Writing From Your Compost Pile

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas from. And, always, there is this assumption that the best and most imaginative writers were brilliant and had brilliant ideas, when in fact, brilliance happened by accident – it was an unintentional result of a practice or a lifestyle.

Much like sex, it’s a desire, it’s an urge, it’s raw – a most natural act. It is not thinking, it’s more like breathing. When you’re in love, you don’t plot your sex life, do you? God, I hope not. You don’t know what works until you’re already there. You don’t make a schedule with your lover. If you submit yourself to your writing life, as absolutely ridiculous that sounds, the less you will worry about your ideas.

By submitting yourself to the writing life, you’re inadvertently sifting through your compost pile. That is where all of your material brines. It’s your history marinading in the backyard. This is all those parts of your past you threw out, it’s the stuff you keep covered, you filed away, sometimes to never look at again.

Everyone feeds their compost pile differently. Some, never at all. Eventually, it becomes fertilizer, it’s just for some of us, if you never touch it, you’ll be dead by the time it’s ready. I eat cake, write poetry, and play a shit ton of video games to digest mine. You can go to therapy to digest yours, or the amusement park.

If you’re looking for the next best seller, stop going across town. Importing stories that aren’t yours will not help you write. They won’t be authentic, and you’ll know it. Look towards your personal history, your passions, your concerns, your obsessions, and all these little details that shape your life. I’ve often said write what you know, and I believe this wholeheartedly. Thing is, the only thing you truly know is what you’ve lived. This doesn’t mean you can’t write a bomb-ass fantasy fiction novel. Because you can, and even then, the story will be bits and pieces of who you are. Your novel will be a mix of your home life and your favorite stories. Each character you build will be aspects of your personality or the personality of people in your life.

While you’re sifting through your compost pile, consider that it takes a while for all of that to sit well – to ripen and mature. You may not be able to write about events that happened yesterday or last year, depending on how painful it was. To see your history through clear eyes, they can’t be watery. You’ll need to walk around in it for a while, you’ll need to heal first. Then you’ll find the truth, then you’ll find the lesson. Then you’ll finally get your brilliant ideas. The beauty is, if you don’t like your compost, you can live differently. Then you’ll have other brilliant ideas.

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A Writer’s Guide to “Killing Your Darlings”

You’re not killin’ it until you’re killing your darlings.

If you’re a writer, a practitioner of this craft – a world builder, you’re probably fully aware that all good writers are self-critical.

“Kill your darlings” is a nothing short of a segment from your self-written writer’s manifesto, and if isn’t yet, it should be soon. What does killing your darlings mean for a writer? Killing your darlings, killing your babies, whatever you want to call it, might sound like a murderous violent task, but I assure you, if you do it correctly, it doesn’t have to be bloody. It’s quite simple actually: If something isn’t working in your writing, take it out. It could be a single word, a sentence, or even an entire chapter. As Will Rogers’ famous advice goes, ‘Never miss a good chance to shut the hell up’.

Your darlings are those sentences, paragraphs, or even whole chapters that tug at our heart strings.

They often lift us up and make us feel like we’re floating in the clouds. They bring up emotions that often link us to personal memories. They haunt us when we re-read them. We love how these words are organized, and we love how these words make us feel.

The problem is we can be so enchanted by these words, that we forget what we’re writing – we simply could not care less if it fits our story, or helps our writing in any way. In fact, these beloved anecdotes often serve us so deeply, but only confuse our readers. We love these words, but unfortunately, we do a huge disservice to our writing, to our readers, and to ourselves by keeping them.

This doesn’t mean you should limit yourself.

I’ve always believed that the first draft, of any piece of writing, is always written by the writer for the writer. It is not until the editing process begins that we start to consider the reader. Write uninhibited, write with ambition, and don’t concern yourself with labels, genres, or style.

We are not burying your works six feet under to be forgotten forever.

The great thing about it is although it’s necessary to kill our darlings, we do not need to arrange for a funeral service – we are not burying your works six feet under to be forgotten forever. Why? Because chances are, that piece of writing, although not fitting for your current project, is probably brilliant. And, if it makes you feel some type of way, you do not delete it forever.

Instead, save them for later – open up a Word document, CTRL-C, CTRL-P, then save. By doing this, we can keep moving forward while also relieving a little pressure off ourselves.

Storycraft – Kill Your Darlings

Now the real work begins.

You’ve removed the offensive cluster of words; now you must fill the gaping hole in your manuscript. Start by re-reading the section, paragraph, or chapter before the portion you cut, then immediately, yes – immediately, write a new version of that scene. Don’t over-think it, just let the words flow. Let the images in your head guide your pen (or keyboard – to each their own). Don’t concern yourself with the bits of words you exterminated before, just write like it’s your first time, and you’re simply continuing the story. Write it fresh, write it from within, like you already know how, and I promise you, it’ll come out so good, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear at the end.

