Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Writer’s Tool Box

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” This, from Abraham Maslow, the founder of Humanistic Psychology. I always liked his focus on the positive and not looking at individuals as ‘bags of problems.’ But what I really like about what he said was the plea to abandon formulas in favor of real thinking.

For people making a living from writing, formulas are a crutch and a necessity if they want to sell their work. Witness the plethora of writing courses and seminars, and degree programs in creative writing. My father used to sniff at the mention of these, saying, “I’d like to see a program in non-creative writing.” To him that would have been a more appropriate label for those degrees.

My father was a gifted writer, but he made a living teaching history, not from the exquisitely enigmatic poetry he wrote.

When I began my writing it was not formulaic. It became more so as I struggled to confirm to editors and critique-buddies’ suggestions. I find myself in a quandary now. Writing a new story is easier than ever but the result is more forgettable and leaves little residue.

Here’s what I’m after: the most deliciously luscious brownie in the world- made without chocolate, or a prize-winning pie that eats us back. Something to get me out of Ho-Hum town. A great travel story that never leaves home. When I figure it out I’ll let you know.

I’ve incorporated a lot of ‘how to,’ and now I need to figure out how to forget some of it. This last year almost every thing I tackled began to resemble a nail. Problem-quick-one-two-three-resolution- nailed it.

I must put the hammer down. Maybe look deeper into the tool box, or even outside of it.


  1. It's hard to figure out how to break out of the mold, isn't it? Right now, I have two books that are way too similar in plot and style. I need to work on figuring out a different twist, a change that will make each tale unique from the other.

    Good luck! (And I LOVE that toolbox you've pictured in your post. Isn't it handy?)

  2. So throw out the toolbox :)

    It is a paradox, no? You have to learn some of the formulas and tools to make your writing shine. Then you must toss all that aside and write like you used to, when you had that great passion, when you leaped off without having a safety net...

    Good luck finding the balance.

    I'm still at the stage where I marvel at the shiny new tools. I test them out, see how they work and am delighted by the results. Some day I hope to leap across the chasm with the confidence that the tools are there if I need them.

  3. I remember being told that we needed to learn the rules before we could break them. ;)

  4. Great post! I think for us to write well, we need to understand rules and technique, and then decide what to incorporate and what not to. I agree, those that always color inside the lines don't create as much as they repeat.

    But knowing and understanding first...that is the key. Too many don't bother learning why guidelines and how-to's are in place in the first place, and that's when their writing suffers. ;)

    Angela Ackerman

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I think, as others have said, that you have to know the formula in order to be able to break the mold. The magic comes when we take that mold and twist it or flip it. You have to have a basic understanding of baking, after all, to be able to bake that awesome brownie that has no chocolate or the prize-winning pie that eats you back. Knowing the generic format of a picture book, for example, gives me a good framework to start with, even though, in the end, what makes the story sparkle is how I deviated from the expected.

  6. What a difficult paradox, with no easy solutions. Good luck with it all.

    I do find sometimes that surrounding myself with art, books, music, etc, releases the non-formulaic creativity in me. So in that light, can I recommend Kate Milford's The Boneshaker? Not only did I really enjoy it, but I was struck with how it was unlike anything I'd ever read before.

    1. I looked at The Boneshaker and *got it*- seems my cup of mocha. Thanks, Anne.

  7. I know just what you mean. It's like having people tell you how much they like your writing because it's different, but then having them ask you to fit it into their mold. It's hard to wrap your brain around.

    p.s. I have that toolbox you've pictured above. Took a class with its creator, Jamie Cat Callan. It's full of lots of fun prompts.

  8. I think every writer struggles with this--I know I do. It's important to know structure so that if something is missing or isn't working, you can identify what's wrong. But writing to a formula is probably not going to result in groundbreaking work. Somehow we have to find that perfect balance.

  9. This is why I'm a firm believer in writing for yourself first. You have to find your own voice and style. If you listen too much to the "rules" you can lose yourself along the way.

  10. I can get into a rut and feel "blah" about writing, too. I wonder if it's a lot like folks who exercise and hit a plateau? They have to do something different, something crazy, something completely out of their comfort zone to break to that next level.

    And just like athletes, breaking through looks different for everyone. Here's hoping your breakthrough comes through sooner than later!

  11. Mirka, I gave you two awards on my blog today. :) http://kellyhashway.blogspot.com/2012/07/booker-award-and-blog-ribbon.html

  12. I think sometimes knowing the rules makes us afraid to break them. I always tell my students: You need to know the rules so that if you break them you a) realize you're doing it and b) know what you're sacrificing by breaking them. And then I tell them to have fun. :-)