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Tips For Jumpstarting Your Writing
by Sarah Shapiro
First published in the Jerusalem Post

It has always struck me as mysterious, the way so many people are intensely bothered by an insistent longing to write. The life of each one of us is the unique, ongoing story of a personal exodus from Mitzrayim, and the strong desire to get down in black and white some aspect of what we have seen and experienced and learned along the way, and to convey it to others, is an inexplicable impulse planted in many a human soul.

In ten years of giving workshops, it has become apparent to me that whenever a person is nagged relentlessly by that desire to write, this in itself is a reliable sign that he or she has been equipped, as well, with a corresponding ability to fulfill it. It is never too late to develop this inborn gift for words.

I wish we could somehow sidestep the inner conflict which arises, however, when for whatever reason, the desire cannot be immediately fulfilled. During the years when my children were small and I had neither the time nor mental space to write anything at all, it would have benefited me to understand why the root of the word for art, omanut, is the same as that of the word emuna. It might have increased my patience and diminished my frustration had I defined human creativity not merely in terms of tangible art, but in the divinely given ability to do small, daily, mundane acts of chesed in a thousand different ways.

I once heard Rav Noach Weinberg declare that the highest human artistry is not necessarily manifested in that which can be achieved with a pen, or a paintbrush, or with a musical instrument. "Give someone a compliment," he said, "and see him smile. That's power. That's creativity."

Get an attractive writing notebook, the kind that makes you want to spend money on a new pen. The notebook's appearance should please you, but shouldn't be so exquisite or expensive that you'll worry about messing it up.

Carry it with you so that random moments turn into writing moments. You don't have to restrict yourself to any particular objectives; the notebook can have multiple uses, all of which will invariably heighten your awareness and bring out different aspects of your life. It can be used for writings which will never be read by anyone but you, or things that will evolve and end up being published.

The chief advantage to getting something published is that it will encourage you to keep writing, but many people keep journals for years without publishing a thing, and writing becomes an indispensable part of their lives.

It has been said that the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. In other words, you are your own best teacher, It's the ongoing process itself of writing which strengthens your unique voice, develops the mental habit of turning perceptions into words, hones your literary judgment, and refines your ability to edit your own work.

Do not be deterred by the critical voice within that says you're silly and presumptuous to even imagine you have anything to say. Be tolerant of this voice but ignore it. It will never completely shut up.

Someone once said that when he wrote what he thought other people wanted to hear, nobody listened. So he wrote what he himself wanted to hear, and everyone was fascinated.

Your notebook's most obvious use is as a record of daily experiences. One woman who has kept journals for years says that to her surprise, it is often the least profound, least exciting entries that she finds fascinating later on. Don't be afraid of dwelling on earthshaking topics such as, "I'm on the #4 bus, going to pay my telephone bill." Such is the stuff of our existence. Preserve these seemingly insignificant events, and years from now you'll recognize that all such things are precious.

Writing your own truth between the covers of a private notebook will liberate you, to some extent, from the need to be understood by others. It can provide you with virtually unlimited opportunities to wallow in self-pity, dwell obsessively on the past, and worry neurotically about the future. Then, if you so desire, you can rejoice in the present. Your notebook is your own little corner of the cosmos, one place where you needn't be shy of the word "I."

You can't help but benefit from the discipline of a daily writing routine, but there is no need to intimidate yourself with this approach. You can write whenever you remember to, or when the spirit moves you. It has been said that in any given day of any individual's life, there is something which contains the material from which great literature is made. Anything can trigger you. Look around the room. "The half-open window." "The broken chair." "The things inside my purse." "My hands." "My teeth." Everything in the world carries multiple associations utterly unique to you, as does every single word in the language.

The more you write about what you experience, the more aspects of the world you will find yourself noticing and remembering, just as recording your dreams improves the ability to recall them.

It is vitally important to develop sensitivity to correct grammar, word usage and sentence structure, and to be well-versed in such things as the formal rules that govern poetry. The more you read good literature (it may be hard to find) the more you'll be naturally attuned to these things without having to think about them.

Nonetheless, please remember that when it comes to writing, the rules exist to serve you, not the other way around. Grammar is not halacha.

Your notebook can be a catch-all for stray and fleeting insights, thoughts, fragments, commentary, memories, hopes. It can be the home for poems that don't get finished, ideas you don't follow through on, essays you'd love to develop and never get around to. And sometimes it may bring about that which most people who write would dearly welcome: not only communion with themselves but the creation of something which can speak to others. As the poet Emily Dickinson said: "This is my letter to the world."

Sarah Shapiro is the author and editor of many books. She is an instructor at The Jewish Writing Institute.


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