We’re delighted to welcome children’s book author Tynia Thomassie to our teaching staff at TWC. Tynia is the author of four picture books: Feliciana Feydra LeRoux: A Cajun Tall Tale, Feliciana Meets D’Loup Garou, Cajun Through and Through and MIMI’s Tutu. She won the Louisiana Young Reader’s Choice Honor Award in 2000 when 3rd, 4th and 5th graders selected Feliciana Meets D’Loup Garou their favorite book after Harry Potter. Tynia will be offering Writing Children’s Books on Wednesday evenings in South Orange, from 7:30-9:30 PM, during our Spring II session.
I’ve always been turned on by children’s books. Vibrancy and life fairly leaps off every page. Every page turn is a coordinated surprise, a reveal. Every placement on the page, from word to image, is a designed experience. Of course, I didn’t realize that when I first started turning the pages. I happily consumed children’s books without understanding the artistry involved in their production. I felt their appeal without understanding their architecture.
But after a series of crises and catastrophic events in my adult life, when I was sure I misplaced “this little light of mine,” I started looking for it in anything that once gave me genuine pleasure… and I found myself gazing once again at the books on shelves in children’s sections of bookstores. I decided to take a course in children’s book illustration, and thus began my foray into a specific little corner of heaven. Out of those first workshops came the material for my first published picture book. Three more followed. I have since branched into other genres of literature as well, but my dive into writing began with the rekindling of “this little light of mine” and thumbing lovingly through a children’s book.
Sometimes a writer simply needs a place to get started; sometimes a writer needs an appointment and the space to explore that elusive place from which joie de vivre springs. I hope we can play together and discover that place. Let’s write, together.
The Writers Circle’s attitude towards our For Boys Only class is clear – we allow (and sometimes even encourage) the grossness, violence, and general zaniness that lives just under the surface of our 3rd to 5th grade boys.
This has produced some wince-worthy stories – like the time they wrote about “poop on a stick.” Farts were big one session. Disgusting aliens. General destruction via an arsenal of weapons that can make the single grownup in the room reel.
This session has been particularly hard. The killings at Newtown are still on everybody’s mind – certainly on mine – while my boys’ class writes about guns and murder. A simple “head hopping” exercise about a ball crashing through a bay window produces stories where kids kill their neighbors, aliens land, kids kill their parents, the neighbors firebomb the kids… you get the picture.
So, I thought, it might be time to see if we can push this in a creative direction. Having told them (perhaps foolishly) Chekov’s famous statement that a loaded rifle in Act 1 means it has to go off in Act 3, I thought it might be time to introduce the notion of tension in the bomb that ticks constantly through the story – and doesn’t go off. Save the day, I encouraged them. Give me a story where I’m worried that bomb is going to explode any second. Don’t settle for the simple BOOM.
But – and this is the moral of the story – they’re simply not old enough to grasp the technical sophistication of the suggestion. They don’t get that the bomb that goes off is spectacle – the bomb that doesn’t is drama.
So instead of weaving the “tick tick tick” of the impending bomb throughout their story, they asked – can we have two bombs? Can one go off? What about guns? Can the hero blast his way into the room by shooting the villain?
And of course, my answer was “yes,” because it always has to be with these boys. Our underlying mission in this class is to allow them to write what they want to write – not what a grownup thinks is appropriate. When we permit their gory and grotesque imaginations to roam free, they embrace writing rather than shunning it. The success of the class is evident when I want them to start reading and they beg for just a few more minutes, when they tell their classmates a new (and probably even more violent) way to move their plotlines, when the class is over and they look at me, bewildered, and say, “Already? Really?”
They’re certainly not writing subtle stories, but every once in a while there’s a spark that excites me. A turn of phrase that suddenly lifts the story out of the mundane. The use of dialogue, even without the punctuation. The kid who did grasp the concept, however dimly and asked – can the bomb continue to tick even after it’s dismantled? A new and startlingly different concept – like the one they invented last week – of opening a portal in their stories and moving, suddenly, to their friends’ stories, finishing them up in parallel-universe form. And yes, the parallel universe is just as full of violence and gore as their own.
