7 Lessons on Writing and Creativity by Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho’s Writing and Creativity Tips Collected

Photo credit: Wydawnictwo Drzewo Babel

Photo credit: Wydawnictwo Drzewo Babel

“Books are not here to show how intelligent and cultivated you are. Books are out there to show your heart, to show your soul, and to tell your fans, readers: you are not alone.” – Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho is one of the most read and loved writers in the world. And for good reason. ‘The Alchemist’ is one of my favorite books. Recently, I read ‘Hippie’, which is based on his life and offers a fascinating insight into the journey of this Brazilian wordsmith.

Last October, I published a story here on Medium about chasing one’s dreams, based on the wisdom from ‘The Alchemist’. I tagged Coelho on Twitter and expected nothing of it. But he noticed the article and retweeted my tweet! Then, he posted my article on his Facebook page as well. He has millions of followers and my story is read over 20,000 times. I’m so grateful for that.

A few years ago, a podcast episode with Tim Ferriss aired. It was an interview with Coelho and Ferriss asked him about his writing habits and routines. The episode is a gem for any writer. The highlights are also summarized in Tim’s book ‘Tools of Titans’.

As some of you know, I’m always intrigued by the routines, habits and tips from well-known writers about writing and creativity, so Coelho couldn’t stay behind. Through the podcast episode, his own blog, and YouTube video’s I’ve collected 7 lessons on writing and creativity by the inspiring Paulo Coelho. What I’ve come across is very spiritual instead of technical but equally important, perhaps even more important.

#1: On Storytelling

"I believe that every human being on this planet has at least one good story to tell his neighbor." – Paulo Coelho

Coelho believes all people are creative and are inspired constantly. We can’t argue with that, can we? The difference is, only some people have the tools to express what’s inside them and dare to share it.

We can all tell a story or anecdote from something we’ve experienced. A writer, however, uses his gift to tell that story in a compelling way and share it with the world.

Coelho references Portuguese writer Jorge Luis Borges when he explains what a story is. There are only four stories: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, a struggle for power, and the journey.” I know what you’re doing now, you’re categorizing the latest stories you’ve encountered. I did it too, and it fits. I’ve applied it to my short stories and it fits.

But how do you tell that story? Coelho mentions Brian Aldiss, a British Science Fiction writer who said: “There are two types of writers: those who make you think and those who make you dream”. I’ve never really thought of this before, but I guess I try to make people think about certain issues in my fiction writing.

When I think about The Alchemist, however, Coelho did something magical: he did both. At least for me. I dreamed away with the main character and his journey. I also dreamed and thought about my own journey in life. What I wanted and how to get there. Stories are truly powerful.

A last thing I want to mention in this part about storytelling, is something I’ve come across in the advice of many writers like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Kurt Vonnegut among others. 

“Above all else, the writer has to be a good reader.” – Paulo Coelho

If you want to understand storytelling, you have to read a lot. If you want to understand how to tell a story, you have to read a lot. I’ve never studied literature or English, but I have read piles and piles of books. I truly believe that because of this, I understand how to tell a story.

#2: Bare Your Soul:

“If you overload your book with a lot of research you’re going to be very boring to yourself and your readers. Books are not here to show how intelligent and cultivated you are. Books are out there to show your heart, to show your soul, and to tell your fans, readers: you are not alone.” – Paulo Coelho

Writing is like therapy. Whether intentional or not, you write about things that bother you, things you value in life and love. When you write, your subconscious takes over and guides you in telling a story. Your subconscious consists of your experiences, ideas, values and so much more.

The only difference is, how high is the wall you build between your subconscious and the blank page?

The more you convey about yourself in a story, the more likely it is to resonate with at least one other person. Someone who thinks: “Hey, I feel that way too.” That’s the magical connection between reader and writer. That’s when you’re on to something.

It’s scary to break down that wall and show all. I try, but there’s definitely a brick fence that keeps away certain parts of my soul. I don’t mind that actually, there’s also something like your own secrets and thought that exist just for you.

As I said, writing is like therapy, so that small brick fence is slowly crumbling. Coelho says in an interview with Oprah, “When I write a book I try to understand myself.” And that’s exactly what we’re doing as writers. Whether you’re writing in your journal or a novel.

#3: The Cycle of Nature and Creation:

On his blog, Coelho talks about the cycle of nature and compares it to the creation of art. I recommend reading that blog post, but here’s a summary of the cycle:

  1. “A good creator must know how to continually turn over his values, and never be content with that which he believes he understands.” I believe a writer or any creator has to have an open mind. Life is a journey of understanding oneself and the world around you and what you believe one day, can be dramatically disturbed by something you experience the next day in a conversation or other encounter. I believe by being open minded, you reach new levels of understanding you can pour into your art as well. When I think about all the short stories I’ve written, I clearly notice a journey of understanding in them as well. Every story expresses new values and ideas.

  2. A creative man cannot lock himself in an ivory tower; he must be in contact with his fellow men, and share his human condition.” Experience, live, interact and explore. Whether through long conversations with friends, traveling, walking through your neighborhood, observing people, visiting an art exhibition, whatever, get out there and get in touch with the world around you.

