“The Power of Recognizing Your Own Creative Process” by Katey Schultz

May 9, 2024

“More often than not, writers turn to workshops” to discover what’s next for their work-in-progress Katey Schultz writes in this new craft essay, “The Power of Recognizing Your Own Creative Process.” Schultz leans on her years of experience in mentoring writers to argue that it’s not always necessary to look outward to find those next steps.


Over the years, I have come to understand how helpful it is to recognize and name the invisible decisions that form the backbone of your creative writing process. Having a better understanding of your process can shrink the amount of time it takes to get to a final draft—but even more importantly, it can help writers answer those pesky questions of “What next?” and “How do I know what to fix?” and “When is it done?” Naming the decisions you have made during your generative and early revision processes will help you see what you might have missed and what you should ask yourself next, in order to evoke the intended emotions and meaning within your work.

More often than not, writers turn to workshops to answer these questions. But after mentoring writers for over a decade, I have become convinced that there’s so much more that writers at this stage can do on their own—with enjoyment and without becoming dependent on others for feedback. Naming your invisible decisions can be the key that unlocks this empowering experience.

Below is an excerpt from my own fiction, which I will use as an example of how writers can coach themselves from first draft to published collection:

Excerpt of “Into Pure Bronze” from Flashes of War

Now that schools are open again, and there’s government and voting, we spend our days inside reciting numbers and studying legendary Afghans. Our first king, Ahmed Shah Durrani; or the martyr Massoud, an anti-Soviet fighter killed by Al Qaueda; and our latest hero, Rohollah Nikpai, Olympic Bronze Medalist in taekwondo. Kabul Stadium even has new grass in anticipation of Nikpai’s welcome party.

My friend Hadir knows a secret way into Kabul Stadium. He believes practicing soccer on that field will one day make him a star, just like Nikpai. Some weeks, there’s a night guard, but no one ever keeps the job for long. Nobody wants to go near, nobody but Hadir. At first, I tell him it isn’t right, that it’s strange wanting to be so close to the dead. But he calls me sissy, which he knows I hate even more than juggling the soccer ball by myself, so I go with him. There isn’t actually anybody buried there in the stadium, but so many Afghans were tortured, everyone knows it’s haunted.

At night, Hadir dribbles the ball down the alley between apartment buildings and tosses pebbles onto the roof where my family sometimes sleeps. “Hurry up, Pirozz,” Hadir will shout. “Let’s go, come on!” and I’ll dash away, ignoring my mother. My father works at night for the local police. Hadir is an orphan. So we do as we please.

Inside the stadium, row after row of bleachers form a bowl around bright green grass that glows even in the dark. There’s nothing else in Kabul this color, “the color of prosperity,” our newspaper called it. They didn’t mention how so much blood leached into the soil that the top foot was dug up and replaced before officials got any grass to grow. Hadir and I play barefooted, kicking up soil and clumps of that grass. We make long passes with the ball, panting up and down the sidelines to train both legs for well-aimed kicks. “Faster, Pirooz! Faster!” Hadir calls, and together, we get lost in the work of it.

He often asks me to play goalie, during our secret practices in Kabul Stadium. I stand in front of the repainted white goal posts that seem to float in the moonlight against the darkened stadium benches. He takes aim and kicks full strength, the leather ball slapping into my palms, against my chest, off my forehead. When I miss, I have to chase the ball to the outer edges of the field, where I feel spooks trying to grab at me. Still, Hadir aims again and again, as though he can see a crowd roaring just for him.

Later, we lie on our backs and look at the star-pocked sky. Hadir plucks fistfuls of grass from the field, each clumps radiates an infused, lime light from him palms, like he’s holding an electric gem. Grass blades scratch at my back and tickle my nose. “This must be what it smells like at the World Cup,” he says, and tosses grass into the air. “Maybe,” I say. I think about the souls of Afghans trying to claw their way out of the ground. “Maybe not.”

“When we’re older, things will be different,” he says.

“They already are.”

“Not really, Pirooz. Not like our teacher promises us.”

“Well what do you mean?” I wonder if he’s thinking about his parents, whatever his life was like before.

During a previous reading of this story, an audience member asked a provocative question: “Why did you write that the sky was ‘star-pocked,’ instead of using a word like ‘twinkling?’”  In response, I talked about verbs and how essential they are in adding action and direction to a story, even when used as an adjective (as with “star-pocked”). As I coach myself through revision, one thing I always pay attention to is whether or not my verbs evoke the subtext and emotional resonance that I’m aiming for within the piece.

In this case, I had to ask myself, “Would the sky be twinkling for these boys lying in that stadium?” No, that wouldn’t be the correct image, feeling, or movement for this story. I wanted to portray a sense of desolation, which these thirteen-year-old characters were not going to name directly. To pull this off, I had to show desolation all around them—above, below, and even within them. After identifying the decisions I had made during my own process (the stars would not twinkle, but instead the sky would be “pocked,” as there is a violence to this image, which enhances the war-zone story I was trying to tell), I further chose to describe the grass as “scratching” Pirooz’s back, while the souls of the tortured Afghans tried to “claw” their way out of the ground. Accumulated across the arc of a story, this kind of discernment adds up, resulting in writing that resonates with readers and stays true to itself. By asking myself questions about my own decisions, I was able to coach myself toward a final draft, and I knew when it was finished.

It’s worth stating that this particular way of interrogating our decisions should come after a first draft is written. If I try to pick the exact right word in a first or early draft, I feel too much pressure to get it right, which inhibits my ability to draft my way toward what the story is trying to become. Line-level decisions come later, once I have a real sense of what I’m writing about. At its best, this process unfolds into story drafts that land with deeper and deeper meaning, with one word-choice revision unlocking the next, until I have a draft that I’m satisfied has been fully excavated and refined. This shifts what could be a frustrating process (“I don’t know how to fix this!”) into a process of discovery. Frustration after frustration does not make for a sustainable literary life—but discovery?—I could do that all day!

Katey Schultz is the author of
Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence Finalist recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Her next free webinar, “Becoming Your Own Best Editor,” will take place May 15. Register for free, here.


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