So, the bomb has to go off for these boys. As difficult as it is for me – and probably for the parents who hear what they’re writing on the car ride home – we need to give them the artistic space to invent their own universes, filled with weapons and explosions and scatological humor. And we have to trust that, in time, they’ll recognize the inherent drama in a story where the bomb doesn’t go off – because they’re excited enough about writing and imagination to retain it as a positive, creative outlet as they mature.
TWC instructor and Young Adult novelist, Jennifer Walkup, shares some honest and instructive thoughts on the struggle of a first draft and the value of non-writing:
After a good writing weekend – in which I got very little official writing done, I can say I’m feeling accomplished. I realized a few things this weekend that, yeah, I’ve known for some time, but that bear repeating, because, no matter how many stories or books I write, or how many times I take this writing journey, I forget the little lessons I’ve learned along the way. So here is a list in case any of my writer pals find themselves in the same boat while drafting.
When I’m feeling stuck, I remember:
1. This is a first draft. A first draft! It does not have to be perfect. Gosh, it doesn’t even have to be that good. It just has to be words on a page that are telling the story I want to tell. I will revise and revise and revise again. I hardly ever get a story anywhere near where I want it to be until at least a few drafts in, so why am I letting myself get paralyzed over trivial things in draft one? It’s silly. All it does is halt creativity and that certainly isn’t going to get my story told.
2. What do I have? It’s easy to think of all the things I’m lacking. I’m famous for this – I don’t know the next ten plot points, I haven’t figured out a secondary character’s motivation, how does this plot thread fit into the bigger picture, etc. I have to remind myself to, yes, keep working on what I’m lacking, but also to focus on the positive. What I realized this weekend: I have my main character, I have her voice, I have developed many secondary characters, solidified my setting, outlined a smattering of plot points I want to hit during this next section, and I know the tone I want for the book. So when I sit back and think about that, I realize, hey, that isn’t half bad for first draft progress. So keep writing!
3. Thinking absolutely does count as writing. Nope, not a joke. Brainstorming counts as writing. I spent a lot of time over the last few months in the mind of my character. I slipped on her shoes, entered her world and imagined exactly what it was like to be in her mindset. I took long walks as her, thinking of how she would view things and how she feels about the world around her. Was this putting words on the page? No. Was it helping me know what those words will be when they get there? Absolutely.
4. Set goals, but be gentle with myself. Like many writers, I aim to write daily. I used to aim for 1000 words, now I typically aim for at least a scene, even if it’s 200-500 words. But, if I don’t write, or don’t hit that goal, I don’t let it stop me from moving forward. Goals are worthless if they’re only going to foster guilt. I count anything related to my story as working, even if it’s spending an entire long walk just thinking about my characters and letting them wander around in my head deciding what they’ll do next.
5. Tomorrow is a new day. We’ve all had it happen. You were determined to write. You were set. You sat at your desk, you brewed your coffee (or poured your wine), and you cracked your knuckles. And then, the words didn’t come, or life interfered with your plans. So what. Close the computer, go do something else, and come to it later, with a hopefully refreshed muse. Feeling discouraged is often nothing but counterintuitive to writing, so find something else to do.
6. Writing is fun. There is one reason I write: because I love it. I love telling stories more than almost anything in the world. It’s really easy to get caught up in the pressure or stress of writing and deadlines and all the mental anguish that can go along with the craft. But at the end of the day, I do it because I seriously could not live without it. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed or stuck, I try to remember how much I love this and how good it feels when it is working. I try and remind myself that I’ve been in this position before, but that I’ve always moved past it and through it and gotten back to that creative stride that makes it all worthwhile and wonderful.
Happy writing, friends.
