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Mastering Plans or Planning to Become Masters? How to Teach Writers Creative Theft

IMG_7959Adult writers are often judged by their abilities to sell their work to the masses. In most schools, children are taught to pursue high grades. Both groups are conditioned to value the product they create over the processes they pursue, and while one can certainly understand how this reasoning is influenced by reality, it’s also significantly flawed.

I’m thinking of two writers that I used to work with closely: one seemed to write at the speed of light, banging out efficient drafts and publishing prolifically. The other moved at a far slower pace, sinking into each phase of her work with depth, seeking feedback at multiple points, and testing varied iterations on diverse readers whose perspectives shaped and even changed her own.

The first writer discovered his forte and formula early on, and he continues to work it over and over again even now, many years later. The second immersed herself in the unknown. Her process remains one of discovery, and she crafts her writing in response to what she learns.

The first writer quickly mastered a plan.

The second planned to become a master, knowing this would take far more time. In my experience, this approach requires a completely different set of skills as well.

For instance, I’ve noticed that writers who become adept often begin by tearing other texts apart. They break down the work that inspires them in order to study how it works so they can mimic an expert’s approach, and while these initial efforts might feel a bit like thievery, modifying existing frameworks typically inspires the development of one that is legitimately their own. This is what we call creative theft. Here’s how I’ve started teaching it:

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In my experience, writers who become adept are distinct in another way as well: rather than approaching the process as a routine or a set of linear steps, they move through it in a recursive fashion. Most notably, they tinker within each phase of it. That’s what creative theft is all about: bumping ideas against each other and watching sparks fly. Adept writers strive to surface the unexpected, and they generate multiple ideas and options before selecting the best path.

This is how magic happens. 

When writers tinker they often make their writing moveable, crafting it on index cards or sticky notes, slicing their drafts into pieces, and isolating portions of their work from the whole in order to study and play with them. They seek feedback from the moment ideas begin taking shape, and they continually share their thinking and their work as it evolves. Adept writers are not satisfied by organizers, formulas, and plans that result in the tidy production of the drafts that they or their teachers intended. Instead, they strive for complexity, playing with the possibilities that emerge from the process, often shaping and reshaping their vision as they draft deeper into their work.

These writers do more than merely get the job done. Tinkering empowers them to raise the level of their writing as they go. This is how they become expert craftsmen.

It’s been many years since I worked beside the two writers I mention above, and time has been a powerful teacher. The first writer is still the first one out of the gate. He still plans with a purpose and achieves it efficiently. He knows how to engage an audience around his predictable formula. The second writer has several manuscripts of her own completed as well, and while her works have found appreciative audiences, she’s also distinguished herself as a bit of a visionary. While writers may examine the first writer’s work in order to uncover and mimic its formula, the second writer empowers others in far greater ways. A true master of craft, her value as a mentor lies far beyond the text. Others learn much by watching her play with her writing, and what they discover often causes them to question what they believe they know about writing, the process, and their own relationship with both.

Over the years, I’ve watched dozens upon dozens of writers employ similar approaches when left to their own devices. This pushed my thinking about writing instruction and my role as a teacher as well. Letting go of what I think I know and being willing to learn from my students has been my greatest reward as a teacher.

2 Comments

  1. I can very much relate to the second writer you refer to as a “visionary”. Our culture tends to push for product asap (value speed) rather than value and enjoy the process in which is taken to get to the product. The product should be the result of the process. We are all rushing “to do” and “to produce”. Its a cultural issue, I am happy you are questioning it. This a philosophical mind shift which also can be applied to most anything, not only writing.

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