Category Archives: creativity

At Your Own Risk

This post continues with Week 5 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies (info on my own residency is in the sidebar to the right). I started at Week 1: Preparing, and am counting up. See also Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy, and Week 4: A good prompt is hard to find.

fenced in play area with sign Play At Your Own Risk

Procrastinators, beware! Writing exercises are risky business. CC image “Play at Your Own Risk” via Stephen Gadsby on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In science, you never ever call an experiment before all the results are in: not before you’ve concluded all the tests, counted and analyzed all the samples, and run the numbers through statistical software, after first reviewing any shortcomings in your method.

Likewise, you don’t “call” the end of a sports match before it’s over. We know too many stories of last-minute comebacks, of end-of-game collapses, to truly know what the results will be until after the clock has run down to zero.

However, I feel reasonably confident in making a few comments about the past four weeks of my experiment with writing exercises, although technically speaking, as I’m writing this, I am still in the midst of my fourth week. If I was a scientist, perhaps I would call these preliminary results, but I’m not a scientist. I’m a touchy-feely liberal artist, and the trend seems clear.

Writing exercises are sneaky bastards, and you should use them at your own risk.

Sneaky bastards

In ways both good and bad, writing exercises are deceitful little creatures, posing as one thing, though often showing up as another. For one, they are deceptively difficult to practice. Exercises are intentionally short and focused: write for five minutes. Write three paragraphs about your favorite breakfast cereal. In my case, write no more than 500 words, keeping your novel in mind. However, despite their brevity, I found myself often ducking the exercise, postponing when in the day I would write, and sometimes forgetting to write altogether.

My average was three exercises a week out of a five-day “work week” of Mondays through Fridays. Most of the time, I sat down to my legal notepad (I avoided working on the computer, because of fear of distraction) with a mental groan. Except in Week 4, where I am just shy of perfect and have experienced much less reluctance to take on the exercise, all week.

For another, writing exercises also pretend that they are simple creatures, with low standards for happiness and without ambition. Be warned, this is a lie. Like David up against Goliath, they pack a lot of punch and savvy for their small size. I found myself, in the latter half of the experiment, running up against my time and word constraint and ending the exercise before I ended the scene.

Despite all my best intentions to keep them hypothetical, they kept advancing my plot. Nasty, double-talking exercises!

Procrastinators, beware

Somewhere at the start of the third week, I had to concede that my writing exercises weren’t exercises anymore. They were still experimental, but they had shape-shifted, and now were scenes and fragments of scenes, important linkages in narrative, subtle lights on the motivations of a few key characters. I tried to call them exercises through Week 3, but I finally had to give up. I was writing. I was writing my novel.

Be warned: if you want to procrastinate, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you don’t feel like working on your story project, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you prefer to not learn something new (not always pleasant) about yourself or your characters or your writing habits, WRITING EXERCISES ARE NOT FOR YOU.

In conclusion

In conclusion, writing exercises can lead to writing.

I started the exercises four weeks ago as a way to stay in touch with my writing muscle while I did research for my writer’s residency. I projected that I’d be spending so much time looking up information, I would be in danger of losing touch with my story and my characters. In this sense, the experiment has been a success, because my characters and I are now VERY close.

In terms of providing a writing stopgap until proper writing could take place, this writing exercise experiment has been a FAILURE.

I have a writing habit now, and a minimalist but persistent word count I want to meet. My writing exercises ended up developing my story. I’ve done more writing on my novel since starting the exercises as a way to postpone working on my novel, than I had in the months before I started exercises. Stopgap, my foot.

Disclaimers: Due to the small sample size (N=1) and the abbreviated duration of this experiment, results cannot be definitively extrapolated to other members of the writing population. The prospective nature of this study makes statistical analysis tricky. However, my results show that writing exercises may in fact lead to a writing habit, and have demonstrated amplifying effects on story ideas in certain cases. Proceed at your own risk.

A good prompt is hard to find

This post continues with Week 4 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. See also Week 1: Preparing, Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, and Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy. I started at Week 1 and am counting up.

drawing of a turkey running away from Thanksgiving

Now that’s creativity! CC image “Turkey Escape” via Mark Ahlness on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever come across writing exercises or suggestions online, and roll your eyes?