(Originally posted on July 9, 2012 at http://waltzwithwords.blogspot.com/ reprinted by permission. Thanks, Jenn!)
A conversation with Judith Lindbergh and Michelle Cameron
In anticipation of our upcoming workshop, “Reading Your Writing for an Audience”, Michelle and I thought we should discuss why we thought such a program was really relevant to writers. Below is the result of an interesting back and forth. We hope you enjoy it and even pick up a tip or two.
Michelle Cameron: My husband has often said that he thinks writers should never read their work aloud. Like so many of us, he’s suffered through some really bad readings. He feels that writers should be confined to the medium where they thrive, mainly the printed page. I’ve tried to convince him otherwise – especially in this market – but to no avail. What do you think?
Judith Lindbergh: He definitely has a point. I’ve suffered through readings, too – some by highly regarded literary icons – and been shocked by the droning or pretentious deliveries. I’ve also attended readings where the writer truly breathes life into their already stunning words. I remember Toni Morrison at the 92nd Street Y. Her presentation sang with dynamism and drama. She truly made her writing leap off the page — a storyteller in every sense of the word.
MC: Indeed. I remember so clearly how Billy Collins read one of my favorite poems – “Litany” – at one of the Dodge Poetry Festivals. We were standing in the shade of some trees listening, and I remembered thinking – how natural and how full of dry wit – some of which only became apparent to me when he did read it.
Yet even good readers can run into problems. Maybe they’ve read their work too often. Their readings can sound overly rehearsed. Then there’s “the poetry voice.” Many poets read in an entirely unnatural style – using rising inflection at the end of lines whether or not they belong, adding ridiculous pauses, a seething tone, oddly drawn-out syllables. Check out this great reading by Taylor Mali that demonstrates that voice with perfect irony:
I have never understood why poets feel this fake, strained, nearly incomprehensible way of reading imbues their work with greater importance. It’s the other side of the stumbling and bumbling – an artificial voice that really grates on their listeners.
JL: The problem is that most writers are not natural performers. Many of us write precisely because we’re more comfortable on the page than out loud. Reading silently is a private act, an exchange of thoughts between writer and reader. But speaking in front of an audience is absolutely public.
MC: You’re right, most writers are the wallflowers in the crowd, the ones who step back and observe what’s going on around us. Most of us are decided introverts. Can you imagine Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson or even the more vibrant Emily Bronte having to perform their work?
JL: The problem is that, these days, all writers must promote their work. Publishers expect it. In this competitive market, if we want our books to get any notice at all, we have to get out there and make a lot of noise. That inevitably means getting up in front of a microphone at some point and reading our work aloud.
MC: So maybe it behooves us to get past our trepidation and learn how to embrace that part of the job. You’re an unusual writer because you’re a former actress. Can you give those of us who aren’t natural performers any words of wisdom?
JL: Reading my work is fun for me because I draw on my stage experience. I still get nervous, of course, but when I read I change hats. I convince myself that I’m not an author presenting my work. I’m my character and I literally try to step into his or her shoes.
When I was on tour promoting The Thrall’s Tale, I always read three passages – one from each of the main characters’ voices. Bringing them to life wasn’t difficult because, even as I wrote the book, I’d often “perform” their passages aloud. It helped me understand my characters’ emotions, experiences and sometimes even their physicality. When I give a reading, I draw on those same voices and emotions. I try to “be” my characters as I read.
Still, I don’t act my readings. Imagine trouncing around in a bookstore gesturing and emoting—ridiculous! But there’s a way to bring musicality to your voice – perhaps a light tone for a young or innocent character, or a deep, gravelly voice for someone old or tired. I practice and play with my rhythms and try to find the right place for pauses and emotional highs and lows. Practice and play are critical to find confidence and to develop vocal control. Finally, I always remind myself to listen to my own words and feel what they are saying. When we’re nervous, we often just read and don’t think about what our words mean. We have to remember that this reading is the first time our listeners have experienced our thoughts. We want them to be as fresh as if we made them up just now.
