Word Association Story

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Create a grab bag of words. Write random words on slips of paper or clip them from old magazines and place them in a container to draw from. This would be a good writing group or classroom activity, as each person would contribute different words to the grab bag and no one would know what to expect when the draw was made.

Alternatively, use one of these random word generators:

  • random word generator (options: generate unlimited number of words; include/exclude duplicate words)
  • random word generator (options: generate 1-8 random words; click/drag to rearrange words; double-click to swap out a word for a new one)
  • random word generator (options: generate 2-10 random words; temporarily save words you like to a list)
  • random word generator (options: generate one word at at time)
  • random word generator (options: generate unlimited number of words; choose first and/or last letter; choose number of syllables or letters)

Draw one word and write the first sentence that comes to mind using that word. (Like a word association game, but word ➡️ sentence instead of word ➡️ word.) Repeat nine more times, so you have a total of ten sentences.

Write a story using all ten sentences. These sentences can be rearranged (used in any order) but must be used as-is. The ten original sentences are just a starting point—add as much as you need to fill in and complete the story.

If you do this exercise as a group, read the stories aloud once they’re complete.

Alternative group story exercise: After everyone has completed their 10 sentences, have one person start by choosing one of their sentences as the first sentence of the story. Go around the room in turn. Each person can either add a sentence to the story or pass when it comes to their turn. Stop when someone runs out of sentences. Read the completed story out loud.

Choose Your Own Adventure!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Write a “choose your own adventure”-style story. That is, start writing your story, but when you get to a point where your main character has to make a decision, first continue the story with the character making one choice (up to the point where another decision has to be made), then go back to the fork in the road and write the story with the character making a different choice.

Pick at least three points in your story where it could go in two or more directions and write each of the versions.

A simple version of this exercise would go something like this, and result in eight different versions of the story:

  • Original story ? at the first fork, choose A or B.
    • A story ? at the second fork, choose C or D.
      • C story ? at the third fork, choose G or H.
        • G story ? continue to the end.
        • H story ? continue to the end.
      • D story ? at the third fork, choose I or J.
        • I story ? continue to the end.
        • J story ? continue to the end.
    • B story ? at the second fork, choose E or F.
      • E story ? at the third fork, choose K or L.
        • K story ? continue to the end.
        • L story ? continue to the end.
      • F story ? at the third fork, choose M or N.
        • M story ? continue to the end.
        • N story ? continue to the end.

Of course, stories can get more complicated than this, with more options and storylines backtracking and crisscrossing on each other. Play around and have fun with it.

While a choose-your-own-adventure story can be meant to be read as-is, this is also a good exercise for exploring your options when working through the plot of a longer story or novel.

It’s also a great way to complete a challenge like NaNoWriMo if you “run out of story” before reaching your word goal. Go back through your story and look for points where it could have gone in a different direction and write those versions. You might find you like one of the alternate stories better than the original.

Modify an Old Book

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the title character is an unidentified man whose only link to his past is an old book he used as a notebook / commonplace book:

She picks up the notebook that lies on the small table beside his bed. It is the book he brought with him through the fire—a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations—so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus. (p. 16)

And in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herodotus’ Histories, are other fragments—maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books. All that is missing is his own name. (p. 96)

This month’s exercise is to use the English patient’s book as inspiration.

Step One: Find an old book to repurpose. I suggest starting with a used book that already has some scuffs and scrapes so it doesn’t feel too precious to modify.

If you don’t want to use a book you already own, look for a suitable book at a used bookstore (check the discount bin out front) or charity book sale. Tip: library book sales often sell hardcover books for $1 or less.

While you can start with any book, a copy of a favorite novel, a nonfiction book whose subject is interesting to you, or one with aesthetic appeal (but perhaps less-than-interesting content) are good options.

Step Two: Modify your book! You can play with the existing text or treat it more like a blank journal.