If you’ve spent any time working through your own blocks, chances are you’ve acquainted yourself with writing resources and how-to guides, and found any number of writing prompts. They usually fall into one of two categories: a) I’ve read/done this before; and b) what am I, five?

Maybe that second one’s just me. I can get snarky when I’m feeling stuck.

The third category, c) suggestions that we haven’t seen before and that do stimulate our curiosity, are less common. Copy them down and save them somewhere, because they are GOLD.

I was recently reminded how hard good writing prompts are to find, when I started my writing exercise experiment two weeks ago (you can find more info under Week 2). In fact, the process was so annoying that I inadvertently came up with some of my own prompts.

I didn’t set out to write a how-to, a list, or to be helpful to anyone beyond myself, frankly… but there it is. If you have seen any of these elsewhere, have mercy on a writer, and keep me in the dark.

Keep your writing prompts handy

A major lesson I learned is to always have a store of writing prompts, techniques, and suggestions at the ready. When I started my first day of the writing exercise experiment, I ran into a problem. The problem — this should surprise exactly no one, and sadly did surprise me — was that I needed writing exercises to start with. I’d been under the impression that I had a few lined up, which turned out to be wrong.

Looking for writing exercises threatened to derail the experiment before I was able to start. I had set limits on my time and word count for the exercises knowing how easily I slide down the rabbit-hole and lose sight of the original goal. Right out of the gate, I proved myself and my precautions right.

Well, the horse was out of the barn. That first day, I settled for a thematic starting point as quickly as I could. The second day, I allowed myself to put together a short list, based on ideas I found from other writing sources. Emphasis on short. The second week, I allowed myself to devise my own prompts.

Super bonus points: I can use these newly-invented prompts for the second fortnight of writing exercises. Ha!

My primary focus was on exercises that allowed me to get to know my main characters. You could set up your prompts to help develop setting, theme, or another facet of craft. Some of my questions form a kind of “interview” with the characters; others give me alternate ways of playing with the material. I hope some may be useful to you.

Writing exercise prompts for characters

      1. Food. We can take this theme many different ways. I have a scene in a hospital, after a child is born, and I described the meal there. The neat result of this was the way my notes illuminated the setting, AND added to my understanding of the character.
      2. Nightmares. I’ve seen plenty of writing exercise suggestions that ask us to pursue our/our characters hopes, goals, and dreams, and I thought this would be much more fun. What terrifies your character? What does your character react to with disgust, revulsion, or otherwise find awful beyond words? Do they experience literal nightmares? What about?
      3. Shame. What was your character’s most embarrassing experience?
      4. Music. As with food, this can be taken in different directions. What is your character’s favorite music (if any)? What instrument would your character play? What if they played a different instrument? What if they were an instrument?

I also messed with techniques, because I like to jog myself out of my stylistic ruts.

Techniques to change up your writing exercises

      1. Reveal the answers to any of the above (or other) questions using dialogue alone. No descriptors or actions, though tags (he said, she said) are allowed.
      2. Write (or re-write) a scene as a play or screenplay (dialogue and stage directions). This is useful if you find yourself stuck creating action in the narrative.
      3. Your character is being interviewed for the local newspaper. Write the article that results from that interview.
      4. Your character has won an award. What for? Describe the presentation/acceptance of the award.
      5. Write about your character as though they were the opposite sex. To make this extra difficult, choose one scene where they MUST be female or male (because we are confined by biological realities), and change the gender. Don’t just switch pronouns! Be honest with this and you may weirdly discover a whole other character (not to mention plot)!

My new problem is that now that I’ve gotten started on this meta-writing path, I’m in danger of developing so much new material, I already want to pretend the revision process does not exist.

What is your favorite way to stoke the creative fires?

In defense of obstinacy

This post continues Week 3 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. Find other posts here and here. I am counting up towards the residency.

tree trunk bearing sign saying "there is a tree behind you and it will not move for you"

CC image “Mission San Miguel: Where the Trees are Obstinate” via J Maughn on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking about obstinacy. Obstinacy is a word with low approval ratings. Merriam-Webster defines it as the quality or state of being obstinate; stubbornness; the quality or state of being difficult to remedy, relieve, or subdue.

