Free Creative Writing Manual


I have been wanting to have one of my books on my website in a free PDF format for a long time. I have published ten books and some of them are still under contract with my publisher. That’s fine, I have a a few self-published books and they are mine to use as I see fit. I decided since this site is all about writing, the logical choice is my first book, which is a creative writing memoir and manual.

In this book I was trying to do something that would help my creative writing students, who wanted to write all sorts of things: song lyrics and scriptwriting were the two most popular The way I structured my creative writing classes, my prime goal was to have everyone write a completed project, something that they could publish. And I wanted it to be of their own choice, whatever form. There was no book for that, so I wrote it.

I have no evidence of this, but I believe many writers search around a bit before they find their chosen form. I started with song lyrics and poetry, went on to short stories, dabbled in book reviewing, blogged my heart out and tried again and again to write a novel. So I had some experience in many of my students’ chosen forms. Not scriptwriting, but I had read screenwriting books by Linda Seger because they work for novelists too. I still dip into Seger’s Making a Good Character Great when I need inspiration.

Another thing that helped me teach creative writing was the number of workshops and conferences I’d been to, not to mention all the books I’d read on how to write. There’s a list of the best of those how-to books at the end of the book. The reason I say it’s a “memoir/manual” is because I wove my own writing experiences and some of my writing to use as examples through the book. I covered a lot of ground.

Just last weekend, I was at a conference and mentioned I was putting my writing manual permanently free on my website. She said “That’s the book I need” so I gave her a card. I hope for some of you, this might be the book you need, too. You can find a link to the PDF on the first page and on the book page, too.

Rimbaud Eyes

RimbaudOur eyes tell the story of our souls. Sometimes photos capture it, sometimes not. This photo does. Just look at them. He’s a poet; there is no doubt. Rimbaud was born in 1854. Over one hundred and fifty years later, the Dum Dum Girls wrote a song about his eyes. Love the song, have been deliberate about not reading what the lyrics mean to the band, I want my own thoughts here first. And his.

“Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast/where all hearts opened and all wines flowed.”

The first lines of his poem “A Season in Hell.”

Even as a young poet, if you look, you can see that “once” is the key word. Those are not eyes that reflect life as a feast. Those eyes do not show an open heart. It’s possible those eyes had too much wine the night before.

“One evening I seated Beauty on my knees. And I/found her bitter.”

These lines follow those above from the same poem. It’s not called “A Season in Hell” for nothing. And those eyes in this picture reflect that particular anguish.

This poet, who burned all his work and never achieved anything like happiness or fame, lives on because of his lover, a famous poet at the time still taught in university today, who, thinking Rimbaud dead, published the best of his work supposedly posthumously.

It cannot be grammatically correct to end a sentence with two adverbs.

As a young poet I read Rimbaud’s work and just this morning picked up the slim volume, kept all these years, and flipped to the first poem “A Season in Hell.” That first poem hooked me on Rimbaud for life. And now I cannot stop thinking about his eyes and how they reflect other eyes I have known, including, sometimes, my own. Because Rimbaud was a gentle soul, he wanted to escape debauchery and badness as much as he craved it.

“Let me tear out these few hideous pages from my notebook of one of the damned.” Ends the poem, ends a life, ends the look in the eyes.

Rimbaud was one of several poets who convinced me to stop writing poetry. I would never have that gift, I was convinced. I moved on to other kinds of  writing. Can you image Rimbaud as a blogger? What would he say? No doubt a scathing comment here if the mood struck him. The thing that happened to me as a young poet would not have happened had I listened more to the gentle, insistent Rilke in his “Letters to a Young Poet” in which he entreats his protégé to keep writing, keep practicing, and keep hope that maybe one day there will be a poem worth its ink.

But I’m of a Rimbaud temperament, not like Rilke, more’s the pity. Wish I’d stuck with poetry. I still love it so. If you’re a young poet, read them both, but heed Rilke.