Some suggestions:

  • create found poetry using the existing text
  • paste in photos, clippings, tickets, etc.
  • doodle or draw
  • add patterns or color
  • write notes in the margins
  • journal between the lines
  • fill in blank pages
  • write an alternate ending or add a “missing” chapter
  • add a character
  • modify illustrations/photographs
  • dry leaves or flowers between the pages

Step Three: Continue until your book feels finished. Use your book as a source of inspiration for your writing—both during the process of creating it and afterward.

[Page numbers from the 1992 Vintage edition.]

Mix & Match

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Go to random.org and use the Random Calendar Date Generator to pick five dates between January 2002 and the present (leave the Sunday box unchecked).
  2. Go to the Calendar and find the prompts that fell on the dates generated in step one.
  3. Use all 5 prompts in the same story.

Example (5 random dates and their corresponding prompts):

  1. February 5, 2002: Write about a surprise meeting.
  2. July 2, 2003: Write about a remedy.
  3. April 30, 2004: Write about magic.
  4. February 16, 2008: They had a way of walking together.
  5. December 23, 2015: “He lied about being a scientist!”

A Creative Go-To

A Pen In Each Hand

By Harpspeed

I remember on one occasion back in my undergrad days in a creative writing classroom I was expected to complete a writing exercise on the spot. I felt tired from a long day already spent at my day job and overwhelmed—being at my lowest creative moment of the day. Regardless, I had to write something. So while my peers were scratching and tapping away in their notebooks and keyboards, I was zeroing on a single topic along with some describing words, and whatever literary mechanisms my tired brain could muster up.

In the end, I broke down the assignment from paragraphs and pages to consonants and syllables. I was much like that stereotypical driver driving on empty fumes and magically making it to the gas station before the engine finally conked out for good. In fact, I surprised myself with having wellspring of creativity inspired from my lack of it. Thirty minutes later, I shared a free verse poem about an evening walk with my dog. I borrowed this technique at a similar venue years later. I wrote about the juicy clementine I had consumed minutes before. Success had made free verse my official go-to for creativity-tapping.

So, here’s the thing, if you are ever in creative trouble, don’t get upset or overwhelmed. Instead, think different. Think smaller. Think poetry. You might even consider trying a tanka poem. Here’s the skinny: Tanka poetry originated in Japan and is over 1200 years old. It is similar to haiku poetry but contain more syllables as well as metaphor, personification, and simile. Tanka poems contain five lines. Subjects of tankas include nature, seasons, and emotion.

These are examples I found on the web: [1] [2] [3] [4].

What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

Background Image: Glen Zazove/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”


Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”


Write What You Dig

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In the 1997 film Boogie Nights, Becky tells Buck he needs to find “a new look” rather than the “country western” look he’s been using. Later in the kitchen, a frustrated Buck tells Maurice how Becky, his managers at the stereo store, and others have been pressuring him to change his appearance. Maurice replies, “You know what I say? Wear what you dig. That’s it. Wear what you dig.”

The current phenomenon in the publishing world is 50 Shades of Grey, originally conceived as Twilight fanfic but appealing to suburban women who have made reading erotica mainstream. When E.L. James wrote 50 Shades, she likely wrote for herself, as most fanfic writers do. That she happened to tap in to an audience is serendipitous.

Erotica readers and writers—myself included—are critical of the book but hey. Read what you dig. Write what you dig.

Background Image: Adam Bindslev/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

My current read is Crackpot by John Waters (my immediate previous read was Role Models, also by John Waters). Waters is better known as a director and screenwriter, mostly of films that specialize in purposeful bad taste, a blend of art and anarchy. Waters says, “I’ve always said that in the film world you have to pretend eight million people are gonna love it and in the art world, if eight million people love it, it’s really bad.” So he makes the films he wants to see, whether anyone else wants to see them. He writes what he digs.

Katharine Hepburn, another Hollywood icon and writer, said “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” Again, write what you dig.

