Are You Growing as a Writer? (Here’s the Only Way to Tell)

Do you want to grow as a writer?

I know you do, simply because you are a writer. I know because you are here reading this post, either because you subscribe to this blog and others like it as a way to mainline writing knowledge on a regular basis, or because you stumbled onto this post in a search through the jungles of the Internet for the answer to one of the many, many writing questions that press down upon us all.

Many of those questions (and the available answers) are craft-based. How to write a story? How to write a good story? How to craft convincing plots, characters, theme, dialogue, narrative, action, romance, mystery, you name it? We seek to further our growth as writers in part to abate the misery of our own inadequacies in the face of such a complex art form, and in part because we are as fascinated by the patterns and techniques of story as we are the stories themselves.

I don’t believe this type of craft-focused growth ever finds an end, but it does, after a time, create a relative mastery. So what then? Where does the true and deep growth come from then?

Storytelling as an Exploration of the “Shadow”

A few years ago, I wrote a post in which I talked about four levels in our climb up the writing mountain. In it, I talked about how I felt I had reached the stage, in my own journey, where “I knew what I knew.” I wrote the post with a certain amount of satisfaction, of course. But deep in my heart, I also wrote it with more than a little fear and trembling—because what came next? Was writing just going to be easy and fun and a total breeze from that point on? Was it all downhill from there?

Of course not. My storytelling instincts were honed well enough for me to feel the foreshadowing. Hello, False Victory. Hello, Third Plot Point. (And if you know story structure, you know what that means.)

What I found beyond that plateau was a total paradigm shift in my relationship to my creativity. It is still ongoing, and even now I do not yet have a clear view of the next mountain. I have always believed mastery is the unconscious made conscious—to the point where the conscious understanding eventually reintegrates with the unconscious as “knowing instinct.” I now believe that is what lies beyond the stage of “knowing what you know.”

Basically, it feels like unlearning everything you learned. For me, I sense it means moving into a creative process that is less obsessively ordered. (I’m still not sure where I’m going next, so I hesitate to speak of it in concrete terms, but I have this sneaking feeling that I, who have identified all my life as an obsessive outliner, might be headed into the terrifying wilderness of pantsing.) More to the point, this is all bringing home to me more clearly than ever that any growth that occurs in the creative process is not merely about mastering skill, but also, and more pertinently, about our growth as human beings.

In these last few years, it has become less and less of a serendipitous surprise to me to realize that most of my greatest creative insights are arising not from books about writing, but from books about humans. One standout example is a tiny volume I picked up about the psychological theory of the “shadow” (basically, everything we store in the unconscious). The book turned out to be written by (who else?) a poet. In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, poet Robert Bly referenced a quote from medieval philosopher Jakob Böhme, which although speaking about people reading books is, I think, even more aptly put to people writing books:

Böhme has a note before one of his books, in which he asks the reader not to go farther and read the book unless he is willing to make practical changes as a result of the reading. Otherwise, Böhme says, reading the book will be bad for him, dangerous.

This brings me back to my original question. How do we know if we are growing as writers—if we are really growing? I daresay it is far less about how well we are crafting our plot structures and our sentences, and much more about whether what we are writing is true enough and powerful enough to affect our own perceptions of life and our approaches to living it.

Bly pointed out:

The European artists—at least Yeats, Tolstoy, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rilke—seem to understand better that the shadow has to be lived too, as well as accepted in the work of art. The implication of all their art is that each time a man or woman succeeds in making a line so rich and alive with the senses, as full of darkness as [Wallace Stevens’s]:

quail

Whistle about us their spontaneous cries

he must from then on live differently. A change in his life has to come as a response to the change in his language…. [Rilke] was always ready to change his way of living at a moment’s notice if the art told him to.

Beware Your Own Ruts, Formulae, and “Knowledge”

The willingness to be impacted by our own art will manifest differently for each writer (and for each thing written). Sometimes it will mean enacting tremendous personal paradigm shifts. Sometimes it will require lifestyle changes. Sometimes the changes are smaller: just the willingness to see beauty in details we have previously overlooked. Sometimes the changes are ineffable, more a prayer than a crusade. And sometimes the changes have to do with the art itself.

For me, I’m finding it means I cannot create in the ways I used to. I mean, I can. To a certain degree, I have mastered my art. But I begin to realize that in becoming master, I now risk becoming tyrant. Nineteenth-century French literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve cautions us:

There exists in most men a poet who died young, whom the man survived.

I don’t wish to outlive my inner poet. But that is what I risk if I am unwilling to learn the lesson my creativity would teach me and to keep growing. I have worked so hard to consciously understand my craft—to mitigate those miserable moments when the story isn’t working and I have no idea why. And yet the next step seems to be putting back on the blindfold, trusting my Muse to take my hand and lead me straight back into the misty realms of unconscious creativity.

If this sounds a little hazy and unformed, it is! None of this discounts all the learning and growth that has come before. The formulae, patterns, techniques, practices, guidelines, and structure of the craft are vital. Consciousness and understanding are important in art as in life. I am not saying writers shouldn’t be learning all this stuff. If you feel you don’t yet understand plot structure, for the love of anyone who will read your story, please learn it. But the moment structuring gets to be a rut, realize it’s time to keep growing.

