There are a number of writers that have made lists of maxims for writing that they use to help guide them, push them, encourage them to get words down on the page. As part of the writing-based curriculum, I share these maxims with my students. I print them out and have the students read them, picking out the maxims that most resonate with them, surprise them, inspire them, or just plain confuse them. We talk about the maxims that are chosen guided by the question, ‘How can these maxims help us with our writing craft?’ This kind of craft conversation enriches the language of writing and helps to create the kind of mindset needed to approach the blank page and to get stuff down that has potential. These maxims also help students see the playfulness of the act of writing, always a good thing.
I have collected a few of these kinds of lists below. Two are from Jack Kerouac. One is from Allen Ginsberg. One is from Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Let them fuel you. Let them fuel your students. Put them to work in your writing-based classroom.
Jack Kerouac’s Rules for Spontaneous Prose
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You’re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
Here are Allen Ginsberg’s Mind Writing Slogans
“First Thought is Best in Art, Second in Other Matters.”
— William Blake
I Background (Situation, Or Primary Perception)
- “First Thought, Best Thought” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “The Mind must be loose.” — John Adams
- “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”
- “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.” — Philip Whalen
- Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
- “The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!” — Basho
- “Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” –– Walt Whitman
- “…What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? … Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” — John Keats
- “Form is never more than an extension ofcontent. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
- “Form follows function.” — Frank Lloyd Wright*
- Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
- “Nothing is better for being Eternal
Nor so white as the white that dies of a day.” — Louis Zukofsky
- Notice what you notice. — A. G.
- Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
- Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
- Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
- “Spots of Time” — William Wordsworth
- If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
- “My mind is open to itself.” — Gelek Rinpoche
- “Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” — Charles Reznikoff
II Path (Method, Or Recognition)
- “No ideas but in things.” “… No ideas but in the Facts.” — William Carlos Williams
- “Close to the nose.” — W. C. Williams
- “Sight is where the eye hits.” — Louis Zukofsky
- “Clamp the mind down on objects.” — W C. Williams
- “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object).” — Ezra Pound, 1912
- “Presentation, not reference.” — Ezra Pound
- “Give me a for instance.” — Vernacular
- “Show not tell.” — Vernacular
- “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” — Ezra Pound
- “Things are symbols of themselves.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.
He who would do good for another must do it in minute particulars.
General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel Hypocrite and Flatterer
For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” — William Blake
- “And being old she put a skin / on everything she said.” — W. B. Yeats
- “Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.” — Jack Kerouac
- “Details are the Life of Prose.” — Jack Kerouac
- Intense fragments of spoken idiom best. — A. G.
- “Economy of Words” — Ezra Pound
- “Tailoring” — Gregory Corso
- Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. –– A. G.
- Syntax condensed, sound is solid. — A. G.
- Savor vowels, appreciate consonants. — A. G.
- “Compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” — Ezra Pound
- “… awareness … of the tone leading of the vowels.” — Ezra Pound
- “… an attempt to approximate classical quantitative meters . . . — Ezra Pound
- “Lower limit speech, upper limit song” — Louis Zukofsky
- “Phanopoeia, Melopoeia, Logopoeia.” — Ezra Pound
- “Sight. Sound & Intellect.” — Louis Zukofsky
- “Only emotion objectified endures.” — Louis Zukofsky
III Fruition (Result, Or Appreciation)
- Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath
- “Alone with the Alone” — Plotinus
- Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Ku (Japanese) = Emptiness
- “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” — Zen Koan
- “What’s the face you had before you were born?” — Zen Koan
- Vipassana (Pali) = Clear Seeing
- “Stop the world” — Carlos Castafleda
- “The purpose of art is to stop time.” — Bob Dylan
- “the unspeakable visions of the individual — J. K.
- “I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly.” — Chuang Tzu (Tr. Burton Watson)
- “Candor” —Whitman
- “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” — W. Shakespeare
- “Contact” — A Magazine, Nathaniel West & W. C. Williams, Eds.
- “God appears & God is Light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night.
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.” — W. Blake
- “Subject is known by what she sees.” -A. G.
- Others can measure their visions by what we see. –– A. G.
- Candor ends paranoia. — A. G.
- “Willingness to be Fool.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “Day & Night / you’re all right.” — Gregory Corso
- Tyger: “Humility is Beatness.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
- Lion: “Surprise Mind” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche &A.G.
- Garuda: “Crazy Wisdom Outrageousness” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- Dragon: “Unborn Inscrutability” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “To be men not destroyers” — Ezra Pound
- Speech synchronizes mind & body — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “The Emperor unites Heaven & Earth” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
- “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — Shelley
- “Make it new” — Ezra Pound
- “When the music changes, the walls of the city shake” — Plato
- “Every third thought shall be my grave — W Shakespeare, The Tempest
- “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” –– W. Shakespeare, Sonnets
- “Only emotion endures” — Ezra Pound
- “Well while I’m here I’ll
do the work —
and what’s the Work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken
dumbshow.” — A. G.
- “… Kindness, sweetest of the small notes in the world’s ache, most modest & gentle of the elements entered man before history and became his daily connection, let no man tell you otherwise.” — Carl Rakosi
- “To diminish the mass of human and sentient sufferings.” — Gelek Rinpoche
Naropa Institute, July 1992
New York, March 5, 1993
New York, June 27, 1993
These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.
- You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
- You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
- Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
- Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
- When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
- Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
- Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
- Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
- Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
- What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
- No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
- You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
- Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
- You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
- What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.