Arts & Writing Craft & Culture Professor Wu's Rulebook Writing tips: from writers for writers

“Always bring a pencil”: the most important piece of writing advice?

Professor Wu revisits the advice of writers Joseph Heller and Naomi Shihab Nye to consider the importance of first sentences, and the moments of inspiration and creativity that fuel our creative fires.

“My novels begin in a strange way”, Joseph Heller told the Paris Review in 1974 [link].  “I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation.”

That the author of one of the 20th Century’s most famous novels should approach the writing ‘process’ in such a way may – at first – seem a touch absurd (much like the crazy bureaucratic world of Catch-22). Indeed, when you compare this approach: of simply waiting to “receive” a line of fiction that then may inspire a further line, and so on, with the processes employed by other writers, it seems stranger still. Many employ – or actively encourage – meticulous planning. Take Sylvia Plath, for example, who mapped out in fine detail the full plot of The Bell Jar to help her writing process.

Sylvia Plath’s outline for her novel The Bell Jar

Yet we should all know by now that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach to writing. And Heller is not alone in approaching writing, not from the point of view of process; but of inspiration.

Take the advice of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, for example, composer of the existentially symphonic Kindness. In a reflective prose section of her collection Everything comes next, she echoes the Heller’s advice, writing:

“Don’t start with a big idea. Start with a phrase, a line, a quote. Questions are very helpful. Begin with a few your carrying right now.”

This advice may sound similar to anyone who has studied philosophy. After all, it was one of the grandfathers of philosophy, Aristotle, who said: “philosophy begins in wonder”, which is to say, by questioning our surroundings and the world around us, we can uncover new ideas and ways of thinking.

So it goes for philosophers; so too for creatives, it seems, should they follow the advice of Shihab Nye, who believes that small questions and moments of inspiration can lead to many more. Indeed, she goes on to say:

“Small increments of writing time may matter more than we could guess. One thing leads to many — swerving off, linking up, opening of voices and images and memories. Nearby notebooks — or iPads or tablets or laptops — are surely helpful.”

What it all comes down to, ultimately, is, well: writing. Writing everything. Thoughts and ideas – whatever they may be. Rather than meticulously labouring over plot elements, character development and narrative arcs, Nye and Heller both seem to adopt a stance that tells us the joyful, creative sparks of writing are the things that will lead us to the more substantial and sustained periods of creative labour. Write little; write often. Start with a first line or a last line and see where they take you. Sometimes, they won’t take you anywhere (Heller notes that he would start with a first sentence but sometimes never get to a second; while in other cases, he might write a whole chapter but leave it at that). What matters is the writing; our soulful expression pressed by pen and ink upon plain paper, or jotted down on an iPhone notes app. When creativity bites: you bite it back. As Nye explains:

“The more any of us writes, the more our words will “come to us.” If we trust in the words and their own mysterious relationship with one another, they will help us find things out… Consider the pleasure we feel when we go to a beach. The broad beach, the bigger air, the endless swish of movement and backdrop of sound. We feel uplifted, exhilarated. Writing regularly can help us feel that way too.”

This is not to say, of course, that steadfast discipline does not have its place in writing and creative expression. But rather to celebrate the vitalising, joyful moments of inspiration that strike us all – and ultimately are the soul food for our passions that fuel our creative labours.

And this is why, it feels fitting to end on one of Nye’s simplest – yet undoubtedly beautiful – poems, Always bring a pencil.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

There will not be a test.
It does not have to be
a Number 2 pencil.

But there will be certain things —
the quiet flush of waves,
ripe scent of fish,
smooth ripple of the wind’s second name —
that prefer to be written about
in pencil.

It gives them more room
to move around.

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