People in my family are obstinate. Sometimes they look like they are engaging in one-upmanship: I can be more obstinate than you! I know a lot about obstinacy on a personal level.

I’m working on acquiring obstinacy on an artistic level.

Obstinacy among artists isn’t always highly prized by their colleagues. Audiences are happy to consume the fruits of creative obstinacy, but that doesn’t make them want to hang out with obstinate artists.

What sets artists apart

According to a Norwegian study, the artistically inclined differentiate themselves from others by being less “sociable” and more emotionally “unstable,” among more virtuous descriptors, such as associative thinking, desiring originality, being inwardly motivated, and ambition (see a short article on this discussion here).

Emotionally unstable? I’d say this is where the legacy of famous “wild” or “tortured” artists has left its mark: Hemingway, Plath, Faulkner, Woolf, Van Gogh, and so on. Look up “tortured artist” and voila! — find lists and discussions of writers, poets, and painters who had known addictions and known or speculated mental illnesses.

Then we have the sociability issue (I’ll excuse you if you read this as anti-social). In fact, what the article defines as low sociability is a tendency to be “inconsiderate” and “obstinate.”

There’s that word again.

Why being obstinate is an advantage

Frankly, I think obstinacy is under-rated. When faced with a long and daunting task (like writing a book, or pursuing any kind of creative career, for example), it pays to be obstinate. When you need to finish a project, it pays to close the door behind you and keep other people out. The opposite of obstinate is “irresolute.” Yeah, that sounds like a bonus! Another word for irresolute is “indecisive.” Definitely my go-to person. Want to accomplish a goal? Talk to someone who’s obstinate.

Other antonyms for “obstinate,” according to thesaurus.com, include: obedient, pliant, soft, submissive, surrendering, and yielding.

Can you imagine a list of more passive adjectives? I have a hard time myself, and I’m an associative thinker (rimshot). None of these adjectives is an agent of their own destiny. They only want to sit around and be loved.

By contrast, synonyms for “obstinate” include: headstrong, steadfast, tenacious, dogged, indomitable, persistent, relentless, self-willed, strong-minded, and unflinching.

Yes, I am cherry-picking: if you look up “obstinate” you will find plenty of unsavory synonyms. My point is that we overlook the valuable aspects of obstinacy in favor of the more socially “acceptable” modes of being. Obstinate people aren’t perfect, but they DO stand a better chance of accomplishing their goals.

They are agents of their own narrative.

Obstinacy and getting past artistic adversity

Think of Stephen King and his spike. How many rejections did he accumulate before ever being published? Now he is a by-word for literary success. He didn’t get there by surrendering and being pliant.

I’ve wanted to do a writer’s residency for years, but I was always afraid to apply because I didn’t think I had the credentials. Here’s a secret, though (and I’m working on grasping its slippery tail every day): you get credentials by going out and getting credentials.

I’m going to finish this project by being obstinate. I might include some of those lovable adjectives in my book. When I’m done, they might even be me. For a while.

Join me — discover your own artistic obstinacy. Feel free to tell me about it. I’ll celebrate you.

Make writing exercises work for you

or: Life after the exercise (pre-residency Week 2)

This post continues with Week 2 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I started at Week 1, and am counting up. You can find Week 3 here.

child playing around on piano keys

Practice meets play. CC image “piano practice” by woodleywonderworks on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing exercises are billed as a way to break through writer’s block, and a way to greater creativity if we are stuck in a rut or a theme. Be loose! writing exercises always tell us. Let it flow!

I’ve sometimes wondered what happens to all those writing exercises once we are done with them. I imagine them as a sort of Dr. Seuss creature, fluffy and green, being left at the side of the road and abandoned after the cuteness has worn off. So sad.

I’m not alone with this question. A blog post I recently read on Writer’s Digest makes the same point. Most of these exercises end up on dusty little fragments of paper or perhaps digital files that get lost in our computer’s file structure. They accumulate in corners until we forget about them, and if we happen to discover them eons hence, we often throw them out like trash. Is this really the wretched fate that awaits every writing exercise? Are they always only our creative trash?

