Tag Archive | "creativity"

Five ways to brainstorm creative solutions

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Five ways to brainstorm creative solutions

mind mapBrainstorming: when the storyteller rushes the brain for as many ideas as possible. Requires getting past the censors–the modest censor and the critical censor–and letting it rip. Here are five ways to move past stuck.

1) Mindmap. Put each idea in a circle with related ideas connected by lines, and sub-ideas coming off of the main idea like petals off a flower . . .

2) Make lists. Don’t cross off while brainstorming. Just put everything down. Organize and cull later.

3) Draw. Use pastels or crayons and big paper and let your intuitive “child” brain figure it out through play.

4) Write the five worst ideas you can think of–what you DON’T want to write. Then look at the specific opposites of each of those ideas and see if they appeal to you.

5) Borrow/ steal. Use models–books and movies you love–for structure ideas, and insert your own original content. It worked for Shakespeare. Come up with several models, not just one.

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The Three Trick

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The Three Trick

crossroadsPerfectionism plague you? Or just indecision? In fiction or even in non-fiction narrative (e.g. memoir), there are so many choices, possibilities limited only by imagination (for fiction) and memory/ your druthers (for non) . . . Where to start? Where to end? What to include? What to make happen? How to introduce your characters? How to paint your setting?

Drafting will, you think, nail down your story. But revision forces a new vision, and again, all doors open, all worlds beckon.

You’d think that if the problem were an embarrassment of riches, the answer would be discipline, restriction. But no. The answer is to write more. Sigh. Isn’t that always the answer?

Seriously, though: if you are trying to figure something out about your book, instead of struggling and reaching for the right, the best, answer, come up with a list. Three possible endings. Seven ways to up the stakes. Five ways to turn the scene. Sometimes, you’ll find a way to use more than one, and sometimes you’ll find your way to the one that excites and moves you. But you won’t be stuck anymore. And chances are, you’ll loosen up and arrive at options you would not otherwise have considered.

This is how we move from trying to get it right to getting it written!

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Exercising Your Writes: A Protocol for Daily Activity

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Exercising Your Writes: A Protocol for Daily Activity

Outside our house, they are cutting down a very tall pine tree. It’s rather terrifying from in here, aside from being a rather loud nap environment for the boys. Every so often, we hear from outside, “Whoops,” which is not what you like when you are lying in bed not the height of that tree from all the action. Lengths of rope stretch the four or five stories to the top of the tree. Sawdust falls from the sky like cardboard snow that someone forgot to paint. These guys have been at it all day, first removing the limbs, themselves as big as trees, littering our yard with branches and pine cones and shouting.

I’ve been thinking about exercise. Thinking about exercise; perhaps my life goal is to be sure that this is not an apt title for my memoir. Because thinking about exercise is a lot like thinking about writing. Or thinking about having children. Even thinking about thinking is a poor substitute for thinking, as David Allen, guru of getting things done, will tell you.

I’ll tell you what the guys out in the neighbor’s yard in their yellow hardhats will not be doing after work today. When they’ve wrestled this giant old pine to the ground and hauled the logs and rounds out to the truck and raked the debris from our yard and the one next door, they will not head over to the gym. Do some laps. Take in an exercycle class or monitor their heart rates as they jump aerobically.

Exercise used to be a part of all our lives, essential to all our survival. It still is essential to our survival, but by dint of trying to survive we do not all get the workout these tree climbers have.

I propose that creativity–storytelling, imagining, asking and answering the questions whose answers we do not know–used also to be integrated daily into our lives, accomplished by the very mechanics of our survival. At the very least, we did not have earphones and iPhones as we gathered and hunted. We had only the bare world and what we made of it plus our own invention. Imagine if we had to create as much entertainment/ information/ ideas as we currently consume on the internet, on television, on the radio, in the newspaper, in books, email, magazines, on the kindle . . . It’s not so different from looking in your refrigerator and imaging that you’d planted and harvested, raised and slaughtered everything you find there. You sure as heck wouldn’t need to go to the gym.