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Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction

What is Creative Non-Fiction?

Creative Non-Fiction is your diary hidden under the mattress, your travelogues, your WordPress blog, it’s your overflowing binder of recipes, erotica, your favorite fanfiction, it’s your advice columns, Yelp reviews, satire news articles, and literary criticism. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Literary Journalism

Creative Non-Fiction, also known as Literary Journalism, makes a great example of how flexible the practice and art form of writing truly is. Most of us adhere to the simple understanding of fiction and non-fiction being categorized by how factual the writing is. Creative Non-Fiction purposely blurs these lines; that fact alone is the reason why it is my preferred genre and the reason why I absolutely adore it so much. It is a reminder that a person’s individual truth is often subjective, whereas a concrete, well-supported fact, is not. Creative Non-Fiction enjoys dipping its toes in and out of sub-genres, rubbing people the wrong way, while often dancing all over and challenging a critic’s claims.

Sub-Genres

A basis for understanding this concept can be seen when observing sub-genres such as poetry, song-writing, or scriptwriting. Unlike personal essays or memoirs, where the foundation is in fact, real life, such a rule cannot be measured or tested in these works. Only the writer can verify whether or not their poetry, song-writing, or script is derived from real life, and how much of it is. Creative elements within poetry, song-writing, and scriptwriting, as well as style or theme, make such a claim impossible to measure.

Journaling – You’re Probably Already Doing It

Many types of writing, many of which you probably do often in your day-to-day life, is considered Creative Non-Fiction. In fact, journals, not to be confused with diaries, are the most common types of Creative Non-Fiction. Diaries are technically a type of journal in which you log or document the events of your day-to-day life, while a journal is any kind of written log – anything written with the intention to reference later. This can be a collection of recipes or a comprehensive guide to completing your long-term goals.

Susan Orlean Shows How to Find Subjects for Creative Non-Fiction

Literature vs. Journalism

Why has Creative Non-Fiction taken on the nickname of Literary Journalism? First, we must consider what Literature is, and why it holds value in Journalism. Literature, more specifically, is considered written work with a strong creative or artistic touch. Literature is the poetic element; the story-telling. It is the parts of writing that bring forth pleasure, imagery and other emotions. Journalism, objectively, is the reporting of facts. It often strives to inform the reader of events that are happening around them.

The Future of Creative Non-Fiction

Today, journalists instill elements of Creative Writing into their news reporting in order to make their stories more compelling. Many would advocate that this strategy blurs the facts, while others often suggest it is a competitive tactic driven by media giants and their desire to maximize readership, consumption, and profit. There is no doubt that the capitalistic nature of mass media influences what is produced, as well as what is distributed, however, the beauty of art, language, and literature is we are all free to write what it is we want, and most free when we do it. We are not restricted by what and who we share it with, either. Keep creating. Keep writing. Keep sharing it with the world.

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The Five R’s of Creative Non-Fiction

As an accomplished writer, professor, and renown expert in the genre of Creative Non-Fiction, there is no better mentor than Lee Gutkind to turn to when seeking writing advice. Regardless if you’re just beginning or have a few good years under your belt, listen up! In his essay, titled, “The Five R’s of Creative Non-Fiction”, he identifies 5 critical elements of Creative Non-Fiction. Below you will find a summary of these 5 elements.

Real Life

When constructing your personal essay or memoir, whatever your piece of Creative Non-Fiction may be, the absolute most vital component, and it’s most critical rule, is regarding factual content. It must be based on personal experience, real people, and real events. Write honestly. At no point will it be acceptable to invent or change the facts of your story to improve or increase the drama within. In short, the events of what happened must be true, and even more importantly, verifiable. If you’re writing a story about the events of your childhood, a vital character should not be able to petition your claim as incorrect or inauthentic.

Reflection

Taking the time to thoroughly reflect on the events in your story is very important. In fact, this is why it is recommended to outline your work before you begin writing. Sit down, reflect, and take notes on each event – it will make the writing process that much smoother! As I will mention in the next paragraph, research is vital to the writing process, and you will be spending a great deal of time analyzing the information gathered, as well as assessing your thoughts on what you’ve collected. Your reader wants to hear your personal thoughts, they want to learn more about your life – they’re interested in your perspective, but that doesn’t mean these opinions should not be well-researched and well-developed.

Research

What sets Creative Non-Fiction apart from other forms of Creative Writing is the journalistic component of the genre. This is why research is imperative. Your story must have a topic or central theme, and you must become an expert on this topic or theme. Use facts to support your claims. It is also acceptable to complete secondary research by interviewing a friend or family member present in your story. This is a fantastic idea because it gives the author a chance to verify dialogue taken place between family members. Another great suggestion is to review social media accounts, as well as personal journals or blog entries.