Every single day at the page should be a gut-check. But don’t worry. If you don’t check in, your gut will eventually tell you what’s going on anyway. As literary agent Donald Maass shares in the closing of The Fire in Fiction:

How do the events of your story make your point? Do you even have a point? I believe that you do. How do I know? Because I know that you are not a person lacking principles and void of passion. That isn’t possible. You are, after all, writing fiction. That is not an activity taken up by those without a heart.

If you start to feel you are writing the same story over and over, it’s likely because you didn’t allow the story you just finished to change you. Maass goes on with the challenge:

Some bemoan the decline of reading and lament the sad state of contemporary fiction. Are they right? Sometimes I wonder…. [A trend of contemporary novels] is to make characters of Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle or to borrow their creations. What has happened to us? Have we lost confidence in our own imaginations? Are we afraid of portraying grand characters and big events? Do we identify only with victims? Is the story of our age no more than a tale of survival?

Perhaps. Contemporary fiction reflects who we are. And who are you? How do you see our human condition? Where have you been that the rest of us should go? … Having something to say, or something you wish us to experience, is what gives your novel power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what’s in your burning heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.

Storytelling as the Art of Changing the World Yourself

More than any other form of writing, storytelling is dreaming out loud. It is an exploration of our inner selves, our true selves, conscious and unconscious, sun and shadow. It tells us things we do not know (or at least that we do not know that we know). In so many ways, true creativity—true art—is an act of revelation. This is true of great masterpieces, but it is just as true of small scribblings that never see the light of day.

Last year, I shared some of my ponderings about the ego-driven nature of most fiction. I recognize that a great part of the struggle in my own soul over this new direction I feel my creativity taking is that I’m going to have to return to writing things with no thought for publication. I’m going to have to release the ego’s need for confirmation and remember the inherent worth in the act of creation for creation’s sake. In her fantastically inspiring classic If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland reminds us:

If I wrote something true and good that nobody cared to read, it would do me a great deal of good.

I think we forget that sometimes. To a large extent, we write either because we want to do it well enough to be published (for any variety of reasons), or we do it because we have this seemingly admirable desire to have a positive effect on our world. But if we create something and it does neither of those things—is that creation somehow worthless?

Perhaps. The answer depends entirely on what and why and how we have created it. If, however, we ourselves are changed by act of creating something, anything, even something sloppy and silly—then by that act we have changed the world. And if we have not been changed by our own creation, then have we really done anything after all, no matter how popular the story is?

Ueland also says:

…writing is not a performance but a generosity.

I do not believe she was speaking of the “generosity” of giving people one more story to read or watch. She was speaking of the generosity of writing something with deep honesty, passion, and personal truth just for the sake of writing it.

So once again, we return to my original question: How can you know if you are growing as a writer?

There are many ways. There is the ability to compare your most recent story with the previous story and to know the recent one is more technically sound. Then there is the ability to know what you know—to truly and consciously understand what is required to create a solid story and to fix its problems.

But there is also the growth of you as an individual. There is the growth that comes simply because you wrote a story and now, in any number of possible ways, you are a different person.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How has being a writer changed you as a person? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Katie Walker says

    When I read this post, I think: It sounds like Extraverted Thinking is pushed to the back seat for awhile and Introverted Intuition gets a turn to play. 😀

  2. This deep, excellent post reminds me of what happened with my WIP. The protagonist has a complicated relationship with his mother. She has a type of early onset dementia and doesn’t recognize him most of the time. He simultaneously resents her and wants to save her.

    My own mother has schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder. She is abusive and toxic. She doesn’t see me as a person. While writing this book, I grew to empathize with her more. As much as I’ve hated her over the years, the truth is she’s sick. I also was able to mourn the relationship we never had and was even able to summon some empathy for myself for being human and failing to create a loving relationship with her—however much I desired and needed it. I’ve learned more about my life and myself from this WIP than any other. If no one else is helped by it, at least it helped me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What a beautiful example. Thank you for sharing!

      • I keep thinking about what you said about writing the same story over and over. I definitely agree when someone does that it’s because his subconscious is trying to tell him something he needs to learn or process.

        Before I wrote the novel that helped me, I wrote a short story in third person in which a non POV antagonist’s mother had an illness and she didn’t recognize him. It worked for pathos in the story, but I didn’t get the catharsis I needed. So a similar situation manifested in my WIP, but this time it is a novel, the character is the protagonist, and I’m using deep first person POV. In essence, without realizing it until I was well into writing the novel, I forced myself to truly confront issues with my own mother that I had been neglecting. I feel like when we give our minds enough room to play, we can discover deep truths and healing.

    • Hat off !!!

      • Hi Marta! I wasn’t sure if you were replying to Katie or me. If it was me, thank you so much! If it was Katie, I totally agree. This post has had me thinking about it all week.

  3. Anonymous Writer Guy says

    It’s difficult. My novel is a dumpster on fire at the moment. It’s got too many unsolved structural problems and too many places where the prose just sucks. But it does have moments, ideas, images, characters that have changed me as a person. I was, before the writing began, in a poorly illuminated relationship, too many dark corners, shadowy creatures shuffling about just out of sight, the words of love hanging in the air like phantoms, but lacking substance, untouchable, unreal. So my story world became my alternate reality, a place I could go to see what real love might look like, feel like, what it might be like to be with someone who really saw me. This led to significant events in my real life, things that made me different, gave me night vision, so I could see what was hiding in those dark corners, even if I was the only one who could see. So in one sense it has made me lonelier. My experimental reality has revealed a lack, a missing something. But it has also brought a measure of peace. I am beginning to know what I don’t know, and there is some comfort in that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is wonderful.

