CE Creative Writing instructor Steve Lorton is in the business of demystification. In particular, he’s out to set the record straight regarding what it means to be successful at creative writing. Creative writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is ultimately a storytelling process. We are each of us made up of stories and thrive on their telling and re-telling. However, according to Lorton, storytelling does not come easily to all of us.
“We are not all natural storytellers. However, those who are not natural storytellers can learn to tell stories,” says Lorton. “We learn this by listening. First, we hear people telling their own stories and then we listen to others tell stories unrelated to themselves and their own lives and we imitate, at first, and that evolves into our own style and what is called one's own ‘voice.’”
According to Lorton, developing a skill for creative writing goes hand-in-hand with a fertile curiosity. “I think that many great professionals develop by watching, listening, learning and doing,” says Lorton. “There is a reason why so many great story tellers come from the cultures of Ireland and the American Deep South. That is because there are so many raconteurs in those cultures. It's part of the fabric of those cultures. Everyone around them listens, then imitates, then develops their own style.”
Contrary to popular belief, Lorton believes successful writing is much more than merely a process of writing and rewriting as many professionals claim. “You can rewrite something into the grave,” he says. “What you do is you write it—you may rework it a bit, you refine it and then you polish it. And you do this because you never start writing until you've thought through what you are going to do. You've made notes, a rough outline and you go to work. I always tell my students to submit to the agony (and that is what it is) of obsessing about what you want to write over a period of a couple of days or so, scratch down notes, and then think, think, think. Then come up with some kind of rough outline and begin. At that point, I think you feel a sense of stark-raving fear.”
For Lorton, conquering that fear is the crux of successful creative writing—a struggle that ceases once the writer puts their nose to the grindstone. “I wrote professionally for 33 years; dozens of columns a month, every month, for an audience of over five million,” Lorton recalls. “I never once sat down to the typewriter (later the word processor) without the horrifying fear that ‘this time I can't do it. This time I'm dry. It's over.’ Then you begin typing away at this outline you've scribbled down and suddenly you lift off and you are on your way. Time vanishes. A sense of euphoria sets in. And then you realize you have something. But trust me, it is not without pain.”
Writing is a process that requires time, practice and its own unique form of training. If there is an art to writing, it rests in one’s power of observation. “You pay attention to everything around you,” says Lorton. “You listen. You watch. You think. You allow yourself to get carried away and you never dismiss anything. You take it all in, mull it over. And for the thousand things that you put through your conscious mind, one or two things pop out and become stories.”
Lorton says students enrolling in his Creative Writing courses can look forward to learning to listen for the sound of their own creative voice. “I always encourage my writing students to talk and tell their stories. My advice is: Speak the way you think, then write the way you speak. It all takes time, but the talent emerges and grows with practice.”
Students looking forward to attending one of Lorton’s Creative Writing classes can expect a worry-free and painless experience. “I always tell my students that they cannot fail,” says Lorton. “We can take anything they bring in and work with it. I think people learn more by being told what they are doing right as opposed to what they are doing wrong. I believe in positive feedback and honest encouragement. But I also tell them, the more work they put into their assignments, the better they will be and the more they will grow as a creative writer. It's like most other things in life, what you get out of something is proportionate to what you put into it.
Learn more about Steve Lorton’s class, The Art of Creative Writing.