It truly comes down to confidence and abandon – letting go of our self-awareness and stepping out of our writerly selves to become the narrator of our own adventure.
MC: I like that — confidence and abandon. It’s definitely a skill worth cultivating, especially in the current publishing marketplace. And the nice thing is that even timid readers — and I’m one — can gain that confidence when they learn how to reach and touch their audience. I always read the Talmud burning scene to audiences when I talk about The Fruit of Her Hands — and there’s nothing to match the absolute stillness of an audience when they listen to that heart wrenching passage. That’s when your words really come alive!
JL: Stillness! That’s wonderful. You really have brought them into your world when you get a reaction like that. I think that’s the reason, in the end, that many of us write fiction. We want to express our imaginative visions and try to make them real for others. When we witness someone else who is moved by the worlds and lives of our characters, we know all the hard work of writing has been worth it.
Learn more at The Writers Circle Speaker Series event, Reading Your Writing for an Audience with Sandra McLaughlin & Leonie Higgins, Sunday, April 1, 2:00-4:00 PM at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ. Register online at www.writerscircleworkshops.com.
We’ve all heard it before. “Your character’s flat. You need to make him three-dimensional.”
Sure, great. But what exactly does that mean?
We all know we live in a three dimensional world. We learn it in grade school: a line, a plane, a cube… But how do you make a character three dimensional? Do you make him really fat? Do you give him a limp so he wobbles when he walks, thereby taking up more space?
Believe it or not, I’ve tried both, and no, that’s not what it means. Three-dimensional means you have to dig deeper.
Take that character with the limp, for example. It’s fine to describe him walking, every struggle to get his footing, every attempt to hide his frailty and vulnerability. Ah! There’s the hint that I need… his vulnerability. There’s where I begin to ask: why is he vulnerable? How does he feel about his limp? And, even more pressing, how did he get the limp in the first place?
It was only when I start asking these questions that the concept of three-dimensionality begins to come clear.
For me, it often starts with the physical. I was a dancer, once upon a time, and an actress after that. I’m pretty sensitive to subtle inflections of voice and shifts of movement – how they can reveal what a character is feeling. I often get up and act out what my characters are doing in a particular scene. Still, the physical is just the start. It’s getting beyond the external to the why’s, the how’s; for my poor man with the limp, it’s the who-does-he-think-of-every-time-he-takes-a-step, the source of dread that haunts his soul every time he trips or stumbles. Answering those questions gives me a character, not with a flaw, but with a life.
But not everyone feels comfortable getting up and acting out their scenes. How can you develop a 3D character without feeling like an utter fool in the privacy of your writing room?
The answer came to me about a month ago when Michelle Cameron and I were teaching a workshop on Creating Character. I had come armed with a few simple physical exercises for the writers at hand, but sensed in their awkward giggles that I wouldn’t get much beyond giving them some key details and letting them walk around in a circle for a couple of minutes “in someone else’s skin”. It worked well enough. But I realized I had to break it down.
I was jotting notes while Michelle asked the group, “What makes a character three-dimensional?”
“They’re quirky…. Idiosyncratic…. They have a heart…. A sense of humor…. A purpose for being…. They’re relatable…. Unpredictable…. They have room to grow.”
All the while, I’d been thinking about time – how time forms us and forces us to take actions, sometimes ones we never would have planned, that change the course of everything. And about how time slowly nips away at us until the “I” who once was is unrecognizable to the “I” that is now.
“To make a character three-dimensional,” I popped up, “is simple. All they need is a past, present and future.”
I’d drawn a little diagram, nothing special, but it illustrated the point.
“We are formed by our past. Everything we are comes from those first experiences, those memories: the hug we never got, or the helicopter mom, the fire we escaped, or the first love that cannot be matched or compared. And we all have a future – our wants, our needs, our expectations, our plans. Everything we do today – we as people and as characters – is propelled toward our future but shaped by our past, so that the choices we make are rooted in a complete and authentic reality and the desires we attempt to achieve are bolstered or thwarted by everything we drag behind. It’s simple!”