      And I totally relate to this: “My novel is a dumpster on fire at the moment. It’s got too many unsolved structural problems and too many places where the prose just sucks. But it does have moments, ideas, images, characters that have changed me as a person.”

      • Sometimes fire is the refining element that purges the dross from the gold. Everyone’s ore has gold in it – it can take a lot of work to find it and refine it, but it is there. And if we don’t start with ore – rough drafts – we have nothing to refine.

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Interesting post. For a while now I have pondered the concept of human “inner growth.” Why do we feel such a need to grow? I have that need, though I don’t worry about it too much anymore. I think figuring out how you are growing, in writing or in life, depends on the parameters you set for yourself.

    Or not. I can’t read the minds of other animals on this Earth, but I don’t think they worry too much about their own “inner growth.” They seem to get along just fine. I think that particular perspective helps me worry less about my growth. And that helps make me more content.

    Well, now you’ve done it, Katie. You got me all philosophical first thing in the morning!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ideas of growth are one of my favorite things. Nothing gets me more excited. I suppose that in itself can be addictive. But one thing I am learning (growing into) is the realization that growth is much less a mental process of understanding and much more an experiential one–less about learning and more about realizing what we already know to be true. Less head, more gut–and heart.

  5. I loved today’s post. You are embarking on a new adventure in your life known by some as “middle age.” It is the time of un-learning where you will grow in unexpected ways. You will become more deeply and more comfortably you. As I exited my 50’s, I looked back and reflected on nearly everything you wrote. You are a treasure, Katie, and please never stop blogging because it does this old heart good to see young people coming up who “get it.”

    Since you connect well with the cinematic world and the performing arts, I’d recommend that you watch “Romancing the Stone” with today’s post in mind. It is what popped into my head while reading your reflections. It is what happens when a writer goes from writing about what she knows to writing about what she’s experienced. The movie is trite and cliche and total brain candy, but the underlying message of transitioning from being a writer who builds stories from knowledge and becoming a writer who writes from experience will resonate well with you.

    I tend to read authors in batches and like to follow their writing in publication order. This allows me to see how they grow, change, and mature as a writer. Or not. Some remain stuck in middle age and never dig deep into the depths of their own soul. Their writing never goes through the transition that marks The Change and they end their careers seen as hacks or parodies of themselves.

    Others have a very clear break between their “young” stuff and their “old” stuff. (In the world of music, this is most markedly seen in Aaron Copeland whose most “modern” music was when he stopped trying to be modern and instead became comfortable with the old and wrote Appalachian Spring.)

    But the ones I like the best are the ones who never seem to change at all until you’ve read their whole body of work. In that case, you watch them become more and more of themselves until they fully express who they are, not just what they know. This is subtle growth that is a delight to experience vicariously through their writing. With Shakespeare, my favorite of all is plays is “The Tempest” because it is most fully Shakespeare. With Dickens, “Great Expectations” is my favorite because he defied convention and reader expectations and omitted the happy ending. The lesson here is that one should never cave to popular pressure when one’s heart is speaking Truth. Write it. Publish it. Be true to who you have become, not what the populous thinks you are.

    I wish you all the best on your journey and may you be blessed all along the way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Your opening sentence made me laugh. I’m turning 35 tomorrow, so I take this very kind and very lovely comment as an early birthday gift. Thank you for your words of wisdom and encouragement from a little farther down the road. I do not take them lightly!

  6. Thank you for this post. It’s a call to something greater than logic.

    Am I risking revealing raw, wild truth I need to embrace? Trusting an ineffable and yet real urge? Like trying to hug dense fog, I’m oddly drawn to pursuing this unknown.

    I need to go sharpen some pencils before my giddy unconscious floats away like an untethered hot air balloon.

    Deep Monday morning thoughts!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, you guys! So many wonderful thoughts here today. 😀

      “It’s a call to something greater than logic.”

      This is so entirely it. In fact, I’m writing this down in front of my computer right now as a reminder to my logic-addicted brain. 😉

      • KM, I’m honored. 😉

        I read this long ago: there is gold hiding in our shadow side. We don’t just dismiss our darkness to it, but we also may send our very power and best essence into the shadows.

        Your post and the comments here remind me of that truth. Lit candle in hand, your post invites me to bravely explore what I’ve denied.

  7. Sally Morem says

    This is a wonderful essay. It answers some of the questions I’ve had about writing in general and my own failed efforts at getting deeper into my writing over the years, my fear of getting deeper, my fear that people would consider that to be bad writing.

    My favorite paragraph: “I do not believe she was speaking of the “generosity” of giving people one more story to read or watch. She was speaking of the generosity of writing something with deep honesty, passion, and personal truth just for the sake of writing it.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Sally! We focus so much on technical finesse, but however worthy that is, it is never the point. I think we (I) lose the forest for the trees sometimes. We except our experience of story to always be the same, but it is not–and sometimes it catches us off guard with its need to run completely off the beaten trail of “good” fiction and all its beautiful, linear, logical “rules.”

