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News for the Newbies

rocket ship2 [1]Recently a friend asked me to write a short call to action for her high school English class, to help them break out of the arrogant insecurity of youth and into the freewheeling creative writing process that you and I know so well. Below you will find, more or less, what I shared with them. Can I prevail upon you to share it with young writers you know? Because after all, hey, why should we adults have all the fun?

The problem with high school writing, it seems to me, is that much of it is boring (The Lonely Voyage of Vasco da Gama) or lame (Why I Love Gravity in 500 to 750 words) or pointlessly self-evident (In the book THE TIME MACHINE, name the apparatus the hero invents). There’s so much more to writing than that.

Writing is a joy.

Writing is a thrill.

Writing is a big, exciting adventure!

Oops, but writing is also a big, scary problem.

Why? Because any time writers write, they face two tough challenges:

1) “I don’t know how to do this.”

B) “It might not be any good.”

And by the way, these problems are not limited to new writers or young writers. Every writer, from you to me to Charles Frickin’ Dickens, has at one time or another wondered, How can I make this work? and Gosh, what if I can’t? But what if you could enjoy the big, thrilling adventure without wiping out against the big, scary problem. What if…

A) You knew how to do stuff, and

2) You didn’t care if it was good?

Sounds impossible? Let’s find out – and let’s start really small.

Let’s write a limerick.

A limerick, as you’ll recall, is a short, funny poem that’s five lines long. Good limericks, like good dogs, obey certain rules:

The last words of the 1st, 2nd and 5th lines rhyme with each other.

The last words of the 3rd and 4th lines rhyme with each other.

The meaning is funny or silly.

Each of the lines has a defined cadence or rhythm, thus:

da DUH da da DUH da da DUH (da)

da DUH da da DUH da da DUH (da)

da DUH da da DUH

da DUH da da DUH

da DUH da da DUH da da DUH (da)

(Why are some of the ending syllables in parentheses? It’s not because I like parentheses. (Though I do.) (!) It’s that those syllables are optional. That is, you can end those lines either with a word like BANKer or like BANK.)

Here’s an example of a limerick that “works” in the sense that it follows the simple rules of limerick construction (the stressed syllables are capitalized):

There ONCE was a GIRL from PoughKEEPsie

Who GAVE her old TEACHer the SLIPsie

Though IT wasn’t COOL


And CAME back that EVEning quite TIPsy

Now you may love or hate this limerick, but you can’t argue that it is a limerick. It follows the rules and achieves its goal. And if you follow those rules, too, then you literally can’t fail to write a limerick.

But still you might be afraid. You might be afraid that it won’t be any good. How can I help you with that?

By asking you what might seem like an irrelevant question. Have you ever built a rocket ship?

No? Well, then, if you built your first one, would you expect it to fly perfectly? You’d probably be surprised if it flew at all. You’d understand that you’re only building the first one to gain experience at building them so that somewhere down the line you can build a rocket ship that flies really great. It’s the same with limericks (and actually the same with everything): We first have to learn how to do it at all before we ever need to worry about doing it well.

[pullquote]It’s the same with limericks (and actually the same with everything): We first have to learn how to do it at all before we ever need to worry about doing it well.[/pullquote]

Writing isn’t rocket science – and that’s the problem! Since we already know how to write, we expect more of ourselves. It doesn’t seem like a new thing. It seems like a thing we should be able to do great on the very first try. So now I’ll give you a tip: Instead of expecting more, expect less.

The less you expect of your creative outcomes, the easier it will be to achieve them. Can I prove that? No… but you can. Write a limerick now, and write it as fast as you can. Don’t expect anything of your limerick except that it follows those rules listed above. I’ll wait here till you’re done.

And when you’re done, you will have built something that looks and sounds like a limerick. You learned the rules for how a thing is done, and then did it. Do you love what you wrote? Do you hate it? Doesn’t matter! If this was your first limerick, your next one will be better, and the one after that better still. Even if you wrote what you think was a crummy little limerick, that’s one limerick more than you’d written before. That’s one new skill for you. You’re better than you were – more in touch with your creativity, and less afraid of it, too – whether you like your limerick or not.

And if you write another one, you’ll get even more skillful and less fearful. Why? Because the new one will have the shoulders of the old one to stand on. When you do it a second time, you’re not just a limerick writer, you’re an experienced limerick writer.

So try it again. Stand on your own shoulders. (Don’t worry, you won’t fall off!)

Do you feel it? Do you feel the thrill that comes from writing something you never tried writing before? I hope so, because that’s the thrill I get from writing (I’m getting it right now as I write these words) and that’s the thrill I desperately want to share with you. It’s a thrill that’s easily portable to any other sort of writing you might choose to do, from jokes and sketches to stories, scripts, even big, bad, hairy, scary novels that some high school English student somewhere might some day write a book report about. How do you like them apples?

Oh, them apples, I like them fine.

So grab your pen or pencil or word processor and dive on in. Because creativity rules, and when you use yours, then you rule too!

There you have it, WUers, my exhortation to youth to let creativity rule. Two things for you to chew upon today.

1) What’s your best advice for young writers?

B) (tee-hee) Would you care to share with us all that limerick that you just wrote?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!