"The single wisest thing ever said about creative writing was this …"

It dismayed some readers. It delighted others. To me, it was one of the most interesting pieces we’ve published in the last year: Author and Boston University Creative Writing Program Director Leslie Epstein’s student tip sheet, “Tips for Writing and for Life.” Epstein has been adding to the list—tackling everything from ellipses to Picasso’s bulls—for two decades. Three highlights from the list make up the latest from Promptly’s Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series. A regular prompt follows. Happy weekend.

No. 4: Azure vs. Blue
The single wisest thing ever said about creative writing was this, from Elsa Lasker-Schüler: ‘A real poet does not say azure. A real poet says blue.’ Of course Vladimir Nabokov practiced the opposite, and the greatest writer of the last century, Marcel Proust, never walked a straight line in his life. Genius is not only a special case, it is almost always a disastrous influence upon others. I am not saying that one ought not to take risks; there is a sense of daring in every fine story, but the risk is in the depth of psychological truth or the boldness of conception (Aristotle’s example of both is that tale in which a detective discovers the murderer of his father is himself) and not in empty experiments with technique or form.”

While not doing too much violence to your natural style, try to use as few adjectives and especially adverbs as possible. Be simple and direct, not convoluted and fancy. To paraphrase George Orwell, don’t use a pound word when a shilling word will do. Here are some other wise words from H.G. Wells on the same subject: ‘I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.’ “

Don’t write with themes foremost in mind. Huck Finn is not ‘about’ the loss of innocence in America, or racial relations or sexual ambiguities; it is about a black man and a white boy going down a river on a raft.”

—Leslie Epstein, “Tips for Writing and for Life,” March/April 2010, (click here to read the full article on writersdigest.com, or click here to check the rest of the issue out, which also features our economic survival guide)


WRITING PROMPT: Encapsulation
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a
response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at
writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

The contents of the time capsule were, to say the least, baffling.

Also, what are you and your writing doing Jan. 21-23? Join us in New York for the Writer’s Digest Conference.
We always have a blast, and it can be a great move for your craft and
career (at one of our recent events, agents Janet Reid and Andrea Hurst
signed clients, and went on to negotiate six-figure deals for them). On
tap this year:

  • Our signature agent pitch slam, featuring at least 57 agents representing a variety of genres and styles
  • Sessions on the future of publishing, craft, platform, social media, freelancing and much, much more
  • Panels and Q&As with agents and other pros
  • Our off-site poetry slam in SoHo.

Click here to learn more. Hope to see you there!

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9 thoughts on “"The single wisest thing ever said about creative writing was this …"

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  4. Elaine Nelson

    I didn’t know what to expect from that taped-together shoebox that I’d
    left in a dresser drawer when I moved away from home. I’d almost
    forgotten about it by the time that the box came in the mail from Mom.
    Then I tucked it away again, putting the box in the bottom of another box full of keepsakes, stuffed animals and academic medals.

    Strange, really, that when I decided I needed to purge the keepsake box, lighten my emotional load, when I took the time capsule out, I was less than a week away from the "To be opened" date. June 2008, it said, 20 years after I graduated from junior high. At 13 going on 14 I’d written on that masking tape, a year that seemed implausibly far into the future.

    The clear packing tape was Mom’s doing, making sure that my silly little time capsule stayed closed for certain when she shipped it north. I sliced it open without any idea what I might find — all I could remember, after 20 years, was a peach pit…and I couldn’t even remember why the pit had seemed so important.

    Now that I had the orange and black Payless Shoe Source lid off, all the contents were baffling. All the fives from a deck of cards? A broken earring? A broken bookmark? Although: I remembered wearing that clip-on earring; I remembered having that bookmark tucked into Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Gone With the Wind. A few dried leaves, a Kit-Kat wrapper, that vaguely remembered peach pit.

    There was a bullet. When did I ever find a bullet? That one horrified my husband; even I was a little freaked out.

    But there were some things that were just the overly symbolized
    detritus of a teenage girl, a few things that I could look at and make
    some sense of. A photo, a school ID card. The program from a Yo-Yo Ma
    concert: I’d felt so grown-up with those tickets from my aunt’s
    elderly neighbors, just me and my best friend going out, wearing my
    pretty dress that I’d worn at my own orchestra concerts, a pale purple
    that coordinated so nicely with the dark purple carpets of the
    theater. Waiting for Mom to pick us up, we’d talked like grown-ups, or
    so it seemed to me, though I was as focused as balancing on the
    concrete edge of the fountain.