  8. Wow! Thank you so much for this. I was thinking about it this morning on my walk. The novel I am writing for Nano this year is very different than what I have written before. Yet a writer friend of mine has written 3 series (published) and the characters are all the same… she is making money as a published author while I am still struggling to make sure my quality is at a worthy standard to publish. I was a bit frustrated, but now I’m pleased. Thank you for helping me understand!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I, too, have felt the pressure to try to make my writing more “commercial” and marketable. The market certainly seems to tell us that we need to write genre fiction, write series, and write quickly–at least a book a year. I have adamantly staved off my own temptations in this direction—and yet, in writing this post, I realize how I have allowed myself to be pressured in what I write nonetheless. I’ve been remembering how, when I wrote what would be my second published novel, I determined it would probably never be published and I would write it just for myself. In the end, it did get published, and it remains my favorite of all my novels to this date.

  9. Writing my first book turned out to be part of a long process of accepting certain things about myself, and realizing that I needed to be open about those things with the people in my life.

    My new WIP is definitely the product of a somewhat different writer!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Writing my first book turned out to be part of a long process of accepting certain things about myself, and realizing that I needed to be open about those things with the people in my life.”

      This is so spot on.

  10. Thank you for this post. It’s what I needed to hear today. I resumed my writing efforts after a long hiatus by listening to a voice in my head that whispered, “write the story of the woman that Tom Bombadil mentions on the Barrow Downs.” I knew it was unmarketable, and no one I knew would even be interested in such “fan fiction.” But it was important to me to chronicle this mystery person. So I did. And learned something of what it felt like to write just for myself.

  11. Thank you so much for writing this post.

    For the past few months, I’ve been unable to write. I’m transitioning from the second draft to the third draft of my WIP and making some significant changes story wise. When I started, I was so excited to see where the new version lead me. But I’ve barely written anything. There’s just been this deep sense of unease and dissatisfaction and unwillingness to write.

    Up until I read this post, I thought that maybe there was an issue with the plot that I hadn’t found that was keeping me from moving forward. (This has certainly been the case before.) But that’s not what it is. I’m stuck between knowing what I know and growing as a person. I can’t even describe how relieving it is to have this named. The only problem now left is trying to grow, trying to figure out HOW I need to grow.

    And your part at the end, realizing that you’re writing for publication and no longer yourself…. I’ve tried so hard to resist it, I’ve even spoken against it. I still don’t plan on traditionally publishing, but using the WIP as the basis for a website and its content. But subconsciously, I’ve started writing for that. For the online publishing. For the business I hope to build. I don’t even know when the last time I wrote for myself was.

    Hearing other people struggle with these same problems, address them, and begin to overcome them means everything to me. My silent issue has been named and a solution suggested all in one go. I can’t wait to read along and learn as you move through this next stage of writing. Thank you again for your wise words and insights

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I relate to this all so hard. :p

      I’ve been reading my old journals this year. I’d forgotten how much doubt I’ve gone through *regularly* in between the projects that actually did work. This phase of the last few year has felt like disturbing new ground for me, but now I’m beginning to remember that it is not. There’s comfort in that. 🙂

  12. If you are asking yourself such a question, the answer is “yes.” Such a question would never occur to a writing tyrant.

    I experienced this kind of growth in particular with my second novel (I have published two). The emotional growth I had to undergo in order to write several chapters late in the story, chapters that had to be authentic, was a great challenge, but although some of it was painful, it was also uplifting. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it ended up being an apprenticeship for my next work-in-progress, a non-fiction piece dealing with heart-rending material.

  13. This is heavy stuff, Weiland. First, I want to welcome you to the world of pantsers where, having learned the structure and form, you are now allowed to go outside and play (i.e., write from your gut, from your heart, from your blazing eyes and trembling hand, things you always wanted to say, the way you were born to write but plot points prevented you from doing so). Enjoy.

  14. Sometimes while writing my heart says buck the outline.
    Wander…go with what the soul needs to say, it’s in the fingertips going a mile a second. I make my excuses and alert my brain ‘the draft’s gone rogue again’. Go with it at least for the moment, figure out how it all structurally fits together later and write as if no one will ever read the muck.

    Those moments often produce my most productive writing.
    It may be garbage, but often ‘aha’ moments pop up with profound plot ideas I’d not thought of in the outline. Word counts are usually wild too so this is ‘my zone’, apparently. Usually I stick to structured outlines but when this hot mess pops up I go with it, working it into some ilk of structure later.

    BUT…I’ve always felt utterly unprofessional doing this, grasping for plantsing straws at best. It’s comforting to read this may be okay. Baby steps.

    Katie, thank you from my heart for every bit of structural smarts AND soul-wisdom you share with us! This was a great post, as always. Happy Birthday, here’s to growing a year wiser!

    The very best teachers never stop learning themselves.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of my writing credos, since almost the very beginning, has been “treat it like a job.” But I am beginning to question that and, in fact, the whole idea that writing should be “professional.” This isn’t to discount quality or discipline. But the current writing culture, of which I am very much a part and product, is so fixated on “professionalism” in its many guises that I think we are often in danger of forgetting that writing is too wild a creature to be tamed by a business suit.

      • True this! That happy place betwixt the two.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, I view health as being the balance point between order and chaos. It’s hard point to hold sometimes!

      • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

        I don’t want writing to be a job. I have a job. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes it is rewarding, but mostly it is a tradeoff: my time exchanged for rent or food. Which isn’t to say I don’t want to be paid for writing, but more to say that I don’t want to be in a position where I have to trade the growth or discovery writing provides for the soul deadening drudgery of rewriting the same character in the same plot for the same audience; what would I do with myself if they ever found out the truth? Better to be a patent clerk with a rich imagination and inner creative fire.