Reading

A good writer reads. A lot. They read, write, then read again. Similarly to any other field, it is without question that continuous training and retraining is required in order to stay ahead of the game. This is how we continue to move forward and ensure our writing is always improving. What does this entail for a Creative Non-Fiction writer? Perhaps we tirelessly engage in every guide published about our genre. That is, of course, not before we raid the new releases display at our local Barns & Noble! We owe it to the personal stories brewing in our hearts and minds – so, yes, please, read like their lives depend on it.

Writing

The only thing you’ll do more than reading is, of course, writing. Mastering your craft requires practice. You need to be neck-deep in your drafts. Can you put in the work? Can you be consistent? Can you build a habit?

What I’m trying to say is: Write. Each day, religiously. Make writing a form of worship. This is how you find your voice. Creative Non-Fiction often starts with a journal entry. The best way to start your memoir or personal essay is to simply start. Just write. Write your story, raw and uninhibited.

The best writing you will ever produce is what was written without restraint.

This is why I suggest starting in a place without rules. Heck, the actual writing part should be fun – an adventure. You should be having a ball. There should be fireworks, frankly.

It’s the editing that’s work. It’s coming back later to make sense of it all – when you need to start considering the reader, that’s when you actually clock-in.

Still, the beauty of writing is you get to become better by simply doing what you love.

Remember, you can always go back, with a red pen, and make it better.

Each word you put to paper is a step in the right direction.

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Literary Journalism: The Elements of Creative Non-Fiction

Core Elements of Creative Non-Fiction

Considering that Creative Nonfiction is also known as Literary Journalism, there is no surprise that the core elements of this genre are comprised of equal parts literature and journalism! Many would say that ‘anything goes’ when it comes to writing Creative Non-Fiction, but there are still concrete guidelines to help you write a superb essay!

What makes good writing, good writing? In all cases, good writing is both clear and concise. What does that mean? Well, we’re not unintentionally leaving the reader confused or in the dark. We’re also making sure our audience has all the information they need to grasp or comprehend the message we’re trying to get across. We’re saying just enough, but not too much. This is all especially true for Creative Non-Fiction.

Journalistic Elements

  • Facts: What are facts? Facts are simply anything that isn’t completely made up. They’re true, accurate, and authentic.
  • Exposition: Explaining your personal experience clearly and concisely is crucial.
  • Supporting Details: Even if your Personal Essay or Memoir is rooted in personal experience, it is still necessary to expand your story beyond the main character, which is often going to be yourself.
    • Research – As I will mention in more detail below, a theme, focal point, or lesson is crucial for any piece of writing. Your reader will ask, “What am I gaining from reading this? What new information am I learning?” Your work will ultimately have a topic, and that topic will be relatable to others in some way or another. Further research this topic.
    • Reportage – Writing a story is often difficult without the ability to reference events. Photographs, journals, blogs and social media are great resources for this. Before you begin writing, outline your first draft and assure that it is in chronological order. You will also want to make sure all significant points or events are well organized within your story ahead of time.
    • Thoughts and Opinion – A Personal Essay requires a personal touch. Make sure you include thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
  • Format: Creative Non-Fiction is often written in an Essay format. They include an introduction, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion at the end.

Literary Elements

  • Narrative: A narrative is simply a story.
    • Storytelling – A story requires several events (or scenes), goals, challenges or obstacles, a climax or turn of events, and of course, a resolution.
    • Character – Every story needs a central theme, which in most cases will be the main character. Although chances are, the main character will be you, the reader does not know you, but they desperately want to. Help them know you.
    • Imagery – Describe your surroundings. Describe your emotions with actions. Instead of saying, “I was angry”, you could say, “I stormed out of the room; I punched a hole in the wall.” You want your reader to see what you see. They want to be there and experience it for themselves.
    • Dialogue – Include vital conversations between the characters in your story. This is especially important for all Non-Fiction. Your readers will want to see an account of what was said by whom and to whom.
  • Theme: Although the main character and topic for the story will often be you, there still must be a theme – a lesson, something your reader can take away from your story.
  • Setting: Where is this all taking place? Make sure you ground the story in a place and allow the reader to visually see what it is you see. You may know what your home looks like, or your city, but the reader probably does not.
  • Plot / Structure: These are your scenes, chapters, and the order they go in.

Don’t know where to start?

I always say the best place to start is always by reading. Here you can find great examples of Creative Non-Fiction novels and publications that often feature many Creative Non-Fiction essays.

Novels

  • Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson
  • Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin

Magazines

  • The Atlantic
  • The New Yorker
  • Vanity Fair
  • Esquire
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