  3. “I know people who, during a growth period, spend their whole time furiously taking notes on everything which comes into their head, without respecting that which is being written in the unconscious.” I heavily rely on note taking with my stories. I export them into my documents. However, I have so many ideas and lists that I can’t possibly copy them all. Coelho believes that what sticks, sticks. Similar to Haruki Murakami and Ayn Rand by the way. And I experience that too, if an idea is really good, your subconscious will pour it into your story.

  4. “Every artist recognizes the arrival of this moment; although some aspects may not have matured fully, some ideas not be crystal clear, they reorganize themselves as the work is produced.” Only by actually writing and finishing that first draft will you have a fully produced work. It’s a diamond in the rough and you will need to polish feverishly before those ideas become crystal clear and before your prose to mature fully.

  5. When the harvest is over, the time comes to share, without fear or shame, your own soul.” You’ve been on a journey with your story and it’s been very personal. You may have just shared it with a couple of friends and an editor, but now it’s time to go on stage naked and share it with the world. I’ve been scared to do that all my life, until I decided I wasn’t two and a half years ago. Don’t deprive the world of your art!

 

#4: Go After Your Dream

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” — Paulo Coelho

I love that quote above so much. I try to live by it. Because there’s one thing to dream, it’s another thing entirely to go after that dream. But how to do that you ask? It’s scary!

Coelho: “There is only one way to learn,” the alchemist answered. “It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey.” You have to put that dream into action. There’s no other way. Only you can find out if you can realize that dream. As Coelho said in the same interview with Oprah: “You have to do what you want to be what you want.”

For years I dreamt of becoming a writer and did nothing about it. It was because of the fact that I was scared to share my work and I wasn’t confident enough if I’d succeed. I’m still scared and not sure if I succeed, but I will try and do it. I will write and share it. I will finish that first novel. I will work for it every day. At least I’ll never have to wonder ‘what if?’.

If you’d like to dive in more what it takes and what it doesn’t take to go after your dream, I suggest you read the story I wrote about that last October:

https://medium.com/the-ascent/live-the-life-of-your-dreams-by-following-the-wisdom-of-paulo-coelho-4249a94733ed

“Find your personal legend and then live your personal legend.” – Paulo Coelho

 

#5: On Inspiration

“Inspiration is breathing. You put what is outside inside of you and then you exhale.” – Paulo Coelho

Isn’t that beautiful? So he’s basically saying that inspiration is living and that it comes from outside of you, through your experiences you suck it all in and then pour it on the page.

Everyone experiences inspiration differently. Every writer experiences inspiration differently. Like Maya Angelou who hears a poem while working, she has to drop what’s she’s doing to chase the poem and get it on the page. Ayn Rand lets her subconscious do the work, she completely trusts her inner voice to express what needs to be expressed. Some people talk of muses.

I agree with them all actually. It’s something that guides you. Coelho: “Inspiration guides YOU. Allow yourself to be guided.” Ride that wave when it hits you, and enjoy the process. Because it is thoroughly enjoyable when you’re so caught up in your writing. When your mind is racing, but your fingers are too slow to catch it all. It’s magical.

#6: On Procrastination

“A successful writing day is a day that I suffer in the morning, and I have fun in the evening, by writing.” – Paulo Coelho

He sits for 3 hours postponing and then he forces himself to sit down and write for half an hour. When he does that, he’s so caught up in his story he can turn that half hour into ten hours of writing.

I recognize this. I guess every writer does. It’s like going to the gym, you don’t want to, but when you finally do you feel better afterwards. I start cleaning my desk or skim through Instagram. Always postponing. Until I sit down and face the blank screen. And when those first few words hit the blank page, I don’t feel like postponing anymore. I don’t feel scared anymore. I write and sometimes get lost for an hour or two. Although I’ve never been able to write for ten hours straight.

Writing is hard and continues to be hard. What makes it easier? Knowing that the “greats” are going through the same thing. It’s reassuring to know that someone at the top of their game – who has seemingly beaten all the odds – still has that daily struggle.” – Tim Ferriss

 

#7: On Style

“Don’t try to innovate storytelling, tell a good story and it is magical. I see people trying to work so much in style, finding different ways to tell the same thing. It’s like fashion. Style is the dress, but the dress does not dictate what is inside the dress.” – Paulo Coelho

What he’s saying here is that the story itself comes first. If your story is strong, you have a foundation. You have a body so to say. A body you can further sculpt and dress later. First and foremost, the core has to be the story, and if you find a way to tell that story beautifully, you’ve hit storytelling gold.

Another thing Coelho believes is that you have to be subtle in telling your story. You have to trust your reader:

“Don’t over-explain. Keep it simple. Trust the reader. He or she has a lot of imagination. Don’t try to describe things. Give a hint and they will fulfill this hint with their own imagination.”

I always get bored when there is a lot of descriptive writing to go through in a story. A story where the author spends pages on describing the surroundings into the smallest detail. That doesn’t move a story forward. Give a couple of clues and let the imagination of your reader do the rest, a story is so much more enjoyable that way.