia Woolf – not only a masterful letter writer and post-modern writer, but also a dedicated diarist. By the time of her death, she had written some 26 volumes of diary entries in her own hand. Yet rather than use her diary as a simple tool of self-exploration, Woolf approached the diary as a kind of laboratory for her craft. As her husband observes in the introduction to her collected journals, A Writer’s Diary (public library), Woolf’s journaling was “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”

5. Quit your job (if it’s stopping you doing what you love)

How many of us have ushered the phrase ‘I work to live; not the other way around’, insisting that we believe this to be true even while we toil away at our desks for hours after hours? Apart from the general unpleasantness of finding ourselves caught in this corporate entrapment – which is entirely unnecessary, by the way – such soul sucking drains are also incredibly dangerous to our creative sensibilities, and our writing abilities. After all, we need silence, and boredom, and time to compose our thoughts and creative inclinations – none of which come easily in the hustling, hurly-burly world of the 24/7 post-fordist society.

Could 2021 therefore be the year you finally break free from that job you hate? One writer who knew a thing or two about what it means to waste your time on the 9 to 5 – and how good it can feel to throw it all in to start pursuing your dreams – is none other than Charles Bukowski. In 1986, reflecting on it all, he penned a stunning letter that will make you want to quit your job and become a writer. If you think of nothing else at the start of this year, consider the words of “yr boy, Hank”:

“To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.”

6. Pay attention to the world

In a brilliant 1992 lectureSusan Sontag asserted that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” But this observant attentiveness to the world, Sontag believed, is as vital to being a good writer as it is to being a good human being — something she addresses in one of the pieces collected in the posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library).

Reflecting on a question she is frequently asked — to distil her essential advice on writing — Sontag offers:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

7. Be brave, and get your work out there

Perhaps the hardest of all the resolutions listed here; but at the same time, the simplest. What good is letting your creative work sit quiet and unloved somewhere only you know? So, this year, be brave, and submit your writing, your art, your photography or other creative work to places you might long to see it exhibited.

For our part, we are here to help! And we’d love to showcase your work – no matter what it is. Simply drop us a line with your submission and some words about yourself and we’ll consider it for publication here at Nothing in the Rulebook.


But what are your creative New Year’s Eve resolutions? Let us know in the comments below!

4 comments

  1. I agree that silence and boredom are necessary as part of a creative process. Creativity is not only about being busy and active but about being able to take a breath and stand back and allow yourself to be led

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Switching over to something that involves left brain activity helps if I’m feeling more frustration than inspiration… Like playing Sudoku! Or simple, boring housework that gets you away from your desk also helps to press the reset button so that you can look forward to getting back to your writing (or whatever)

        Liked by 1 person

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