OK, it’s not simple. And I doubt I said it as articulately at the time, but I saw it in my head. It was an epiphany formed instantaneously there in that class. And suddenly I knew that all those years I’d spent in acting classes, sitting in the back of the theater jotting down pages of character notes – their background, parents, old relationships, losses and loves – I was doing what we all need to be doing every day as we get to know our characters.
And, just like in those acting days, we should do it “off-page”. Not in the context of the beautiful words you are drafting for your elegantly crafted scenes, but messy, in a notebook or a bullet-pointed list, so you don’t have to worry if it sounds right or makes any sense at all to anyone but you.
You only have to explore, imagine, and decide, “Yes, he fell out of a tree when he was five. He broke his leg in three places. But he was in the woods. Too far to be heard. Crying… Crying and no one heard him. Finally in the dark, they came with flashlights and shadowed scowls. But the skin was cut. Infection had set in. The bones never set quite right, and since then, all the running, climbing, exploring. No more. And then in school…”
And suddenly the character has gained the inherent mass of a loss, fear, struggle and sadness. Limping forward, all he wants in all the world is to climb and run again.
Great dialogue tips from Writers Circle Associate Director, Michelle Cameron:
Writing dialogue is a critical aspect of fiction and memoir, and many writers struggle with it. So in a recent class, we considered what factors could comprise a successful section of dialogue. As we do in many of these more technical discussions, we deconstructed a few passages of published work. We’ll use some of them in this post to help us extract some guidelines for writing dialogue:
Dialogue should never happen in a vacuum.
“Oh, I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do with that child!” She took a deep breath: “I’m absolutely at the end of my rope.” She gave the shower curtain an x-ray like look.
– Franny and Zooey,
J. D. Salinger
Note how the speaker gives that shower curtain a piercing glance. Placing your characters in a setting – and reminding us of that setting with simple cues, like sipping from a coffee cup or turning to look out a window, will keep us grounded in the story.
Your character’s personality should infuse the way he or she speaks.
“Your new friends must be damned smart – they’ve managed to saddle you with their responsibilities in less than two months.” He shook his head – pitying me for being so gullible.
I just stared at him.
“She’s a cute kid, but she’s got no claim on you, Juliet, and you’re going to have to be firm about it. Get her a nice dolly or something and say good-bye, before she starts thinking you’re going to take care of her for the rest of her life.”
Now I was so angry I couldn’t talk. I stood there, gripping Kit’s porridge bowl with white knuckles. I didn’t throw it at him, but I was close to it. Finally, when I could speak again, I whispered, “Get out.”
– The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
The man speaking above is an American in a British novel – he’s sharp, cynical, and caustic. We always know when Mark comes on the stage.
Consider also that silence sometimes speaks louder than words. In natural life, we often don’t reply when we’re talking to someone – and our silence can suggest so many things: anger, resentment, confusion, pain… Juliet’s hand curves around that porridge bowl and we know what she’s feeling, without the author having to provide her feelings via dialogue.
I finish chewing and ask, “Do you know who the secretary of state is?”
“And see? You’re still allowed to vote.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Jen drains her beer and laughs.
“I think I get it.”
“Go to hell, Jen,” Rhonda says icily. “One beer and you’ll roll over for anyone.”
– Fragile Beasts, Tawni O’Dell
Use tags – he said, she said – sparingly.
You don’t need to identify who is saying what if it is clear to the reader. Note the exchange above – the swift back and forth over the secretary of state. By eliminating tags and just focusing in on the dialogue, we center our attention on the brief argument – akin to keeping your eye on a tennis ball during a swift volley.