  15. It seems I have spent nearly all of my life struggling with just this idea. Is the real (shadow, unexposed, perhaps nascent or immature) me safe to let out to play? The “grown up” me is very careful to present an orderly (though often interesting) facade. The little boy within in is not nearly so confident but he is infinitely more genuine and winsome. He is emotionally fragile but richly creative in ways that never come out unless the adults are told to go have their coffee and brandy in the other room.

    I think both “shadow” and “unconscious” can be loaded words. Shadows are dark and can be ominous. They are not just unclear but somehow threatening. The unconscious, too, bears the stigma of not just being hidden behind the curtain but of having tentacles that reach out and try to grab the steering wheel from the logical driver already in charge.

    I’m coming to feel that that sense of the unknown or hidden is something we are designed to pursue. I believe that, in the shelter of God’s grace, the discovery of the yet unknown in the light of the already cherished will be an irresistible way of life. The shadows become the north star in a journey that will never end. The unconscious is the store room for maps not out on the table yet.

    The structure and order, though, are not a false step. They are the musician’s scales, the athlete’s reps, the base on which later facility flows. Doesn’t the real world show itself to be more complex than the abstraction of logic. Yet, without logic, navigating the real can go awry in foolish ways. Think of the surfer. The ocean is powerful and often unpredictable. But once she is up on her board, the hours of balance responding to the forces beneath become a ballet in freestyle.

    The admonition that perfect love casts out fear does not mean that we will never have to deal with scary things. There are plenty of nasty things in the world. I think it more likely means that that which is simply unknown need no longer be feared. It means that the journey into the shadow can be one filled with love and hope.

    Who knows what we’ll find? My little boy says he thinks it could be really cool!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I was going to quote your first paragraph because I liked it so much, but then I read the second paragraph and wanted to quote it too, and then I read the third… :p

      So, yes, just: this. So beautifully said and, I believe, potently true.

      • Thank you, Katie, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! I hope you get to celebrate in wonderfully INTJ ways (from an INFJ who celebrates pretty much in general). I highly recommend Dr. Suess’ The Birthday Book, a wonderful flight of birthday fancy.

        One analogy that I think may have been hinted at but perhaps not explored in this thread is the comparison to classical music and jazz. It’s a little counter-intuitive to think of writing as performance art but I think the idea is helpful. Classical orchestral performance is built on the structure of the score. Jazz performance is built on the extemporaneous recall and blending of patterns learned in practice in, perhaps, very different contexts. In classical performance, the reproduction of the rich, beautiful and specific patterns is real-time. In jazz performance, the creation of the specific patterns themselves is real-time.

        Improvisation can be both a source and a final product (sometimes at the same time, but I digress). Having been thoroughly schooled in PUGS and structure, you can follow your heart knowing that, whatever the path, you know how to handle the terrain. And so, bring it!

        Many happy returns of the day!

  16. Boyan Petkov says

    This year I have discussed several times with my friends the phenomenon of shifting horizons. This piece reminds me of these talks and my guess is Katie is in process of redrawing hers and bringing it closer to her heart. The poet in her is taking the lead and is looking for followers. Looks like lots of people here feel charmed and ready to join 🙂 count me in.

  17. Polly Hansen says

    ” If, however, we ourselves are changed by the act of creating something, anything, even something sloppy and silly—then by that act we have changed the world.”

    If I know myself better because of what I have written, and can share that knowing with another person, and we can meet on some level of intimacy, then we are both changed in that knowing, in that touching, in that breaking out of the isolation of the self. That is why I write, to reach out from the solitude of my inner being and touch another soul. I want to know and to be known, and that is why I write.

    Thank you for the post. It grabbed me! And obviously others as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So lovely, Polly! I think it’s so powerful to be able to make these “this is why I write” statements. They are vast and varied, but they are often some of the truest statements we ever make.

  18. Janet Meeks says

    I will be 71 this year on Dec. 18th. I started wrjting this book when I was 15. It has grown to 5 volumes over the the last 56 years. In that time I have watched all the Star Trek series except the last 2. Though it is the original Star Trek that affected my writing the most. There are number of the themes from that series that have helped me think deeply about my main character & what was needed for her to do the role as i envisioned it. Also Joseph Campbell had a part in my thinking of what she did & did not need. And, of course, there is a lot of my short comings that gave her things I didn’t have in good supply.
    I did not have books or people like many of you while I did all my writing just my best girl friend who majored in screen writing at UCLA. I had no idea of where to find other writers that I could could talk to until the internet & even then such groups were in short supply.
    My writing has given me an awareness of what it is to be human and what she doesn’t have that makes her not human enough. That understanding has given me an awarness of what is graditude & never to expect anything in return for anything I do for anybody.
    As for you going by the seat of your pants that is exactly how I have written. I start out with a what if question.
    What if she were to meet her parents that she never knew? Then I write the story already knowing the conclusion. For me as the story writes itself I learn what happens as the reader does. I don’t know what the story is until I finish it. The only time I ever used the outline is to plot out the timeline in the book.
    My books are from the beginings of humankind to an infinite future for humanity and what happens to my main character & her family. For me writing is an advenrure. I never know where it will take me. Best of luck on your new adventure in writing.

  19. In my current WIP, the character has a feast and also has a vision about something bad happening to her great-granddaughter. I am also doing flashback backs in the story also. How long does the flash back need to be? I mean a memory that the character has when she is younger.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Flashbacks can be as long or short as you want. Generally, shorter is better, but it really depends on the purpose and pacing of the individual scene.