So why do I keep repeating this mantra? Writers increasingly write for an audience. This audience might be regular readers of a weblog or the friends who eagerly volunteer to beta-read our latest short stories or poems. As electronic publishing lends itself so easily to self-publishing, we find it easy to put our work directly into a reader’s hands. We want to please, which is natural. But, like Anastasia Steele—the heroine of 50 Shades of Grey—are we putting the receipt of our own pleasure in someone else’s hands?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep our audience in mind when writing. Stephen King writes of his Ideal Reader in On Writing; his wife Tabitha is the only person he claims he wants to please with his work. The focus of a single Ideal Reader can sharpen our focus. When we branch out to please many readers, to appeal to everyone, our work can be spread too thin and not hold enough appeal for any one reader.

Speaking of “digging,” if you find you’ve dug yourself into a hole with your current work—uninterested in working, out of fresh ideas—it’s possible you could be subconsciously trying to appeal to a wide Ideal Audience rather than an Ideal Reader or a narrow, intimate Ideal Audience. Chances are good you won’t produce the next Hunger Games, Harry Potter series, or 50 Shades of Grey so why put the pressure on yourself? Think of what you might achieve if you wrote what you want to read. You could become a cult icon! A hipster’s “discovery!” It’s not the size of your audience that matters; it’s the passion your audience has for your work (or even you).

Beyond the mundane answers you might give to “interests” at your social media profiles, what interests you and/or your Ideal Reader? Your mind might be racing now, everything from Dancing With the Stars to “cheese in a can.” Let’s go into that closet in the back of your mind, rummage around and find out what story ideas are lurking in there.

When you flip through TV listings, what catches your eye? CSI, Castle, or Law and Order reruns? Maybe you’d like to write a crime story. How about River Monsters or Man vs. Wild? An adventure story might be what you crave. It doesn’t matter if you know anything about these topics. Just write. Enjoy yourself. If something comes of it, fill in your technical blanks later.

Maybe your neighbor insisted on shoving 50 Shades or Twilight into your hands. Give her your own fanfic, erotica, or gothic manuscript or send her the document for her e-reader. You know what she’s enthusiastic about reading so give her something worth her enthusiasm. Call it a “thank you” gift for her inspiration (and thank her in your acknowledgements, even if you never intend another living soul to see the page).

Are there things that interest you that you’d never want to admit to anyone? Those are great sources for your fiction. Because you’re fictionalizing, you have no need to explain to anyone what your inspiration was. Blame your characters. No one need know you’ve visited the Mutter Museum 257 times, that for your eighth birthday all you wanted was to visit Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, or that you paid an extra five dollars at the county fair to see the four-headed vampire monkey. No matter what The Weird Thing is, someone likes it: you. Write about it. Then sit back and enjoy the story or poem. Someone wrote it just for you.

Writing for an audience of one or two not only frees you from the need to please but also silences your Inner Editor/Critic. It can increase your honesty and allow you to examine uncomfortable subjects more closely.

If you’re a genre writer, think outside your genre. For example, if you’re a horror writer, you might be reluctant to let people know you’re working on a fantasy series (see Stephen King’s Gunslinger series). You might worry that the reaction will be “Where’s the horror?” You might feel pressured to shoehorn the genre in there. If yours are the only eyes that see your fantasy stories, whose expectations are you meeting? Every reader will be pleased.

Does it matter if anyone else ever sees these stories? Does it matter if no one sees you walk on your treadmill while listening to Viking funeral chants? No. If you exercise, you see results. Same with writing. If you write these single-reader pleasers, it’s good exercise. It gets you in the groove. It gets you motivated. It gets you not only to write what you dig but to recognize what you dig. If you decide to submit for publication and your work is rejected, think of that John Waters quote. If everyone liked it, how boring a world we’d live in! If you have enough pieces that please only you or your Ideal Reader, collect them. If they share this common theme, that’s unifying enough for a self-released collection; maybe you’ll find that Ideal Audience by just being yourself and writing what you dig.

Final Poll Results

Resolve to Evolve as a Writer

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings, was the figure at the center of one of Rome’s oldest cults. It makes sense that the first month of the Roman calendar is named after this mythical ruler of gateways, transitions and change. With one face looking forward and one looking back, Janus, like his namesake January, reminds us that we can improve future possibilities based on what we have learned in the past.