    And at the very bottom, a collection of folded-up notes, from or about
    the boy who’d had a crush on me: I’d been furious, decided I hated
    him, cut him off and threw temper tantrums. His handwriting was still
    familiar: just an awkward boy who liked an awkward girl, and was
    trying to express it in pencil on lined notebook paper. Less familiar
    was the note from one of my best friends, telling me I should be nice
    to him. She was, after all, probably right. Two decades of drama were
    about to follow; we’re friends again now, in that loosely-tied way
    that comes with the internet, but after he dated my sister, got her
    pregnant; they broke up and she gave up the kid for adoption; she
    hates him now, and I hated him for a long time. But there’s always
    more to the story than will fit in a letter or a ten-minute phone
    call, especially when you don’t want to hear. Fitting, then, that
    these few notes should be part of the capsule.

    I was already in a purging mood when I opened the time capsule, so I
    threw away most of it, after taking pictures of everything. Really,
    all I kept was the photo…and those notes.

    (True story: http://www.flickr.com/photos/epersonae/sets/72157605443633247/
    – there was some serious WTF in that box.)

  5. Darrell Dillard

    As the mayor prepared to open the capsule, he was wrought with imagination. The capsule had been placed in its current spot in 1911, with directions to open on its centennial anniversary. One hundred years to the day, 2011. This day has been noted as celebration, and advertised as such.

    The crowd gathered waiting for this moment, and now the time has come. The mayor, with shaking hands opened the lid. He looked upon the capsule with a puzzled look. Silence could not be contained any longer, as the crowd had begun to murmur.

    “What’s in the box”, asked the Sheriff?

    “Nothing but junk”, stated the Mayor.

    “Let me see. Why, there’s nothing but trash”, cried the Sheriff.

    The Mayor began to speak, “Folks, it seems there has been a lot of fuss about nothing. The contents are a pencil, sheet of paper, candy wrapper, a crayon, and an envelope with the word baffling written on it.”

    “The contents of the time capsule were, to say the least, baffling”, snorted the Sheriff.

    “Yes, Sheriff. Baffling. The letter in the envelope said that the capsule was placed here by the students of Baffling Elementary. How true your descriptive was”, said the Mayor.

  6. Evelyn

    Horace’s Story — Part Two. The first part is posted in Comments section for 1/5 prompt.

    The night before the first tests were scheduled, Horace took a scissors to his locks, clipping close to his skull. He collected them in a baggy labeled “For Research.” He foamed up the remaining stubble and shaved his scalp clean.

    By the next morning, Horace had reverted back to his pre-hair-serum appearance. He snuck out his back door with a bag of cash and a hermetically-sealed cylindrical canister labeled “Biohazard” under his arm. Later that day, Horace buried the canister on the outskirts of the property owned by Acme Biotech Labs.

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  7. Nathan Honore

    The construction site on Canyon Road had been in a permanent state of "coming soon" for fifteen years. Scott had played in there for years and then started hanging when he turned fourteen. Under cover of darkness, he would sneak through the bear-sized hole in the fence. Scott kept a small wooden box that most people use for drug paraphernalia under some rotted 2x4s. It contained a flashlight, Batman comics, fingernail clippers, and peanuts. Scott knew he was a loner and accepted his status in high school. His parent’s thought he went to a friend’s house on those nights he went to the construction site. What they don’t know doesn’t hurt them, Scott thought.

    One summer night, Scott snuck into his beloved construction site, through the hole in the fence, and to his wooden box. He grabbed his flashlight and shown it randomly around the ground around him. His thumb started to slide towards the switch to the off position when something reflected back at him. Scott walked carefully towards it. It was metallic and shaped like a thermos, still half buried. Scott uncovered the rest with his hands, noting to get the dirt out from under his nails later with his clippers. The cylindrical object was a tarnished metal with a line down the middle. Scott twisted it and the top half came open. He poured the contents on the ground and plopped himself down.

    “What the hell?” Scott said.

    There were three items and a note. The note read:

    To whom it may concern,

    May this kit of anonymous fame be as useful to you as it was for me. I have buried this time capsule to immortalize the best ways to gain anonymous fame in the year 1953. If used properly, these things will assist you in doing things that you can take pride in forever, but will never take credit for.

    Toilet paper- toss this over the trees and houses of your foes. It will take forever for them to clean it up.

    Whoopee cushion- use with great discretion. Try to slip it onto a teacher’s chair or behind someone in front of you at church. Do not laugh more or less than others. That will solidify your guilt.

    Baby Ruth- This candy bar is a perfect replica of fecal matter. Place in a pool and wait for the screams of disgust. The staff will have to evacuate and drain the pool. No laughing.

    Enjoy, friend. I don’t know you, but I wish you all the best. Remember; never take credit for these actions. The key to this kit is anonymous fame.

    Sincerely, John Baker

    Scott finished reading and held the objects in his dirty hands. The whoopee cushion was still rubbery, the toilet paper strong, and the Baby Ruth unopened.
    “Would Batman use these?” he asked himself. But quickly decided that he was not Bruce Wayne and hoped that Batman would forgive him for what he was about to do. Anonymous fame waited.