So you think you can't write?

Dec. 1, 2003
The point here is that this simple exercise gets the creative juices flowing like a torrent at the start of the day and you are off like a rocket.

I frequently come across scientists and engineers who bemoan the fact that they cannot write (or so they claim). I usually tell such people that I have no formal training in "writing" but I write something every day whether it's a column like this one, a news story, a memo, an e-mail, and so on. Some of the writing is very good, some is pretty bad, and some is mostly indifferent, but the point here is to write often.

I usually recommend that the would-be writer get a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk (it's available in paperback), which was written in 1918 but is as valid today as it was back then. Maybe it's even more appropriate in these days of rapidly penned e-mails and cell-phone text messages. Strunk gives you the basic rules for putting thoughts onto the printed page. "Writing is clear thinking made visible," as one of my most severe critics keeps on reminding me.

But if you really want to supercharge your writing, I recommend that you get a copy of Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way. (New York, Tarcher/Putnam, 1992, revised edition 2002). I am not a big fan of self-help books (Grilled Cheese for the Chicken Soul, or whatever) but this book has changed my life for the better and restored my previously lagging creativity. It's subtitled A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity but don't let that put you off. You can ignore the spiritual stuff and be none the worse for that.

Nor is this a book purely for artists. Cameron uses "artist" in the general sense of a person who practices an art, whether that art be writing, painting, music, dancing, cooking, research, managing, or just simple conversation. As Cameron explains, we all have an "Inner Artist" that is often struggling to break free of all the negatives that surround us—and with which we surround ourselves.

The book also carries a tag-line that it is A course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self. And, in fact, the book is just that. Organized into 12 chapters with some prefatory material and an epilogue, the book is a 12-week program with each week devoted to a "recovering" topic. I'm not going to go into each topic here: the author does a much better job than I can, and, anyway, you need to read the book. But the basis of each week is that you begin your day by writing three pages of whatever comes into your mind in longhand on a legal pad. That's three pages you'll write every day, 365 days a year. You can give yourself a treat with a day off here and there but, let me tell you, you'll feel guilty about it. I certainly did.

When you've done your three pages, you put them in a folder and don't look at them again and you certainly won't want to show them to anyone. The point here is that this simple exercise gets the creative juices flowing like a torrent at the start of the day and you are off like a rocket. The Morning Pages are just one of the Basic Tools that Cameron advocates. Another key tool is the "Artist's Date," which is a block of time you set aside every week to do something out of character with your inner artist. Sounds bizarre and many of these "dates" are just that. But they work. Trust me.

Finally, each week you are asked to do a series of "tasks" that can range from listing five imaginary lives and what you would do if you were to live each of them to writing letters to a long-lost mentor. My imaginary lives: a member of the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, a movie director. Hey, we can all have fantasy lives, right? My mentor? Charlie Siddons who first introduced me to experimental research in high school. Charlie, sadly, is long gone but I wrote the letter anyway.

Now I'm starting on the novel that we all have tucked away in the recesses of our minds. So you think you can't write. Nonsense. Get the book and get started.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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