The tradition of resolving to change aspects of our lives also makes sense as we usher in a new year each January. However, resolutions, being the firm decisions they are, are not always the best match for creative souls involved in the creative process, where a little more Eureka!-like unpredictability can be expected (and hoped for).

Yes, decisions need to be made, and acted upon, for our writing endeavors to become finished projects and realized goals. But you might want to carry some of that original Janus mystique with you, too, as you pass through the gateway to your 2008 writer’s life. You can do more than make a resolution—go for an evolution.

If you resolve to evolve as a writer, you’ll be seeking the gradual process of change into a better form, and undertaking the process of adaptation, growth and development. It’s essential that you use the backward-looking face of Janus, to assess where you’ve been and how you’ve gotten there, and at the same time use the forward-looking face to search for new horizons and keep an eye on your destination.

Here are some basic evolutionary concepts that can help you make firm decisions about your writing. A bit of introspection combined with realistic goal setting will help you meet the demands of your life’s priorities without sacrificing the personal aspects of your artistic growth.

Background Image: Michael Alstad/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Aspire. To evolve, we identify a need to move onward, toward a new or better form. To what do you aspire, as a writer? Answer this question first and foremost.

If you can’t comfortably speak of your aspiration, or if your answer is along the lines of “I feel I was meant to be a writer, but it seems impossible to achieve,” take some time to look inside yourself without pre-judgment. (Also, look at that last sentence again, and remember, they say everything after the “but” is baloney.)

Consider this inspirational quote by Marianne Williamson, which was used with great effect in the movie Akeelah and the Bee: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. … We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world.”

You need to use that forward-looking face. Try journaling a page of possible aspirations, without regard for plausibility or likelihood. What do you want? Tell the truth. (Don’t be sorry about it!) Own your answers—it’s the “new or better form” you need to be moving toward.

Perhaps your goal is long-term and large, or vague and hardly manageable. If it’s something like “I aspire to have a short story published,” then make sure your aspiration is followed up with a list of smaller steps leading you down that path. It’s a lesson that bears repeating: specificity is your friend when you have admirably giant dreams. Big desires are totally allowed, but they need breaking down into actionable bits. Look behind to where you’ve come from to arrive at this door, and while planning your ultimate destination, imagine the steps you need to get there.

Questions to help you express your aspirations:

  • What would you do with your writing if you weren’t afraid?
  • If nothing were stopping you (including your doubts, your education, your finances, your job, and so on), where would you go with your writing?
  • Exactly what kind of work do you aspire to have published (or published next)?
  • Have you already started writing a story you believe in, and need to get back to? What’s stopping you, and what can you do to work around that obstacle?
  • Do you need to take a class and brush up on the basics of you chosen genre? Should you consider new organization for your yet-to-be-accepted work, to make it more saleable?

Resolving to become a published author is admirable, and it is doable for many people. But evolving into a writer whose work gets published is different. What kind of writer will you evolve into, and what does that kind of writer look like? Whatever your aspiration, you’ll need to guide yourself through the landscape with a route and a plan.

Questions to help you act on your aspirations:

  • When will you write? How often? How many words or on what deadlines?
  • Where will you write? What tools will you use? Can you create a better working environment for yourself, say, by investing in new software, keeping paper files for queries, or creating a cache of internet bookmarks for next month’s research projects?
  • How will you write? Recreationally, enjoying writing for writing’s sake? Inspired by a social element, such as heading out to club meetings, or finding an online writing buddy?
  • For whom will you write? Have you identified a potential market or two for your next project? Do you have all the facts you need about submissions organized, at the ready? Will you only write for pay, on assignment?

Your aspirations are nothing to fear, nor is asking yourself the questions, even the tough ones. There are no wrong answers—in fact, honest answers will help you succeed.

Succeed. You might think this step seems out of order, but it’s not. Evolution is gradual. We need to make changes, and we need to keep going.. For many writers, just getting started is the hardest part. For some, it’s building momentum, for others, it’s the dreaded finishing. In every case, success breeds enthusiasm. You’ve dreamed it, now do it.