Use tags, however, when it is necessary to identify who is speaking. When a third party is introduced into a dialogue, for instance, or when there is any doubt who is saying what, you need to make sure we know who is talking. Note, however, how skillfully Ms. O’Dell introduces Jen above: because she has just drained her beer and laughed, we know the unidentified “I think I get it” is her statement.
Watch the use of adjectives and adverbs.
Too many of them can dilute what you’re trying to express. But use them when they will convey emotion better than anything else. Strong verbs can and should carry much of the burden of the story, but this doesn’t mean a good adjective or adverb can’t help out once in awhile. When Rhonda says “Go to hell” icily to Jen, we’re left in no doubt as to how she’s feeling. But it’s because that’s the one and only adverb in the entire conversation that it works so well.
Let your characters think before they speak.
“I don’t believe I feel like it just now, Amanda.”
“Did I ask you if you felt like it?”
He spread his fingers and looked at the bitten nails, not answering. Speak sharply to Jeremy and you will bowl him over; he can’t stand up to things. You’ll get further being gentle with him, but I always remember that too late. He puts me in a fury. I can’t see how he could let himself go the way he has. No, letting yourself go means you had to be something to start with, and Jeremy was never anything. He was born like this.
– Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler
Give your characters a chance to reflect on what is being said, to consider what it might mean to them, and even to change their minds about it mid-thought.
Also remember that what our characters say can sometimes hide the truth of what they really feel. “Language was given us to conceal our thoughts,” as Talleyrand said at the Congress of Vienna. In this passage and throughout the book that follows, Jeremy’s silence covers a myriad of emotions and thoughts. Sometimes a little misdirection can add suspense and engage the reader in trying to discover the truth.
And one final note – dialogue should sound natural but not be studded with the pauses and stuttering that we hear in everyday speech. Use your craft to hone in on any mannerisms that might be important to convey character – but make sure it’s not slowing down the passage unnecessarily. As with the passage above from Fragile Beasts, a single “huh” can go a long way.
What does it mean to be creative? Some people might imagine a “bohemian”, someone with no boundaries, who floats on a whim to seek the muse. Someone who dons wild clothing and wilder hair, who is as likely to fall in love as to commit suicide or murder.
To be creative, you don’t have to be erratic, uncontrolled, addicted or unpredictable. In fact, these qualities are far more likely to kill your creativity as to nurture it.
The word “creativity” shares the same root as the word “create”. In other words, you have to actually make something to be creative. Making things requires discipline, technique, excellent organization and problem solving skills. It’s nice if you have a little talent, too. But even if you don’t, creativity is a process and it can be learned.
In simplest terms, creativity experts summarize the lesson thus: first, you have to embrace the broadest thinking possible; then, you have to make an assemblage of critical decisions.
In an article in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis, the creative process and its measurable degradation in America since the 1990s were detailed and scrutinized. What makes a creative thinker and how can creativity be nurtured? And where is American education going wrong?
I came face-to-face with the creativity crisis myself when my son was writing a report for elementary school. To guide him in his assignment, he had received a shockingly detailed (to me anyway) outline. Every paragraph not only had to be structured with a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a concluding sentence. He also had to give specific information in each sentence. This outline didn’t require any input from my son, only compliance. In fact, if he didn’t follow the outline precisely, he would be marked down.
This orderly approach was certainly easy to follow, and would be even easier for his teacher to grade. But it gave him no space to consider or explore his topic. It did not challenge him to make his own associations, organize his own research or thoughts. He just had to fill in the blanks. Simple call-and-response. No writer I’ve ever heard of works that way. Even those of us who depend heavily on outlining leave a little room for the possibility that an unexpected thought might fit in someplace we hadn’t thought of before.
In fact, the Newsweek article precisely stated the nature of my alarm. In it, an expert was discussing America’s educational focus with Chinese educators who have historically and notoriously emphasized cooperation over creativity. The Chinese response to our standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing was to laugh out loud: “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”
How do we teach our children creativity and preserve it in our culture? Talk to any creative person and they’ll tell you. Divergent thought must come first. Given a problem to be solved or a project to be executed, one must first assess – or even better, “play” with the infinite possibilities before settling on solutions.
