I once taught at a jock/ drinking school in upstate New York. The town was depressed. While once the Finger Lakes had provided commerce, now only the college did so, and as a result, there were about twelve different bars but no place to buy shoes, for example. Anyway, I taught creative writing there, and my first round of students became very frustrated with me because they expected me to teach them how to be creative. I had mistakenly assumed that being young people, they needed only encouragement, channeling and response to their vibrant, overflowing creativity. I taught them craft. I taught them fruitful critique. But I suppose I did not teach them creativity. I still hold that we are chock full of creative impulse. One of my favorite stories about this (but I forget its source, sorry to say) was the woman who told her little girl that she had a new job: she was going to teach drawing to adults. “You mean they forgot how?” the little girl asked.
That’s about what happens, I think. We forget how to tell stories–well, maybe not to cops who pull us over for speeding or to spouses who suspect us of flirting with an old flame or to auditors, but in more abstract contexts. I sympathize. How, Annie Dillard asks, on an ordinary day do we set ourselves spinning? (Quoting from memory here with apologies . . .)
Here’s a list of ways you might begin. Try one a day for a month. Pull them out when you need them. They come from my own teaching and writing, and they come from the many amazing writers who’ve taught me, in person or through their wonderful books (or both). So, ten at a time, here are
Thirty Shots at Creative Inspiration
The Fine Art and Grunt Work of Inspiration
Exercises invented or collected by Elizabeth Stark (with thanks to my teachers, in person and in books: Gil Dennis, Natalie Goldberg, John Gardner, Joyce Johnson, Stephanie Moore, Eileen Myles, A.M. Holmes, Gloria Anzaldua, Ken Atchity, Buchi Emecheta, Angie Powers and probably some others on the way . . .)
The following are suggestions. Mix and match. Try some; try all. Modify to suit yourself. Rebel and do something else. Just write, write, write.
Some useful tools: notebook, ideas file in your computer, index cards, timer, unlined paper.
1. Carry a notebook and pen with you at all times. Jot down inspiration, flashes, ideas, observations, overheard anything, memories, and so on. Keep a list of things you want to write in the front or back of your notebook. Add to it as you think of ideas. Turn to it when you are ready to write.
2. “Free write.” No editing, judging, erasing, thinking, worrying about spelling and grammar or even about making sense. Time yourself. Grab a starting line from a book, poem, newspaper, or from your own writing–something you want to expand. Play.
3. A)Write the story of your life from birth to now in five minutes. Time it. Go. If possible, read it to someone.
B) Now do it again–write the story of your life in five minutes from birth to now–without mentioning any of the same events.
C)Try it one more time, for five minutes, going backwards, from now to birth.
4. Write a table of contents of your life.
5. Write down the story of your most joyous or triumphant moment. Your most terrifying moment. Your saddest moment.
6. Write a letter (e-mail?) to someone to whom you no longer speak. Write a letter to someone you hate. Write a letter to a character from a book or movie. Write a letter to someone you’d like to meet.
7. Write down your dreams. Before you go to bed, put out a notebook and pen by your bed. At the top of the page, write, “Dreams” and the date. When you wake up, write down everything you remember. Do this every day for a week. A month. You will find that you remember more and more, and you will need more time to write in the morning!
8. Eavesdrop. Go to a cafe, ride the bus, or just sit in class before it starts and listen to what people are saying. Take notes. Remember to include gestures, expressions and actions (if you can see the person).
9. Write a list of questions you do not know the answers to, but which matter to you: your real questions about the world, life, anything. Now pick one and write down anything that might be part of the answer: memories, images, imagined interactions, characters. Invent a character who knows the answer and have him or her tell you his/ her story.
10. Find a news story in the paper or online that catches your attention. Write from the point of view of one of the people in the story. Tell what isn’t in the article. Write from another point of view about the same story.
Let me know if you try any of these . . . or what else works for you.
Join me and the wonderful, warm, smart and funny community at http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses for Building Your Book, a revision and editing course. Early enrollment discounts in effect through Dec. 21, 2008.