"The Writer's Path: A Guidebook for Your Creative Journey," Walton & Toomay

Pros: Fantastic advice, wonderful exercises and lots of fun!
Cons: Maybe too many examples?
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 6/5/2002

In my ongoing attempt to beat a severe case of freelancer burnout, I opened up yet another writing book: “The Writer’s Path: A Guidebook for Your Creative Journey.” At first glance it didn’t have anything to distinguish it from the gazillions of other writing books out there. It offered “Exercises, Essays, and Examples,” and I did feel that exercises might be useful for me, but that was really it. So it was with a great deal of surprise that, after reading a chapter or two and trying just three exercises, I felt the original amazement and magic of writing again, for the first time in years.

The Point of Free-Writing

Free-writing is something that lots of writers and writing teachers swear by. I’ve heard about it a lot, but before now no one could ever give me a really good reason for doing it. It just didn’t particularly interest me. The idea is that you take some sort of exercise (or even just a blank paper and nothing else at all), sit down for a page, or 5 to 10 minutes, and just write whatever comes into your head. Lots of writers talk about how this frees your creativity. Since I rarely have problems being creative, I didn’t see the point.

One of the first things you’ll find in this book is a brief section on free-writing in general, including a number of points about how and why you should do free-writing. Among these are such points as doing free-writing someplace comfortable and nice, rather than at a desk, or using music to stimulate free-writing. (Maybe this explains part of my objection to free-writing – I only really experienced it in a classroom setting before.)

The introduction to this section says:

In emotional terms, free-writing invites you to express your uninhibited feelings–all parts welcome, no word judged wrong or inappropriate. When we free-write we do it for ourselves. No one else need ever read or hear what we’ve written unless we choose to share it. This privacy is fundamental to the liberating nature of free-writing.

And that struck a chord with me.

I’ll share a little bit of background for a moment, if you don’t mind. In a way, I skipped a step in the writing process. Everyone talks about how they started out by getting hundreds of rejection slips, and how, during this time, they honed their craft and learned that they write for the sake of writing. They know they don’t need their writing to be accepted for publication in order to enjoy it.

The first response I ever got from a publisher was an acceptance, and I started doing roleplaying industry contract work shortly after that. It sounds great, but instead I missed a vital step in the process. I never really learned to write for myself; almost everything was for a class or a publication or a company. Every time I wrote there was an editor looking over my shoulder. I write rough drafts that are often quite close to the final product, and I could never understand writing teachers who said that rough drafts should be a whole lot, well, rougher than that.

So I decided to try some of those free-writing exercises. This may sound cheesy, but they changed my life.

Fantastic Exercises

The majority of this book consists of exercises and examples of the results of these exercises. All of this is tied together by bits of wisdom, suggestions, and experiences the authors have had. There are a couple of things that stand out about the exercises in these books, and that set them apart from the exercises in most other books I’ve looked at so far. First, there are plenty of suggestions for using these exercises in partner or group writing (including an entire chapter on partner writing, one on writing groups, and one on classroom activities), which makes them much more widely applicable than most other books.

Second, the exercises are much more interesting than those in other books. When I read other books I tend to shrug at many of the exercises, finding them a little less than inspiring. I thought it was just me until I read this book. Most (if not all) exercises come with variations, suggested places to start, ways to take them further, and so on. At the end of each chapter you’ll find examples of what other people have done with the exercises.

The exercises range from “jump starts” (quick little things) to “letter forms” (exercises you can do with postcards and letters), “style” (exercises to help you work on your voice and style), “character” (things like biography data sheets, character explorations), and more. If you only read one chapter from this book, though, read the “story” chapter. The exercises in random story structures, abstract story structures, natural story structures, poetic outlines, and so on are exciting, fun, and inspiring! It’s hard to imagine a writer who would not find this material at the very least intriguing.

Examples

The examples are my only (very minor!) quibble with the book. They take up a lot of space, and at least personally, I wasn’t terribly interested in them. Maybe you’ll enjoy them more. They did help to clarify one particular exercise whose instructions seemed slightly ambiguous to me. I do think they serve one important purpose, however. The writer who is afraid to just cut loose and allow herself to write something silly or even – heaven forfend – bad can look at these examples. She’ll see that it’s okay to not write masterpieces here, and that can be fairly liberating.

Teaching Writing

This would be a particularly valuable book for writing teachers, I believe. The authors have done quite a bit of teaching, and they share many of the insights they’ve learned. So whether you’re teaching creative writing to high schoolers or some of your adult neighbors, in a classroom setting or an informal writers’ group, you could learn a lot from this book.

I know I’m a little biased about this book right now. It gave me the first flash back to the fun I used to have with writing that I’ve had in some years, and this means that I’m quite enamored of this book. However, given that this is hardly the first book I’ve read on this quest, I feel quite comfortable in saying that the difference was within this volume. If you have any interest in writing and want to stretch your writing fingers, this book would be a fabulous place to start!

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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