The Tenets of Creative Writing



As I was writing my most recent novel THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO from June 2013 to February 2016, I kept a diary. I recorded new ideas, moments of synchronicity, observations about the work, my emotional status.

As of this weekend, the book is finished abandoned again. My goals for this project were to write a book that I loved as much as my others, and to be satisfied by the work. Although I’ve achieved them, my diary indicates that I was absolutely miserable during much of the novel’s creation:

September 2, 2013: My total word count is 3,646 and I wish it were higher. I had a bad head cold this week, and I indulged the excuse of it being the first week of new school routines, but mostly I think it’s fear of failure.

October 17, 2013: Writing has been going slowly, stiffly, with difficulty, although I’ve written just under 11,000 words. Did it take this long to get started with Whisper Hollow? I can’t remember. This book is probably stupid.

December 1, 2013: The future looks abysmal and I feel a little shitty about my prospects and myself. Also, I’m filled to brimming with doubt about this book because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and more importantly, why.

June 5, 2014: I have no reason not to be plowing ahead. But I’m creeping, almost reluctantly. I don’t know what to make happen.

July 31, 2014: I should have been writing these past days and weeks, but I have been nearly paralyzed with fear of this story. And I’ve thought more about that fear than I have about the book itself.

October 20, 2015: After I finished reading the book this morning, I hated it. I made notes all over it, and don’t know how I’m going to make this better.

There were dozens and dozens more entries exactly like these. There were also some good ones, moments of joy, even elation when I had a breakthrough or a good writing day. But the point here is that in spite of the overwhelming despair throughout the process, I eventually made it to a happy ending—I love the way it turned out. And yesterday, I turned the new draft in to my agent.

Those of you who know me know that in addition to being a writer, I’m a fighter. At the beginning of every taekwondo class, we recite a pledge that includes the five tenets of taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. These characteristics are compatible with the sport not only because of the physical demands, but because of the mindset required to practice taekwondo correctly. We don’t go around wielding bo staffs and escrima sticks, or brawling in roadhouses (okay, maybe once), or dirty-sparring at competitions. It seems counterintuitive, but the more advanced our skill, the less we rely on violence. We can accomplish a great deal without deploying a single weapon. How do we get there? With years and years of training: falling down, making mistakes, getting our asses kicked.

The same thing is true in writing. The highs are few—completing a project, signing a deal, going on book tour—but the lows are plentiful. When I think of my writing career I mostly think of the ways I’ve fallen down, made mistakes, gotten my ass kicked. But if I apply the tenets of taekwondo, it doesn’t hurt as much:

  • Courtesy. Be kind to other writers by supporting and promoting their work. Be kind to early readers, editors, critics and reviewers, even when they say things you don’t want to hear. Listen carefully; they might be speaking the truth.
  • Integrity. Be honest and whole-hearted in your work or else you’ll lose your unique voice. Notice the embedded word grit, which means strength of character. Live and write with grit.
  • Perseverance. Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Doubt and challenge yourself along the way, but keep going.
  • Self-control. Elevate yourself from the negative voices: the ones inside your head as well as those outside it.
  • Indomitable spirit. Let nothing come between you and the work. Don’t be crushed by rejection or criticism; be humbled by and learn from your mistakes; aspire to create your best work.

I submit that these five tenets, which are really an elaboration on the Golden Rule, apply to any endeavor. So, whatever your medium, my wish for us all is the same: may we abide by these guidelines, and may our pens be as mighty as our swords.