As writers, this is as natural as breathing. Faced with a blank slate and the entire world for contemplation, we select a kernel of inspiration, a topic we are curious about, a thought we had briefly while walking down the street, and from it we create entire worlds.
In an exercise I use frequently in my creative writing workshops, I give students a pile of photographs of people’s faces. Some could be just “anyone”, but have curious, emotionally charged or meaningful expressions. Others are faces that are distinctly different, often defined so by unusual clothing, make-up, hairdo, setting and more. I ask my students to choose a face that speaks to them. This is the first decision of a creative thinker. It’s often an emotional choice. Why pick one and not another? Does one image remind you of somebody you love or hate, someone you’d like to meet or are afraid of? Does the expression reflect something that’s going on deep inside yourself?
Once the choices have been made, we don’t analyze. An analytical approach would poison the subliminal brew that’s essential to the creative objective. Instead, at this point, I simply ask students to write free-form for ten to fifteen minutes.
“Don’t think. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Let your pen flow. Let your thoughts fall onto the page like rain.”
Here, you may think, comes the crazy “bohemian” and her shapeless approach to creativity. But in fact, as each writer works, they are making more decisions. They are looking at the face and choosing perhaps to describe it. Or maybe they start by giving the face a name. Or maybe they decide to write as if they are the person in the photograph. Or as if they’re holding the photograph. Or as if someone else found it in the glove compartment of an abandoned car…
As each choice is made, a new dimension solidifies in each writer’s creative process. Each choice informs the writer about their character and circumstance. Each choice transforms the fleeting sparks of inspiration into concrete words on the page.
With each choice, the options for that particular piece of writing narrow. The more detailed the decisions, the more specific the story becomes until all the divergent thoughts have drifted away and the story, characters, language, pacing and more are completely clear in the writer’s, and eventually the reader’s, minds.
The one thing that is missing in this process is absolute certainty. There are no quantifiable results. Writing is subjective. Each reader is the unique judge of failure or success. And this, I think, more than anything, is what’s scary to educators and administrators trying to shape the educational process. You can’t box creativity. You must let it breathe. It must be left to its own devices, but nudged and nurtured along the way.
It takes a little more energy, patience, intuition and a lot more courage to teach this way. But for our next generation to regenerate the American hallmark of creativity and innovative thinking before it is completely lost, we must let their minds out of the box and let them play.
So often I begin a writing class with a simple, free-writing prompt, usually just a word or phrase – “skipping in the rain”, “amusement parks”, “the kitchen sink.” I enjoy watching the quizzical glances of my writers at these random ideas. But slowly each of them connects to some inner flash of thought or memory.
In just a moment or two, all their pens have touched down and the air becomes infused with soft shushing. The room almost sizzles with an electric flow of thoughts connecting our deep, interior minds to the exterior space that allows creative energy to manifest into something real.
It’s a miracle really, as magnificent as discovering how to harness lightning. It’s also as practical as the humble plug, lowly, taken for granted, and yet, without it, we sit cold, bored and hungry in the dark.
As long as there’s a physical connection — our pens on pads, our fingers on the keyboard — the energy begins to pick up speed. If we listen to our thoughts, we can feel the ideas forming. The words beg to be written down. If we’re lucky, our hands keep up. (The best thing I ever did was to take that touch-typing class in high school, though I certainly didn’t think so at the time!)
Even hooked into that current, our thoughts might not make sense. They’re just random static and scattered sparks — brilliant, sometimes frightening, irrational, moved by emotion, not logic. As they should be. If we stay with that flow, slowly the electrons (or neurons) begin to fall into line. It is a natural progression from chaos to order that has formed and reformed the universe again and again. Eventually our random thoughts — our own personal chaos — take shape and find direction.