Don’t be fooled by the word success—it’s not defined by accomplishing your ultimate goal. Success according to Webster means “the gaining of something desired, planned or attempted.” You get to choose what that something is. Your successes are up to you! Maybe you plan to write for an hour on Tuesday. Do that, and you’ll have your first success. Perhaps you long to attend a weekend writer’s retreat next summer. Make your reservation, and you’ll have another success. With those two successes under your belt this week, you’re sure to have new enthusiasm for your research day on Friday. After all, you’ve been going strong all week!

It can be difficult to stay motivated when you’re working on a goal that seems distant, or largely out of your control, such as becoming a professional writer or selling a screenplay. But if you can succeed in doing something specific, that you yourself desired, you will have that enthusiastic edge. You’re proving to yourself, step by step, that you can do what you decided you needed to attempt, and that’s exciting! It’s a successful manifestation of your aspiring mind. Your writing life evolves as it learns that you are making good use of it. It improves, and so does your outlook, and that confident optimism attracts your effort, and then guess what? Your writing improves, too. Now that’s success.

Adapt. Perhaps the toughest aspect of the making and keeping of any Resolution is the part about how life happens. Try. Try again. Tweak as needed. There, that might work.

We aren’t walking around with fish gills anymore, and we now have these handy opposable thumbs. We aspired to move onward, we tried out some smaller steps, and many of them succeeded. Then, we adapted according to the challenges we encountered on, and the efficiencies suggested by, our new path.

When researching this article, I learned that male genitals are actually not in the best spot, biologically speaking. It all descended a long time ago, as part of a species-wide evolutionary experiment. The body learned that the testes would indeed be physically better off it they were tucked back up behind the urethral tube on the inside, with the pubic bone providing a sort of automatic athletic cup. However, the sperm would not survive there. Now, isn’t that something? One face looking forward, one looking back, right there at the doorway of how man might best adapt to go about populating the earth.

How does this apply to your writing pursuits? Well, you will need to be willing to keep up on your gradual development, consider new alternatives, and still morph into the writer you aspire to be, even when stuff happens. Because, it will. If you’re stuck at what feels like a roadblock, don’t despair, and don’t give up. Just change your mind about your approach. Adapt to find something that works better for you. Transition may take a day, a decade, or stretch out over an entire adulthood. The secret to making positive changes is to… (hang on to your hats here) make changes, for the positive.

Grow. Doors and beginnings. Firm decisions about moving forward. Adapting to a new, better form. Looking behind, looking ahead. Grow, to fill your own writing shoes, for your own gain.

Growth is so individual, it’s not easy to advise on. It starts where you are at, includes where you’ve been and what you’ve found there, and it never ends. There is always unlimited potential for you to grow into and out of the various phases of your life, facets of your self, and areas of your desire. If it all seems too abstract, or these types of introspective concepts leave you wondering what you can actually accomplish as a writer, try this one simple exercise to get your creative juices flowing and your writing self growing.

“Act As If” Exercise (write out answers to any or all of the following):

  • If you were the writer you want to be, what would you do? Like, right now, specifically, what would you do? Would you stop reading this article and go write? Would you call your mother and ask her advice on being a writer? Would you meditate? What? Write all of it down. Then, turn it into your To-Do list.
  • Tomorrow, what would you do? Next week, every week…what about the next time you have a three-day weekend? In the summer? When you have a spectacular idea that you just need to get out of your head and onto paper?
  • What would you do with your writing files? With your unfinished stories?
  • How would your desk look? Your reference library? Would you be learning more about a specific subject or two?
  • How would you arrange your time, if you were already the writer you want to be? What sacrifices would you make? What priorities would never change?
  • What would your book jacket bio say?
  • Would you have a website?
  • Would you read more?
  • Would you keep up on publishing trends?
  • Get an advanced degree?

Your To-Do list will be as individual as you and your goals are. However, every list will always contain one element, no matter who you are or what kind of writer you’re aspiring to be: you will have to delve further into, and extract more out of, your own possibilities. After all, if you are not yet the writer you wish to be, then you have some growing to do in this regard.