      • Okay thanks.
        Example of Flashback-Summer July 1113

        I remember when I was mortal before I was a goddess. When I was one hundred and sixteen years , I was a teenager. I had more training being a healer and a warrior. I studied herbs knowing which were non-posinous and poisonous. Making remedies, ointments and slaves. Playing the harp, learning dancing, learning defense moves of martial arts and also doing gymnastic-like skills. Learning how to use my powers and becoming stronger. When I was finished with my training I traveled to many places and I helped people as a healer and a warrior.
        Eventually Maia the creator goddess who lived on Mayin’s Land which is on Planet Avanaria made me a goddess. I am now a mermaid-goddess. I married Zane who become a god.
        After that I gave birth to identical twin girls named Regina and Jasmine.
        Being an immortal I moved to Mayin’s isle that eventually became Mayin’s Land.
        Our daughters grew up. Gina liked Andreas so she married him. After a long while they had a daughter named Arielle Ione. Our daughter Jasmine married Caspian and then their daughter Azalea Coralee was born.
        When my granddaughters Arielle and Azalea grew up. They got married.
        Arielle and Kai 2 now have a daughter named Iris Jewelyn.
        Azalea and Zale have a daughter named Lily Marina.
        I have been blessed being a mother to two kind and caring daughters, loving granddaughters, and sweet great-granddaughters.
        All of my live in a grotto in Serene Bay which is very close to Mayin’s Land.
        I only venture to land for celebrations.
        I forgot to tell you my name is Leilani-Larossa.
        I go by Rose.
        My skin coloring has changed because I am not in my original body. I had golden-brown skin and now it is light brown.
        My eye color changed from being jade-green to indigo. My fishtail also changed from bluish-green and purple to indigo.
        My black hair stayed the same being streaked with lavender-a light shade of purple.
        Ch 1

        Today is my birthday. I have lived a long life. I am an elder mermaid-goddess now and a member of the council of immortals about eight in all.
        “My lady, what are you thing about?” Cora asked me the immortal handmaiden. She had auburn hair with sea green eyes. She was tall but not as tall as me or Zane.
        “I was thinking about the past,” I told her.
        “Rose, happy birthday,”
        “Thank you,” I reply then my eyes become wide. I see a silhouette of a man at first then I see the man. This man is young with black hair and green eyes. An evil shape-shifter kidnappes my great-granddaughter Iris.
        Then when the vision has ending my eyes go back to normal.
        I get ready for the feast. Cora braided my black hair streaked with lavender.
        She helped me into a deep indigo dress with a three-inch train.
        After that she puts a crown on my head of three pearls in the center and also has woven seashells and pearls together.
        I have my ivory staff with me which has jewels, Avanrian runes and a big pearl on top. My staff is now a pearl bracelet around my wrist.
        My husband Zane or also called Zane-Aquarius who goes by Ray is getting ready for the feast. After getting ready he goes down stairs walking to the grand stair case to the first floor.
        When I am finished getting ready. I walk down the grand stair case to the first floor where the dining hall is.
        Our daughters Regina and Jasmine are getting ready in the cottages with their family.
        After they are done. All of them walk into the palace after the wooden double doors magical open.
        A family of immortal mer-folk arrive from the indigo sea. One of them is Finley, he is going to marry Iris.
        Finley is tall with dark brown hair with sea blue-green eyes. He was by his parents with his younger sister.

        Do you think it or does it need to be improved?

      • Summer July 1113

        I remember when I was mortal before I was a goddess. When I was one hundred and sixteen years , I was a teenager. I had more training being a healer and a warrior. I studied herbs knowing which were non-posinous and poisonous. Making remedies, ointments and slaves. Playing the harp, learning dancing, learning defense moves of martial arts and also doing gymnastic-like skills. Learning how to use my powers and becoming stronger. When I was finished with my training I traveled to many places and I helped people as a healer and a warrior.
        Eventually Maia the creator goddess who lived on Mayin’s Land which is on Planet Avanaria made me a goddess. I am now a mermaid-goddess. I married Zane who become a god.
        After that I gave birth to identical twin girls named Regina and Jasmine.
        Being an immortal I moved to Mayin’s isle that eventually became Mayin’s Land.
        Our daughters grew up. Gina liked Andreas so she married him. After a long while they had a daughter named Arielle Ione. Our daughter Jasmine married Caspian and then their daughter Azalea Coralee was born.
        When my granddaughters Arielle and Azalea grew up. They got married.
        Arielle and Kai 2 now have a daughter named Iris Jewelyn.
        Azalea and Zale have a daughter named Lily Marina.
        I have been blessed being a mother to two kind and caring daughters, loving granddaughters, and sweet great-granddaughters.
        All of my live in a grotto in Serene Bay which is very close to Mayin’s Land.
        I only venture to land for celebrations.
        I forgot to tell you my name is Leilani-Larossa.
        I go by Rose.
        My skin coloring has changed because I am not in my original body. I had golden-brown skin and now it is light brown.
        My eye color changed from being jade-green to indigo. My fishtail also changed from bluish-green and purple to indigo.
        My black hair stayed the same being streaked with lavender-a light shade of purple.
        Today is my birthday. I have lived a long life. I am an elder mermaid-goddess now and a member of the council of immortals about eight in all.
        “My lady, what are you thing about?” Cora asked me the immortal handmaiden. She had auburn hair with sea green eyes. She was tall but not as tall as me or Zane.
        “I was thinking about the past,” I told her.
        “Rose, happy birthday,”
        “Thank you,” I reply then my eyes become wide. I see a silhouette of a man at first then I see the man. This man is young with black hair and green eyes. An evil shape-shifter kidnappes my great-granddaughter Iris.
        Then when the vision has ending my eyes go back to normal.
        I get ready for the feast. Cora braided my black hair streaked with lavender.
        She helped me into a deep indigo dress with a three-inch train.
        After that she puts a crown on my head of three pearls in the center and also has woven seashells and pearls together.
        I have my ivory staff with me which has jewels, Avanrian runes and a big pearl on top. My staff is now a pearl bracelet around my wrist.
        My husband Zane or also called Zane-Aquarius who goes by Ray is getting ready for the feast. After getting ready he goes down stairs walking to the grand stair case to the first floor.
        When I am finished getting ready. I walk down the grand stair case to the first floor where the dining hall is.
        Our daughters Regina and Jasmine are getting ready in the cottages with their family.
        After they are done. All of them walk into the palace after the wooden double doors magical open.
        A family of immortal mer-folk arrive from the indigo sea. One of them is Finley, he is going to marry Iris.
        Finley is tall with dark brown hair with sea blue-green eyes. He was by his parents with his younger sister.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          One thing I would suggest is to try mixing up sentence structure so more are active rather than passive.