Writing exercises as a tool

I’ve been thinking about writing exercises recently because ironically, since I’ve started working on my project for the writer’s residency, I’ve done very little writing. I am knee-deep in research. My writing takes the form of notes; I haven’t tinkered with the draft manuscript once I started pulling sources. Noticing this, I wondered if writing exercises might be useful.

Writing is a skill that improves with practice, like playing the piano. The more you practice, the more you can play (see more about this in my post on writing warmups). I don’t want to be all rusty and cold when I do start writing again on this manuscript. Plus, short creative writing exercises can be great fun (the billing ain’t all hype). Last week I tried one with nouns and verbs. My favorite sentence from that exercise is: “The toadstool listens to the conversations of the ants as they pass by.”

Yay! Fun! (You can’t steal it though; it’s mine.)

However, while practicing is great, eventually, I want to play Beethoven and Chopin. Or, in this case, I want a finished manuscript, dammit.

Use the tool for a specific purpose

Can writing exercises be more than fluffy green creatures we abandon for the Next Big Thing? More specifically, can I use writing exercises to bootstrap my way forward on the draft of my novel, instead of throwing them in the dustbin?

For the next month, I’m going to test these questions out on my own writing. My premise is that yes, I can use the material that comes out of writing exercises for my bigger, specific project… IF I structure the exercises correctly, and I do a small amount of pre-exercising. I don’t want to plan what I’m going to write — that would go against every tenet of free-form exercises to begin with — I want to be intentional about how I write.

The Writer’s Digest article suggests a number of questions to guide the development of writing exercises. Because my creative life is circling the residency right now, I am going in a slightly different direction.

The plan

I’m going to set up a 2-week alternating schedule. In the first week of the pair, I’m going to commit to doing a writing exercise (preferably short), one day a week, Monday through Friday. In doing the exercise, I am going to keep my project, the characters, the setting, and the main point of tension, in mind. I’ll allow myself to not have to write about these aspects EVERY single exercise, though I do want to be thinking about them.

In the second week, I’ll revisit the exercises I wrote in week one, with a view to taking one of the following two steps:

  1. incorporating the writing exercise into a scene or narrative I’ve already written or sketched out;
  2. re-writing a scene or narrative, using part of the writing exercise as the backbone or central point.

This will give me two sets of writing exercise development to work with in March.

Rules of engagement: writing exercises should be kept brief (~500 words), as should the scenes I am writing or re-writing (<1000 words). Time spent on the exercises in both weeks should not exceed half an hour each day. The point is I want to use quick bursts of writing to keep me in touch with both my writing muscles and my story development, while I am involved in background research. I want to avoid sinking into a self-critical/editorial morass.

I’ll report back here after the month is up with my thoughts on the practice — has my premise proven to be correct? Can writing exercises “recycled,” as it were, instead of falling onto the creative landfill?

If anyone wants to test out this way of playing with writing exercises, I’d love to hear about your experience! Feel free to modify the outline so that the work suits your goals, and report back here if you feel like doing so. Here’s to keeping our craft fresh, our writing out of landfills, and our stories in the forefront of our minds.

Where to find your next story

Answer: everywhere

small person near the front wheel of a classic automobile

This won’t take a minute… CC image “The Mechanic…” courtesy of Kool Kats Photography on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

From the back, all I could see of her was a wild head of long, grayish-white curls.

“He died there, you know? So they didn’t want to treat him,” she was saying. “They were worried.”

Sitting in my chair further back in the room, I frowned. What?

The phone started ringing, and the mechanic behind the desk took a moment to put the call on hold. The woman barely let this slow her rate of conversation. “I can’t blame them,” she continued. “They would be after what happened last time.”

I was confused. A moment ago, they’d been talking about a $750 bill. Now someone was dead. Or he wasn’t? He was dead in the past… The verb tenses threw me.

“I’ve never been a religious person,” the woman said. “I didn’t know how to pray or anything. Never. But that’s how I learned that I had a gift. It was the accident that did it.”