Words on Fire

candleOnly four dry days in June 1977, the year my basement flooded. Elvis hadn’t died yet, but another, more personal loss happened under my feet as I slept. My basement filled halfway up the stairs with water. The chaos involved in that was nothing to a big drama in three small boxes that seemed no big deal to my husband.

I’d been writing diaries and filling notebooks with poems since I was 11 or 12. I saw right away that all three of the boxes were soaked, my stuff ruined. I grabbed the top notebook anyway. It was wet, but the ink had only smeared, not completely disappeared.

“My poems! Mike! What should I do?”

He looked down at me. “Throw them away,” he said. And then he left for work.

Alone with the ruins of a necessary part of me I barely understood, I wondered if I’d come to a sweet resting place where my head no longer filled up with words on fire until I had to write them down or burst into flames.

I kneeled over the boxes, not caring that I was wearing my favorite pair of bells. The jeans would survive; they were made of tough material. My writing, on the other hand, was disintegrating before my eyes. I pulled the top spiral bound books, which seemed semi-okay, out of the boxes. My oldest stuff–the white diary with gold lock and key, a picture of Mickey Dolenz, my favorite Monkee, hundreds of sheets of loose notebook paper—all of that was unsalvageable soup.

I came upstairs, my arms full of notebooks. I set them in the kitchen sink and went back down to clean the mess, a jug of Lysol in one hand, old towels in the other. Hours later, I wrung out the rags and hung them on the laundry line that spanned the basement ceiling.

I looked at my notebooks in the kitchen sink, noticed how the light from outside shone down on them. For the first time in ten days, the sun had made it through the clouds. I opened all the windows before getting into the shower.

“What are these doing in here?” Mike said, coming home from work to a sink full of poems instead of dinner on the table.

“Oh, I, ah, maybe I can save them.” I combed out my long wet hair and avoided his eyes after I noticed that he was looking at me like I was a sad and deluded little girl.

While we waited for the pizza delivery, Mike watched the news and I hung my poems up to dry with the damp rags on the line downstairs.

The next day, I set up a card table in one of the empty bedrooms. Then I called my mother and asked to borrow her typewriter. I went to the mall, but instead of shopping for shoes or another pair of velvet hot pants, I bought typing paper, a new ribbon, and a bottle of White Out.

Fifty-six poems survived the great flood. And surprising stuff happened when I typed them out on fresh paper. Hours flew by like minutes. I discovered the value in revision. And I learned how to woo inspiration. The old seductress had come again, and since that day, she has never left.

Braided Poems

So much information and writing wisdom is tucked in my little notebook from the conference last weekend. My favorite class was called “The Braided Poem” even though I don’t consider myself a poet. I am a person who sometimes writes poetry as a way to shake things up for my novelist self. A way to pay more attention to language and nuance. Reading great poetry helps, and so does writing some not-so-great poems.

If I am fortunate enough to teach creative writing again, I will use this method of creating a poem that I want to share here. My teacher was Christine Rhein, author of Wild Flight. She said right out that she did not come up with the concept of the braided poem, so it’s not like I’m stealing her idea. I think many of my poems are braided, just because it worked out that way. But to know there is a process fires up poetic imagination. Try it!


1. Ground the poem in a common experience you know enough about so that you can dig into it.

2. List everyday activities, then break those down into smaller bits.

Here’s an example from my list: Cleaning: silver polishing, cat box, closet. I ended up with 7 common experiences and had 3 or 4 specific kinds of the general activity. Lots to choose from.


3.  This part is about emotional relationship issues, yours or someone else’s or imagined. The emotion can be joyous or devastating, an argument, a moment of peace, a death, a birth. Things that can be the emotional tie to the concrete activity in the first thread.

4. Brainstorm a list of names that have emotional resonance for you. I had a list of 14 names, with some comment after a few. Several of the names I came up with are people I already have written poems about.

5. Choose grounded common experience and person with emotional resonance. Write lines expressing both these things, not necessarily in a linear narrative form.

I surprised myself with this one, even though the person was the first name I came up with. It’s been an ongoing situation and brings up difficult emotions in me all the time. The common experience is my husband watching sports.