  20. Katie,

    Happy Birthday.

    Thank you for giving us this thoughtful post. I’m far much less mature in writing, and I benefit from your insights on the road you’ve traveled. Writing definitely changes you as a person, particularly the way you think. One thing I’ve come to realize is how important integration is. In writing, structure, creativity, characterization, humor, world building and many other things should be present at all levels of the process. And this includes figuring out the writing process itself. I hope I’m growing as a writing, but I’m definitely changing, trying to be open to all of these areas all the time. I know I have tended to be unbalanced with these, and my writing suffers when this happens. I am far too quick to treat an area as something like a check list rather than immersing myself in it and allowing it to stay alive throughout the outline/draft/revision process.

    At the same time, I worry about how writing fits in with the other areas of my life. It’s like its in its own little world, separate from work, friends, faith and family. It is oddly integrated with exercise (there’s nothing like a good hard bike ride for working through a writing problem). And I will confess writing has worked its way into my prayers at times (one thing I keep meaning to do but haven’t is to say prayer of gratitude after each session). I think it is very easy for me to allow writing to pull me away from life rather than to push me toward a fuller life. Sadly, I have no idea of how to fix this.

    Everything I’ve written above is all about me. Some of it may be true for others, or it could all just be my bag.

    Thanks again for a great article.
    Andy

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thank you, Andy! 🙂 What you say about struggling to find the balance of writing and “life” is a pertinent one–one I’ve pondered a lot over the years. In fact, I think you may have helped me work through a problem I’ve been thinking about. I’ll have to mull on it some more. Maybe I’ll post about it in the future! But, regardless, thank you!

  21. I’m in the exact same place as you – a diehard outliner who has found that the plotting part of writing (which I love to do) has begun to smother my work, somehow. But it’s hard for me to let go of it.

    I started a new novel this year which I’m discovery writing. It’s been a journey. But I can confirm that I’m learning SO MUCH. And also having fun? Honestly, I wanted this experiment to fail, but it looks like I’m not getting my wish.

    Please keep us updated as things develop! I would love to hear the story from another author who’s undergoing the same challenging (and liberating?) transformation.

  22. I really relate to this; this past year, I sat down and wrote two different stories with no intent of sharing them with the world in mind, and it was the most fun I’ve had writing in YEARS. The drastic difference between what I’d been doing and what I did then was incredible. I’ve been working ever since to discover the way that I work now, because I can tell that I’m changing; my writing process is changing with me, and after I rediscover it, I’m sure it’ll change again on me in the future. But that’s okay.

    Here’s to a new season in writing for the both of us. 😊

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s awesome! In was only in responding to the comments here that I really remembered how the last book I wrote with no intention of publishing (over ten years ago) was also the last book that I felt came from a genuine flow of inspiration. It was also a really hard book in its own right, but it was hard in a different way. It is good to remember that.

  23. Thank you for this post, Katie. My journey is reversed to yours. I cannot outline first. Post minoring in English in University, I have focused on letting the story tell itself. Now I’m back learning again and feel the pull to be technical. Yet, I just don’t believe that’s where the beautiful stories we never forget come from. This post is a needed reprieve from the technical form and has help me sort through it more in my understanding. Sigh!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a balance for sure. We need both order and the chaos of creativity to write a truly great story.

  24. I took a break from nanowrimo to read this post. It’s a longer break than I intended, but it is definitely worth it. So many things orbiting my awareness came to a point in this post. (How do you do that?!) So many times tears were just behind my eyes as I read what I didn’t even know I’d been thinking. You know, those moments when a truth comes to light, like a beam of light hitting a mirror and the mirror is inside you. Or maybe the other way around. Not sure, something like that.

    The thing that struck me most was the idea that the very act of creation, even for ourselves, even if no one else ever sees or knows about it, changes the world because it changes us. I was just writing earlier about how noticing something, even a little thing, can cause a course correction, and how that can result in a big shift. How just having the awareness to question something, ourselves, will result in growth in some direction. And how our experiences and perceptions shape and reshape the world.