I tried sneaking a glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Not for one moment did I want to risk being pulled into her conversational orbit. Nonetheless, my curiosity got the better of me. I might end up with a head of hair like that as I got older, if I didn’t cut it short. The woman was small and fine-boned, wearing a narrow, charcoal-gray coat. She kept her back to me, all her attention focused on the mechanic, who probably had been expecting the discussion to take a different tack.

I had breezed in a few minutes earlier, ready to pick up my car after an oil change. My transaction should have taken no longer than five minutes, but I had to wait my turn, since they were taking care of another customer when I arrived. I stifled my irritation. I too appreciated when the shop took time to explain a $750 bill to me.

Ever been there?

A perfect stranger feels the need to share, well, everything. At the time, this is less than ideal. However, if you’re a stuck creative, there are fringe benefits.

“I told him, you know, they’re concerned about your heart,” the woman was saying. “After all, you’d been dead for forty minutes. They had asked him to make a follow-up appointment to get his heart checked out,” she confided. “He’d never done that. I told him they need to put you under anesthesia for your tooth appointment, and that depresses your heart. You never got the tests. They’re worried you’re going to die again.”

By sheer willpower, I refused to meet the mechanic’s eye while this monologue unfolded. My ears, on the other hand, grew like Pinocchio’s nose. Now she was talking about the time she broke her neck… or was it nearly busted her artery?… they thought she wouldn’t live… or she’d be brain damaged. “And that’s how I learned I had the power of prayer,” she said.

The phone started ringing again. “Excuse me,” said the mechanic.

“Sure,” she said. He put two more calls on hold.

The woman wasn’t done.

“I was praying for him, praying for him, and finally I said, you know what? Just give this man a young man’s heart. That’s it. That’s all I could do.”

Another customer emerged from the back of the shop, exchanged greetings with the mechanic, and offered the woman a few chocolates from the bowl on the desk. I wondered whether he was her husband, but they seemed to be there on separate errands. I was trying to place pronouns… was she praying for the same friend who died? Was that before he died, or after?

“They made him take all these tests,” she continued. The mechanic, I could see in my peripheral vision, was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “They made him run, they hooked him up to all these machines, they kept on running tests over and over. You know? They couldn’t figure it out. Finally they had a specialist come in and tell him, ‘Sir, you have the heart of a young man’! That’s how I found out I had a gift.”

The woman’s thematic and tense switching was making me dizzy. I wanted her to keep talking, so I could figure out what she was talking about, while at the same time, I wanted her to wrap up, so I could get home. My fingers started to itch for a pen.

Life hands us people and situations like this all time. We’re actually on the way to do something else, or we want to talk to someone else, or we want an experience to end so that we can get on with our original plans. How unlucky, if we stay stuck in this mindset and let pig-headedness stomp all over our creativity. There are a million million different ways we can use our life experiences, ways our experiences can shape our stories, our visions, our music, our dance. Every creative act comes from somewhere, and sometimes, if we are stubborn, the universe needs to hold us hostage to get our attention. As with me at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity

Sometimes, opportunity has a secret knock. The knock can be annoying. It’s interrupting us. But if we start paying attention, some of those knocks like to repeat themselves, like Morse code. They have meaning.

The ringing began again. “I’m sure you need to get that,” the other customer said, pointing to the phone.

The mechanic leaned back in gratitude to pick up the receiver. Meanwhile the woman turned to the other customer and started telling him about her son who rides BMX. He had called her up before doing a trick on a thirty-foot vertical ramp, to tell her what kind of injuries he could get from the jump. At this point, I was sure of only one thing: I wanted a tape recorder in my hand.

I knew I was losing glorious detail every moment I failed to capture what was happening around me.

Last year, I attended a meeting in which the keynote speaker told us, “I’m a professional speaker. I never have a bad day. I only have new material.”

I leaned over to my friend who sat next to me and whispered, “That works for writers, too.”

Even at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity. It’ll feed your story or project idea like a king if you let it.

== == ==

What is the most unlikely place you’ve ever picked up inspiration?