Here’s what I wrote:

Everyone left him, one by one

I watched this happen

While my husband watched sports.

“He’s laying on the lawn again” I said.

My husband, eyes glued to

hockey puck, football

swinging bat, does not reply.

“Is he drunk?” I ask, wanting an answer.

My husband shrugs, eyes on TV

We have lived next door to this guy for

25 years. First his wife walked out, then the

Kids, who left their dogs. One dog died

and we neighbors gathered in our common back yards

to grieve with him. Now his other dog has cancer

Neighbor and dog sprawl on front lawn,

Almost every day, his face in the crook

of his arm,

his other hand clutching the dog leash.

The dog isn’t going anywhere,

But the home team won.

Unlike my usual self, when she asked for readers, I put my hand up and read with no anxiety to the group. Her comment was to start with more action, like the neighbor laying down with his dog. I might try that, if I were a poet. I’ve been thinking about that. In a few years, when all my novels are out of my head and onto the page, maybe I will go back to poetry, ending up where I began. Also I have no idea why I cannot single space this poem. Because poems should be single spaced and Word Press should make it easy for poets to do that.

About the meaning of my poem. I’m concerned for my neighbor and my husband is not concerned for my neighbor or for me being concerned about my neighbor. The last line might not sound snarky but it is because I am not a sports person and my husband loves all sports, all the time. So there is a little bit of the unappreciated spouse in there. Doesn’t answer my questions.

Also, I don’t have a crush on my neighbor, not even close, but it seems so clear to me that he is lonely and sad and I wish he had someone to love him. Then I kind of juxapose that with my supposed someone who loves me but might love sports a little bit more. That’s unfair because my husband is a great guy. I know he loves me, and I feel lucky to have him. But I have these moments when I think “Why are good people who clearly would love a partner alone and then other good people who clearly wish their partner would shut up and make some nachos?” So there’s a little bit of that in there. We’re married 27 years. He takes me for granted sometimes and other times he is right there for me. I knew the sports deal when I married him. So did you get that from the poem?

Confessions of a Conference Junkie

I remember reading an essay by Anne Lamott in Salon years ago saying she felt horrible being paid to attend writing conferences where agents and editors and speakers all promised what she feels cannot be delivered: a book contract.

My reaction to that, as a conference junkie from way back, was at first shock, then horror, then acceptance. I’d been to enough conferences to know that I am never going to be the golden one who signs with an agent on the spot or whose workshop leader says “I have to send your pages to my editor.” I’d heard of those things happening, and even saw it once or twice. But, mostly, I know that I will come home from the conference having learned all I could, including that conferences don’t equal contracts.

In her essay, Lamott shared some dire statistics about writers. Most published writers need another job to support themselves. Writing doesn’t make you rich or famous or even published. What she didn’t know then that we understand now is that writing CAN and DOES get you published. But not usually rich or famous. And yes, if you need to support yourself, most writers will have to find another way to do it. Writing in the dark or at dawn or during a particularly boring meeting.

My first writing conference was way back in the 80s. I’ve been to one almost every year since then. I know they’re not going to make me published. I’m already published! What I got out of conferences was exactly what I needed: writing friends, writing skills, writing saturation. Most of my friends are not writers and total immersion in real life of a whole bunch of writers is like being in heaven, with ink pens.

So now I’m planning a conference for the historic Detroit Working Writers. I’m chairing this event, setting up workshops and checking out caterers. For the past few years, since I’ve been published, I’ve been speaking or giving workshops at conferences instead of participating as an aspiring writer. But I like to sneak into a session or two just to fill myself with that feeling of thirty or forty or maybe even a hundred beating writer hearts in one room.

This is taking some time away from my WIP. It’s okay though because it is so much fun. Unlike Lamott, I feel like I can put together a conference that will help people become writers, the way conferences helped me learn the skills I needed to succeed. And that whole publishing thing? Easy as pie these days. Here’s the proof.