Both evolution and resolution will support your growth quite nicely.

“I dwell in possibilities.” —Emily Dickinson

Final Poll Results

Keep Your Creative Fire Burning

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

It’s a new year. I’ll bet you’ve made a resolution, silent or aloud, “this will be my writing year!” You’re filled with the exciting, energizing passion of your creativity. Writing is as necessary as breathing, right? Do you feel breathless or are you still pumping? If you are still breathing the fire of your creativity, write on! If the fire simply smolders and only sparks occasionally, read on. If the fire is out of control, read on. This is about finding and maintaining balance in your fiery creative passion: writing.

Each of us, as creative people, has experienced the high burning fervor of words, images and ideas that burst forth onto the page. And we’ve experienced the cold, stark empty hearth when our minds are as blank as the page before us. That is the nature of creativity. At times too hot, at times too cold, at the best of times temperate. There are no right or wrong ways of seeking the temperate balance of creativity.

Background Image: Samuel|_sjg_/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Melting the Brain Freeze

It’s a painfully cold time when you face a blank page and nothing comes to mind. Some people call it writer’s block; I call it brain freeze when nothing sparks my creativity. Here are a few ideas to melt the brain freeze.

When a work in progress suddenly stalls, don’t fight it; acknowledge that you are experiencing the nature of creativity. Write to it. Open a new page and write about where you want to go with the story. Relax, let ideas flow, travel where your imagination takes you. Perhaps one of the characters doesn’t conform to what you have in mind. Write a letter to her; explore why she isn’t working well within the story. Explore her motivations within the framework of the story. Examine why she isn’t working, tell her your every thought about her. Then with your hand, let her respond. In the process, not only will you be writing, but a lively character will emerge.

Sometimes the setting may not be right for your story: perhaps some element is missing or not true to the story. Depending on your story, take some time to draw a map or layout of a specific room. Bring in as much detail as you can. Use colored pencils to add detail, find out where your story lives. Then write a description of your drawing. Become as comfortable in your setting as you are in your own home.

If you have no work in progress consider these ideas. Write to the brain freeze, “Dear Frozen Brain, I am so mad at you…” Write about how you feel, what you are experiencing, let your emotions heat up. See where that takes your creative spirit. Or think of a time or place that interests you and create a free-association word list. Write down any thought or image that comes to mind.

Try any one of these to acknowledge and address the cold creative moment, and the heat of your writing will melt that frozen brain and allow your creativity to flow.

Too Hot to Handle

The flip side of brain freeze is when your creative juices are flowing like lava down a mountainside. Three story ideas, a personal essay about the holidays, an idea to interview the local artist you met at a party all vie for your attention. Focusing on any one project can be difficult with such a blaze of creative activity.

Step back. Acknowledge your creative dilemma, then spend some time analyzing. Write down what you think is important, what has meaning for you in each of the projects. Look for the true possibilities of marketable success in each idea. Try to give each equal time in your analysis. If one stands out as having the most potential, go for it. Should more than one emerge as having importance to you, look for possible connections between them (more than likely there will be). Pick the one that ignites your passion the most. Keep a notepad near you should ideas arise that relate to another similar project, and jot them down. Don’t deny your creative fire in the name of single-minded discipline. Allow yourself to be flexible, yet focused.

If, on the other hand, one of your ideas has a deadline–whether an article you’ve pitched that has been accepted or a contest you want to enter–and you find the pressure too hot, step back and confront the avoidance. Write about why you are not comfortable with this piece, address what isn’t working, and why you don’t want to work on it. Look for what ignited your creativity in the first place and what may have lowered the temperature of your creativity on this project to sub-zero. Look for the balance between the two; find the temperate comfort zone of your creative nature. It’s not easy, but who said being a writer was easy?

