Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I'm interested in creative writing, but I'm not sure how to go about it. How do I get started?

Sometimes that blank page can feel daunting. This is especially true for new writers. But you're interested in pursuing this and the fact that you're on The Writer magazine's website means you've started to look into how it works. That's a great first step. Keep visiting writing-related websites and reading writer's magazines. It's an excellent way to learn about the craft, the creative process, and opportunities that exist for all levels of writers.

At this point, your main task is to practice writing. And you've probably already done this in some form. Many writers like to keep a daily writing journal. You may already write in a journal, but you'll want to think about this writing journal differently than you would a regular journal. Instead of writing the day's events and your thoughts and feelings, focus on translating experiences or imagined situations onto the page. You might, for example, describe the view out your window, or the way your son eats ice cream off the cone. Think about places that resonate with you and try to capture that feeling in a description. Perhaps the stillness perched at the top of a ski slope last year struck you as particularly peaceful. Try and recreate that moment through description. Be sure to focus on details that appeal to the senses: sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound. Don't spend too much time judging what you write at this point. Just get words on the page.

Also, begin to look for moments in daily life that intrigue or inspire you. Perhaps you saw an unexpected pair at the coffee shop in intense conversation. They didn't come together and their interaction didn't make you think they were friends or a family relation. How did they know each other? What were they discussing that was so important? Invent the answers to these questions and then take a stab at writing that scene in your journal.

If you ever find yourself at a loss for ideas or want to change up your journaling routine, seek out creative writing exercises. A web search will pull up enough—either on-line or in books—to keep you busy for a long time.

Also, make sure you're reading as much as you can. Make a conscious effort to focus on the kind of writing you'd like to create. That might be poetry, novels, short stories, or memoirs. Right now, you might not be sure. Read as widely as possible and see what you gravitate toward.

At some point, you'll want to begin to focus and develop your writing skill. Making that transition from journaling to creating complete stories, essays, or poems is an important step. When you feel ready, take it. You might choose to start with self-study and make your way through books on the craft. This can be a great way to learn about different techniques. (Gotham Writers Workshop's Writing Fiction is one of my favorites for fiction, and not just because I contributed a chapter. In addition to discussing different elements of craft, there are exercises throughout that encourage you to stop and practice what you're reading about.)

You may eventually want to take a class—or several. In a class, you'll not only learn about the craft, you'll also get focused and direct feedback on your writing. A community of writers is valuable to the learning experience, as it gives you an opportunity to see what others are writing and to hear how others respond to and interpret the words you've written on the page. This outside look at your work is the only true way to get a sense of whether what you intended has, in fact, come through in the choices you made. And a knowledgeable instructor can help offer guidance on how to achieve that even more effectively.

Don't let another day go by without starting your writing practice. Pull out a piece of paper. Don't worry if it's not bound in a fancy leather cover. Try one of the prompts above. Or this one: Write about your childhood kitchen. Keep it sensory. What color were the walls? What did it smell like? What sounds do you associate with it? Make up whatever you don't know. Then, go further: Imagine what's happening in that kitchen right now. (You might not know if that kitchen still exists. Or you might know it's already gone. All the better. There are so many possibilities. What do you imagine?)

Once you've gotten over the hurdle of starting, everything else will simply be writing.