Eventually, the connection slows and sputters or sometimes even breaks. That’s when our eyes gaze up and we stare off into the distance. But if our thoughts drift slightly, that too is a necessary part — a slight readjustment in frequency. Our minds, as our bodies, need sometimes to rest in order to catch the flow of energy again and continue.
The key is not to unplug completely. We must dip the pen again and float with the stream, even as it shifts and veers, often in completely unexpected directions.
By working from random meanderings into a purposeful stream of thought, these seemingly meaningless prompts become vital exercise. They help beginners and more practiced writers strengthen our instincts to tap into the flow which is so necessary to create short stories, memoirs, novels, plays — to write anything, really.
The purpose is to physically — pen on pad — tap into the unconscious stream and to steer toward a single, clear image, to follow it doggedly, fluidly, instinctually again and again until there is no question that we can find it whenever we need it. The practice may seem pointless at first, but over time, our words flow more freely until writing becomes as natural as speech or thought.
And that is where creativity begins.
Here’s a list of prompts I’ve used over the last few months. Pick one to start or end your writing day. Write for ten minutes. No editing or second-guessing. Just write. Ready, set, pens down, fingers on keyboards. GO!
- First Meeting
- The Ritual
- Last Day of Summer
- Small creature in a storm
- Write a dream (real or otherwise)
- What’s missing
- Passing On
- A favorite place (for you, someone you know, a character)
- Family gatherings
- Write a run-on sentence
- Something worth stealing
- Writing on the wall
- A holiday tradition
- Start with the phrase: “If the door opens, go through.”
- A place you once lived
- Your first time (take it any way you choose!)
- Damp earth
- The scent of an orange (go smell one – really!)
- Falling Leaves
- Skipping in the Rain
- Being Bored
- An argument
- Write about the living room (yours, your character’s…)
- The Final Chapter
- Folding sheets
- Don’t Panic!
- The playroom
- Spring cleaning
- Kitchen Sink
- Amusement Park
I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
– Walt Whitman
The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.
It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!
But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.
April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.
From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)
In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.
The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.
Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.
Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.
Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.
My son pulled a book from the bookstore shelf the other day that he thought might be good for my writing students: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
It is written for screenwriters (which I’m not – at least not so far), so I’d never noticed it before. But I was immediately drawn to the hedge labyrinth on the cover for its symmetry and symbolism, recalling my days at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and my early search for my writer’s voice. It all began with the exploration of myth.
I hadn’t thought of it in a while. I had long ago learned how to create a story without a distinct, preordained template, but as I paged through the book, I saw that it turned on the theme of some of my earliest writings: The Hero’s Journey.
I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember distinctly when the freedom and daring to write a long, plotted novel came to me. It was while watching Bill Moyers’ fantastic conversations with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, on PBS.
In that series of insightful interviews, Campbell embellished on the classic structure of the heroic “monomyth“: the hero’s call to adventure that takes him out of the ordinary world; his descent into darkness, enduring terrible trials and ordeals; and his eventual return, usually older or almost certainly wiser.
It was such a strong and obvious journey – one I knew I could follow. And I did. My first novel was based on it; and in some ways perhaps all that has followed has fit some version of that mold.
It brought to mind a saying that there are only three basic plots, but infinite variations. I looked it up online and found infinite variations on the saying itself, and exponential granularity in the distinct central themes of those supposedly limited plots.
It made me think of a fractal, which is a geometrical structure that expresses itself with ever increasing complexity, creating endless and fascinating variations. They are everywhere in nature: in microscopic strands of DNA, in the unfurling of a fern, in the staggering structure of a giant redwood tree, in the jagged contours of the Himalayas.
Can it be that our play with words is part of that same unfolding magnificence? Are we simply following the natural path set out for us, but taking our own route? Each step and story leads us farther on our own writer’s journey, which can be heroic indeed.
I have no doubt that there’s much to be learned from Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey”. Though I haven’t read it yet, it’s been added to my towering, ever more precarious pile.