    For nanowrimo this year I decided to just write whatever, journaling, short stories, story sketches, no pressure to get anything right. It’s been amazing. I’m doing more than I knew I could (as far as I knew). It’s a bit ironic because I’m a pantser who has recently discovered that I’m a plantser. I read somewhere that most of us are really a combination of the two. Finding my way to the center was a growth I didn’t expect.

    Thank you for this post. I will be reading it again.

    And Happy Birthday!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thank you, Joan! 🙂 And I feel what you’re saying very much. I’ve never done NaNo myself. This was the first year I was tempted, and I may end up doing Camp NaNoWriMo in June. Right now, my creative self resonates with the approach you’re taking with it.

  25. Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

    “Rilke was always ready to change his way of living if the art told him too.” What an extraordinary claim and what an extraordinary high bar to reach for. I know almost nothing about Rilke; I will have to learn more, it seems.

  26. Allyn Ransom says

    I’m sure my writing has changed me, but I think I am still too new, or too close to the process to judge how it’s change me. Or, perhaps I’m still too likely to misjudge how it’s changed me. The possible exception is that I’ve put words to things that I have believed and/or discovered things that I have believed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes the changes aren’t conscious. I suppose there are changes we will *never* be conscious of in ourselves. But I’m quite sure that you *have* been changed–that we are all changed by our creative choices every day.

  27. Allyn Ransom says

    Oh, definitely. And letting go is part of it.

  28. David Snyder says

    Katie,

    Happy Birthday coming up.

    This is really cool. It is an opportune time for me to post some thoughts on theme I had when you were posting on that, but I missed my chance. I will take it here. I believe it ties in.

    What I have learned the hard way about writing well is that it has two sides which are almost at odds.

    One side of the coin is about outlining, plot, structure, all that stuff, which you cannot overlook unless you want to take ten times as long to do it.

    But the other side is when you start to write thematically, or artistically, and that means you have to close all of those rule books and shut down the spreadsheet. I think this is where theme and magic start to happen, after all the homework. In my journey, this is where adulthood occurs.

    That is to say, I think that theme (or the heart of the book) is what happens when you have finished your notes, knocked out your first drafts, carved out your character arc, story grid, plot matrix and milestones, checked every conceivable box on all of your worksheets, closed all of your notebooks and journals, logged off the Internet, and then…

    Finally started writing from the heart.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So true. I think this “two sides” paradigm is true of all of life. I’ve come to think of it as the balance point between order and chaos.

  29. Suzi Holland says

    I wrote a novella two years ago, and let it rest, believing it was all it could be. In the meantime, I went back to my novel, and various other short stories. Last night I re-visited the novella, thinking it was time to publish and get it off my plate. During those two years of letting the novella rest, I had studied my craft diligently, working on two novels. Last night, I thought it was time to resurrect the novella. On editing, I was shocked to find how much I have grown as a writer! The novella practically wrote itself last night! When I finished, I was in tears which is exactly the affect I was longing for!

  30. Oof.

    I’ve always been performance-oriented and driven by being the best or the most impressive. (Yes, I’m a 3. Why do you ask?) And a lot of my writing has been very contrived because of that. I could outline with the best of them.

    But as I’ve grown as a writer (and hopefully as a person too), I look back at my previous work and see how fake it seems. And because it’s fake, it falls flat.

    Now, I’m ditching the outlines and pantsing more. I’m trying to truly “sit at the typewriter and bleed,” to let my genuine, deep, vulnerable self spill out onto the page without a thought to the persona I want to display or the reader I want to impress. The discomfort often has me squirming in my seat, but goodness the stories are so much better!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha. Before I got to your third sentence, I was thinking, “Three!” :p As a fellow Three, I definitely see a lot of what I’m speaking about in this post being a result of work I’ve done in confrotning my “Threeness” in the last few years.

  31. I’m a convert to the idea of the creative power of the unconscious – I ran a workshop on it at this year’s Worldcon. I fully agree what you’ve written here.
    (If interested, google (with quote marks) “unconscious thought theory as a creativity tool”)
    From what I’ve read of many great writers, they all felt they always had much to learn, and continually strived to improve their work.

  32. Thanks for such great advice and willingness to answer questions. And, thanks for this timely post. After seeing your scene checklist, I bookmarked the series intending to read it ALL. But, my gut feels that scene writing is *not* one of my problems. Since Judging *and* Prospecting work, Prospecting types shouldn’t feel a push to be Judging just because a Judging type’s checklist looks like the best approach. Now, my prospecting side loves your scene point list when I view it for the principals; just implement them and write on. Life *never* consults a list for instruction on what it should do next, but life is one of the best things you can consult for what your writing should do next. So, thanks for convincing me to stop wasting time ‘binge’ reading on your site (and others) just because I *might* not be doing things quite right [reluctantly removes tempting bookmark].

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Life *never* consults a list for instruction on what it should do next.”

      It’s true. Life runs on pattern and structure–the solar, lunar cycles, etc–and yet it is all instinctive and innate.

  33. Thank you for sharing your journey. It’s nice to know we have companions along the way.

  34. Your blogs are always fascinating, but this one caught me in the gut. Go dance with your muse awhile and then come back to tell us how it all turned out!

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  1. […] Bair has fearless writing advice from fiction’s most fearful protagonist, K.M. Weiland asks if you are growing as a writer, and Julie Carrick Dalton ponders finding truth in […]

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