By Adam J. Pearson
People who practice any skill tend to reach for the tools they know best to do the job. Cooks tend to use the same sets of knives and the same staple ingredients. Mechanics tend to rely on the same tool and skillsets to fix familiar cars. Managers tend to focus on the same models of management that they have practiced for years. Writers are no different. Words are the tools of the writer and experiences are the energy that power them. Writers, like cooks, mechanics, and managers, also tend to reach for the same idioms, the same modes of expression, the same forms, and even the same key words and phrasings. Their challenge, therefore, is to find new phrasings and new words that will push them out of the familiar ways of speaking and into new avenues of expression.
On a personal level, I’ve faced this challenge in my own literary musings. If I examine my writing, I find a familiar set of recurring words to which I often turn to express what I mean to say. My défi –and it is a challenge that all writers face– is to be willing to leave them behind, at least momentarily, and find new ones that express fresh insights.
Part of what I find helpful for reaching this end is writing about wildly divergent topics. Yesterday, for example, I wrote a blog about relating to what we habitually call ‘negative emotions.’ But I also wrote a blog about Einstein’s vision of time in special and general relativity, on the reasons for low-unionization rates within restaurants, and on why personal change is an insufficient response to the global ecocrisis. Shifting the focus of our writing can help keep it alive and prevent it from fossilizing into stale, repetitive phrases that are mere skeletons of what they could be. While lively writing propels itself forward into new responses from readers, dead, formulaic writing lacks impact. Our challenge is to feed our writing with the new words and phrasings we need to keep it alive.
Periodically switching up the subjects of our writing if one way to nourish it and keep it lively. I find that writing about very different issues circulates new vocabulary through the mind and often inspires new insights. Writing about working in restaurants, for example, has given rise to new insights about what mindfulness and wu wei (effortless action) mean in practice. Writing about spacetime has shifted the way I see Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of Now,” for we ‘now’ (sic) know from modern physics that there is no such thing as an absolute Now; rather, there are as many ‘nows’ as there are observers in relative motion and they do not agree on ‘simultaneity’. If we wish to look at reality freshly, it sometimes helps to change from a microscope to a telescope. Words and points of views are the ‘instruments’ that the writer uses to see and speak reality into language. Therefore, it is these that we must vary if we wish to vary expression in turn.
Some practical exercises can be helpful for forcing us to ‘switch up’ our familiar language for language that isn’t so familiar. I’ll close with four:
- First, we can set out to write something in which we tell ourselves that certain words that we often use are ‘off limits‘ for the extent of the writing. This practice can challenge us to see things in new ways that are not bound to the familiar language on which we tend to rely.
- Second, we can free-associate about a topic by freely writing down whatever images or words come to mind when we think of it without self-censorship. We can then weave these words and images into new writing that deviates from our ingrained, habitual modes of expression.
- Third, we can give ourselves five words that we rarely use (e.g. ‘vicarious,’ ‘zeugma,’ ‘phenomenological,’ ‘granite’ and ‘transcendental’) and challenge ourselves to write a coherent, meaningful story, or poem that includes all of them in some meaningful way.
- Four, we can go for a walk with a pen and paper and pause randomly before an object of our choice (e.g. a tree or a garbage can or a graffiti-covered wall). We must then challenge ourselves to free-associate about it and then quickly write some descriptive of figurative lines that draw on this object. This exercise can be made more fun and challenging by setting time limits (e.g. a few minutes or even a single minute) to go through the writing process.
These exercises have the same goal: to provoke novel ways of speaking and seeing. Sometimes fresh expression requires fresh vocabulary to speak it into being. Exercises like these can bombard the mind with a barrage of fresh language that can explode into fresh ways of speaking and seeing, new pointers that were previously unexplored.
The gist (or tldr): There’s nothing wrong with reusing the same words, but varying our wordings keeps our writing fresh and lively. While lively writing propels itself forward into new responses from readers, dead, formulaic writing lacks impact. Our challenge is to feed our writing with the new words and phrasings we need to keep it alive. Shakespeare was the ultimate master of this; if you move from play to play, you’ll find the tremendous diversity of vocabulary and imagery he evokes is nothing short of staggering. This diversity of expression has been part of what has kept him enduringly interesting, along with his universal insights and memorable characters, and inspired generations of people to return to him for insight and enjoyment. We can keep writing fresh by varying our language and doing exercises like making words off limit while we write, free-associating about a topic, writing based on must-use words, and doing writing trials while out walking.
For more exercises and insights into how we can nourish the creative process, see Emile Graham’s fantastic article On Insight and Creativity.