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3 Ways to Challenge Your Writing

I’ve always identified primarily as a fiction writer. From the time I was little, I would make up my own stories with a cast of stuffed animals, action figures, and toys, extended epics that played out over hours or even days.

In high school and into college, I wrote mostly short stories, and even did a novel for my senior project. I continued this exploration of stories into graduate school, where I received a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing and wrote a collection of linked short stories as my thesis.

That book has since been published as The Goodbye-Love Generation: A Novel in Stories.

I’ve always considered making up stories to be an integral part of who I am. At least until the end of last year.

That was when I got the idea for an essay about Nanci Griffith, my favorite musician, who passed away in August. As I began to write about Griffith and her impact on my life, I was stunned by the emotional reservoirs the subject tapped, the language that seemed to come from a place inside me that I didn’t know existed.

I’d written a few essays in the past, but I had always been too scared to explore the deep parts of myself that nonfiction reaches into. However, I’ve spent the last two years in intensive counseling, which has given me a level of understanding about myself that I previously didn’t have.

I felt equipped to write about myself for the first time. And the results shocked me.

Since then, I’ve been writing a lot of flash nonfiction that just seems to come out effortlessly. It’s a part of my writing that I’ve never tried before and I’m amazed at what I’m producing.

In Encanto, Isabela, Mirabel’s older sister whose gift is magically making flowers grow, has a similar experience when embracing a central truth about herself leads to a release of creativity.

In our month-long exploration of Encanto’s lessons for writers, we last left off with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and how it teaches writers to explore how characters perceive reality, then weave that reality into dialogue. Let’s look at what happens next in the story…

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Mirabel “talking about Bruno” doesn’t go well. In fact, it’s a massive disaster. News of Bruno’s vision about Mirabel spreads throughout the family during a crucial dinner with Isabela’s betrothed, wrecking his proposal of marriage.

And of course, as the only member of the Madrigal family without a gift, Mirabel gets blamed for everything.

Frustrated, Mirabel finds Bruno (who, as Dolores hinted, really has been living in the walls of the house with the rats) and asks him to have another vision. When he does, it produces an imagine of Mirabel hugging someone…who looks a lot like Isabela.

Isabela is understandably pretty mad at Mirabel and didn’t like her all that much to begin with, so this is kind of a problem. Nonetheless, Mirabel swallows her pride and decides to take a stab at the hug.

As predicted, Isabela lashes out over the evening’s events, and at the crescendo of her rage, she blurts out a shocking truth: she’s not really in love with the man Abuela has chosen for her to marry.

This causes her to produce not a flower…but a cactus blossom.

Stunned, Isabela reaches a conclusion she’s never considered: she’s capable of producing more than just beautiful, perfect flowers.

She immediately begins exploring this new power, creating a variety of flowers and plants, even transforming her perfect appearance into a nuanced, multicolored display of self-expression.

It’s one of my favorite moments in the film, one that offers a variety of challenges for writers to take on as they explode what they can do with their creativity.

Here are some ways you can challenge yourself to discover “what else you can do” with your work.

Write Out of Genre

In my MFA program, I was required to take a workshop outside of my primary concentration. So one semester, in addition to taking my usual fiction workshop, I took a poetry class.

I was really nervous about that poetry class. My poems from college were, shall we say, not good.

Nevertheless, I jumped in and shared my work with a class full of seasoned and quite intimidating poets.

I soon discovered, though, that I could blend my storytelling with the craft of poetry by writing persona poems, a type of poem where a character narrates their experience. As I began experimenting with this genre, I found that I had the beginnings of my chapbook, Bone China Girls: A Poetic Account of a Female Crime.

Does writing a short story scare you because you’re a poet and don’t know how to sustain an entire plot? Are you afraid to write a poem because it might be bad?

Do it anyway. You might learn something new about your talents.

Stop Thinking About the Endgame

Most, if not all, authors dream about publishing their work for others to enjoy and dare I say praise. It is honorable to have these goals.

However, we too often allow them to supersede the creative process.

Maybe you’ve stopped yourself while writing and thought, Who would actually buy this?

Maybe you’ve gotten frustrated because you don’t know what genre your book would fall into or how it might be marketed.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your work to be published. But at this point in the writing process, the publication and marketing process is too far down the road for you to be concerning yourself with these things.

By thinking about how to fit your project into a neat little box while you’re still writing, you could short-circuit the story’s natural development, making it fit a particular market rather than organically becoming what it’s supposed to be.

You can always go back and revise with those goals in mind. But you are severely limiting your creativity if publication and marketing are at the forefront of your mind.

Instead of strategizing about your book’s publication, challenge yourself to stay present in the creative process. You may be holding yourself back by becoming preoccupied with steps that are too far ahead in the process to be concerned with.

Spot & Stop the Creative Lies

Earlier I mentioned that my fiction writing was so tied to my identity that I thought it had to be the only thing I was committed to.

If I wasn’t constantly pursuing this form of storytelling, I was somehow doing a disservice to myself and my work.

This was a lie.

We all believe lies about ourselves. We view ourselves and our abilities with inaccuracies because of past experiences, well-meaning comments that went sideways, and editorial feedback that we internalized too deeply.

Have you been allowing falsehoods about your writing talent to hold you back from fully creating with freedom?

Here’s an exercise to help you figure this out:

Take a few minutes to free write about who you are as a creative person, including your strengths, weaknesses, and philosophies about your work.

Then, look over your list. Think about where these ideas come from. Then, see if there is anything there that needs to be questioned.

Think about it this way: Isabela has had the ability to create in diverse and extraordinary ways since she was a child. Trapped by her family’s expectations, however, she was only accessing a small percentage of her gift.

However, a defiant act of honesty allows her to begin exploring her creativity with abandon.

What is holding you back from being able to truly create to your fullest extent?

If you’re looking for new ways to explore your creative gifts, my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook is a great place to start.

You’ll find prompts, templates, worksheets, and more to spark your creativity and begin exploring your writing in a new way.

I even have a poetry edition for those who write in that genre, or simply want to give it a try.

Grab your copy of one or both and start seeing what else you can do with your writing.

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