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How to Be More Creative: What To Do When Your Words Misbehave

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Then follow them to creative nirvana, a la Mary Oliver

Be more creative by following misbehaving words
Mary Oliver's Misbehaving Words

Have you ever plopped down at your desk with a fully-formed idea of a piece you want to write only to have it go sideways as soon as your fingers hit the keyboard? Your outline is as useful as an invisible map. Your planning gives as much direction as a speck of sand in a Saharan windstorm. The words have a mind of their own, dragging you — kicking and screaming — in a totally different direction than you intended.

Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Writers everywhere have watched their best-laid plans go astray when their words won’t behave. You’ve probably heard the old phrase paraphrased from Scottish poet, Robert Burns….

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray…”

Burns’ statement might be paraphrased this way:

Writers can plan all they want, outlining and bullet-pointing ad nauseam, but words have a lifeforce of their own. They run wild whenever possible.

That’s not a bad thing. Uninhibited words running without direction can lead you to new places.

Too much planning kills creativity

Not many things on earth enjoy being confined. People, boobs, birds, and ideas all like to be free. Words are no different. Too much planning anchors them instead of letting them fly into pristine, undiscovered territory.

Over-analyze. Over-theorize. Over-categorize, and you kill creative thought. In the words of the great Ray Bradbury,

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.

So set them free for a few minutes each day. You’ve heard of “free-write,” right? Let go of your calculated plans. Unbridle your brain. Free your verbs, extricate your adjectives, and liberate your lines. Watch your words run wild.

Then follow them blindly, enjoying the romp.

Be outrageous and creative, a la Mary Oliver

Even Pulitzer-prize winner and prolific poet, Mary Oliver, couldn’t always control her unruly word-children. When her words misbehaved, she gave up trying to control them, gaining inspiration from their antics until they tired and came home to watch her do what she did best: give birth to another poem.

That Little Beast

“That pretty little beast, a poem, has a mind of its own. Sometimes I want it to crave apples but it wants red meat. Sometimes I want it to walk peacefully on the shore and it wants to take off all its clothes and dive in.

Sometimes I want to use small words and make them important and it starts shouting the dictionary, the opportunities.

Sometimes I want to sum up and give thanks, putting things in order and it starts dancing around the room on its four furry legs, laughing and calling me outrageous.

But sometimes, when I’m thinking about you, and no doubt smiling, it sits down quietly, one paw under its chin, and just listens.”

Those words, those beasty, unfettered little critters led Oliver to the delightful, unexpected conclusion. It’s hard not to smile at the end of her poem, and it’s even harder not to smile when you realize that spontaneous, unplanned writing can be the most creative.

If you’re a plotter, meticulously outlining and planning, you might feel frustrated when words misbehave. If you’re a pantser, going by the seat of your pants, you might feel exhilarated when words drag you along. But either way, following the trail of “that little beast” is a common experience for writers that can lead to buried treasure.

Being too rational and rigid, too strict and straight, keeps you from finding the unexpected. Andre Gide once said,

“ The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”

Temporary madness is okay. Veering off course is acceptable. Being hauled headlong by uncontrollable words to a place you’d never imagined is not only appropriate, it’s desirable. Greatness is found in unexpected places, not on the beaten path.

When your writing isn’t doing what you wanted, when it’s nudging you off the paper and into the pool of inky thoughts below, dive in. Be outrageous.

Follow the path of Mary Oliver -- winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement -- a wise woman who understood the nature of the beast.

Buy Devotions, a compilation of Mary Oliver's favorite poems, edited by her.

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