Light a Candle to Celebrate

Reward yourself, each time you write, for having found the temperate balance of your creative fire. Make your reward a tangible, visible reminder of your progress. Something that, each day as you enter your writing space, reflects your previous accomplishments. It could be as simple as drawing the framing circle of a wreath on your writing pad and adding a flower or leaf to the wreath after each day’s writing. Begin your writing time acknowledging and admiring your success.

Final Poll Results

‘Tis better to have written…

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

“The first key to writing is to write, not to think.”
—from “Finding Forrester”

I am a banker.

At least that’s the technical term for my 9-to-5 job, working for one of the world’s largest financial institutions. All day long, I sit in a cubicle, just another mindless drone in a Dilbert world.

In my heart, though, I am a writer.

I haven’t been published, save for a few non-paying e-zines. I don’t write for the glory. I certainly don’t write for the money. So why do I write?

The answer is something I borrow from one of my college professors, something that just rang so true that I’ve kept it with me all these years.

I write because I must.

Background Image: Karin Dalziel/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve had stories inside me just bursting to come out. In elementary school, it was being stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean. In junior high, it was a soap opera about my friends’ angst-ridden love lives. And now, everything around me begs to be written down.

I have notebooks filled with ideas, fragments of stories begun in my computer. I have endless first lines and last lines, just waiting for me to sit down and complete them. I have a little notebook in my purse, and I’ve been saying for years that I was going to by a mini tape recorder, to grab onto the thoughts as soon as I have them.

Every now and then I finish something. And this past year, I’ve even managed to submit a few for publication or competition. So far, I’ve gotten nothing but a few nicely worded but stinging rejections.

The problem is that I let myself go for long lapses without writing anything at all. The solution, really, is simple. I need to write—to find whatever time I can, and write.

“But I’m tired,” I whine. “I don’t have time to write.”

I go to work every morning at nine, come home around six and make myself dinner. Some nights I watch a favorite TV show, or hang out with my boyfriend. I clean my room, chat with my roommates, call my mother. Anything but write. In fact, here I sit two days before this article is due, cursing myself for volunteering to write it.

The one thing that comforts me, somewhat, is knowing that I’m not alone. In his book If You Can Talk, You Can Write, Joel Saltzman addresses the problem.

“Strange as it seems, writers love to bitch about writing and they will do anything to avoid it. They’ll check the mail, do the dishes, check the mail again-anything to not have to sit down and actually get to work.”

We all do it. We all make excuses. But the fact of the matter is this: the only way to be a writer is to write. Stephen King wrote his first two novels in the laundry room of his double-wide, after teaching high school English all day. John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill longhand on yellow legal pads during courtroom breaks.

In order to quit whining and start writing, we need to figure out what’s stopping us. I know for me, one of the biggest obstacles is fear; the fear that I won’t be any good. What if I try and I fail at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do? This fear manifests itself as “negative self-talk”. In other words, we convince ourselves that we’re no good before we even get started. If we want to get anywhere, we need to shut off our internal editors long enough to write something.

Another common obstacle, which Saltzman addresses in his book, is the drive to be perfect, to “get it right the first time.” His advice? Insist on not being a perfectionist. Too much focus on getting it perfect results in writing paralysis. No one gets it right the first time. Even award-winning authors have to rewrite.

It’s simple, really. The more we write, the better chance we have of writing something good. In Saltzman’s words, it’s like this:

“Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah.
Blah, blah, blah……GOLD!”

Write a whole bunch. Write some more. Then throw out the crap and keep what’s good.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he advises us to set aside a place for writing, and to be willing to shut the door and write. Writing is a job, and it needs to be treated that way. As King says, “don’t wait for the muse.” Just keep writing.

Does it take discipline? Patience? Sure it does. Doesn’t anything worth doing? But once we start writing, I believe we’ll find it’s easier to write than to NOT write.

So next time you sit down to write, do these things:

  1. Shut off your “inner editor”
  2. Don’t try to be perfect
  3. WRITE!

Everything else will come with practice.

Now maybe we’ll never be as rich and famous as King or Grisham. Maybe we’ll never win a Pulitzer like Toni Morrison. But at least we’ll have written. And for a writer, having written is the best feeling in the world.