Writing from the Heart and Mind

To me, the glory of being a writer is the freedom it gives you—
to explore your own mind and imagination, your passions and obsessions,
your fantasies and experience. Sometimes the worst things that happen to
you in life (as well as the best or the ordinary) can provide you with your
best material. If you write from the heart and cultivate the habit of pleasing
yourself, rather than others, nothing is out of bounds. You are free to make
things up and tear things down. Here, your own attitudes, feelings, and
points of view are the only ones that count. You get to say what’s on and in
you’re your mind and also put into words what’s in everybody else’s mind.
You are god.

This is not to say that you don’t write to please others as well—your
readers, your editor, your friends. Of course, you write for them too, not
only for yourself—but that’s a different part of the process. The writing
process has two parts:

1) You let your imagination and thoughts roam freely, wherever they
take you, in as uninhibited, experimental, fantastic, loopy, mushy, grave,
vengeful a mode as you like. Explore any subject matter, no matter how
private or taboo, in any style, no matter how eccentric or strange. Let it
rip. Cry if you like. In this part of the process you must try to banish the
internal and external censors as if your writing space were your bathroom or

2) And then you read over what you’ve written as if you had never seen it before. Read it critically, from a distance, with a sharp, skeptical eye, trying to be a disinterested stranger to the work. You’re not a stranger, you know your text intimately, perhaps by heart, but you must somehow become objective: that’s the essential second skill. Once you can do that, you should read the work for clarity, sense, emotional impact; and also with an eye to form, flow, grace, style. Examine every single word and sentence and image. Then start revising, trying to make it perfect. Of course that’s impossible, so you revise it again. And again and again. Some writers I know wait to attempt this second step of the process until after generating a full draft; more, I believe, do it as they go along, day by day or even paragraph by paragraph; most do it both ways. But we all do it—over and over. It is essential. Every writer her own editor, her own critic!

In the second stage you may start refining your message, considering what effect you want your work to have, deciding whether or not you need your lover or mother to approve of what you’ve written. Not that you should ever roll over for the censors! But as a reader and deeply interested party, once your words are down on paper you it won’t hurt to listen with an open mind to what the censor in your mind has to say. Interrogate her sharply and then decide what you want to do. Up to you.

Eventually, after you’ve had enough experience, you’ll develop the skill to see both of these essential writing processes come together for you.
Since there are two, in the initial part of the process you’ll be able to tell yourself “I won’t worry about that now,” as you keep away the censor and critic, and in the second part you’ll see your work through a reader’s eye. Remember you and only you have the last word on what stays in and what changes.

Not only your own work goes through a dual process; you will benefit if you perform both these processes when you read the work of others. Books you find particularly inspiring I suggest you read two or three times: the first time for the impact and meaning it has for you, and the second time to see how the author did it. If you are intrigued by structure and want to lay it bare, try outlining or diagramming the work. Notice the language, the tricks. What’s been put in and what’s been left out. I’m not suggesting that you read as you did in school, to discover themes, literary tropes, narrative traditions, etc. I’m advising instead that you carefully read a work you admire to see how the thing is put together, how it’s organized, the place of exposition, description, conflict, dialogue—in other words, read as a writer. It’s a different kind of reading, and it can help hone your skills. Take notes if you like. But most of all, read, read, read!

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  • Victoria Olsen

    I really appreciate the attention to form here -- that writing is not just about finding something to say but figuring out how to say it. I emphasize the kind of reading Alix describes with my first-year composition students: high school English has made them focus on content and theme, but in order to become better writers they need to examine how a text is put together as well as what it is saying.  Thanks!

  • RYCJ Revising

    This indeed is an important part of the writing process. I certainly use it, however it may come easier for some than others. Ironically, I just read not long ago another writer expressing how she was better at writing secondary characters because the main character she generally saw in the image of herself... which she could not see.

    I must admit this was one of the deepest, recent, observations I have come upon. I wonder how writers who see more of others than they do themselves would tackle a process like this. 

    Just musing out loud. Great post.