But my point is not that we should all wander around trying to find something edible and avoid our hip-hop dance classes. No way. I think it’s great that we’ve developed ways to make up for our new sedentary lifestyles.  (I will say that having a baby is a great way to stay in shape right up until they start running around on their own and you can stay at a distance and watch them, eating chocolate to stay awake. Then it all goes to hell in a gym bag . . . ) So we join gyms, sports teams, dojos, baby brigades, dance classes, pilates studios. We get personal trainers, have coaches, teachers, life guards and workout buddies. If we don’t, it’s usually not on principle. If we can go it alone and do, great. If we don’t, we feel proud to get ourselves into an activity that gets the job done.

Then we go home and think that we should do our writing all by ourselves, that it should pour from our pens already perfect. But writing is not an olympic performance; writing is exercise. If you break a sweat, count the session a success. If you ache afterwards, know that you are getting stronger. If your heart races, if your breathing deepens, you are doing well.

Imagine an athlete going out to learn to skate and expecting to pull of an Olympic performance. Hell, Olympic performers don’t expect to pull those off in the rehearsal the day before. But writers expect this of themselves. We sit down to write and we are looking for those sentences to shape up something like Garcia-Marquez or Morrison or Dillard. What we really need to worry about is this: are my fingers moving at the keyboard (or holding the pen)? Am I reaching for an image, pressing a moment to the page and then another? Forget Hemingway and Faulkner and Junot Diaz. They didn’t write like Hemingway and Faulkner and Diaz on the first draft, or on the second one, either.

Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. An interviewer asked him, what was the problem? I couldn’t get the words right, he said.

You are warming up. Getting strong. Building muscle. We’re lucky in that if a little piece of pure Olympic gold slips out, we can important that into a more virtuoso location, save it for when the judges and the audience come out and we change from our sweatpants into our sequined, backless mini-dress. But right now, we are running laps. Stretching. Doing jumping jacks. That feeling that the writing sucks? Think of it as the good, good ache you get when you work out harder than you have in a long time. Yeah, it hurts. Good.

Need your own writer’s gym?

Revision workshop starts January 15. There are a couple of spaces left.

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Thirty Shots at Creative Inspiration: Part One

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.

Part One

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.

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Past Tense

It’s a gorgeous, sunny day and we just got back from the Berkeley Farmers’ Markey. Today the park there was also hosting the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which meant kids and old people and everyone out there fiddling and singing and wearing odd costumes, whilst people in booths sold hemp bibs and handmade soaps and vintage bingo chip earrings. Not sure the relationship between these items and old time music, but my favorite t-shirt read, “Dirty Kids Conserve Water.” In our house, with water rationing levels set during the time when the house was empty after my father died and bath times getting rarer what with everything else that fills up a day, this shirt is more sincere slogan than joke . . .

When you live in other places, places with dense humidity sometimes and deep snow other times, you long for the pure pleasure of living in Northern California. When you live among the ambitious, people who pursue and promote their art the way any fierce trader on Wall Street pursues wealth (I imagine), you long for the pure, child-like pleasure these people–my people, I suppose–take in creativity and sunshine and a good tune.

When you are here, you congratulate yourself for remembering to buy vegetables (and not just ice cream) at the Farmers’ Market; you feel vaguely contented and you don’t think too much about it.

But I did not always live here. One year, I lived in Geneva, New York, a very small town with about twelve bars and no shoe stores on the shores of the Finger Lakes. (When I got the job teaching at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, my sister called me and said, “I can’t believe you are moving to Switzerland.” Other Geneva, I told her.) I lived in an inexpensive, two-bedroom apartment; the radiator leaked and mushrooms grew underneath it, large toadstools that appeared in one night and had to be plucked from the carpet. I lived there without a television or a partner, and as a result, I made friends with everyone on campus–the queer faculty, and the old emeritus professors who still came to the lunchroom on Fridays, the students from the city who couldn’t afford to go home on breaks, so we had poetry slams instead, and each and every visiting professor, writer and thinker who passed through our auditorium to give a talk and stayed for a super at the old Victorian mansion on the hill.

Reginal Shepherd came one day. I taught some of his poems in my freshman literature class. They were dense, deep poems that rewarded study, and I am glad I taught them because it made me give them their due. He was charming and just nice–teaching at another isolated upstate college–and we decided to be friends. We liked each other. But then the next year I went to Brooklyn, and then my father was going to do chemo and I went back to California (I’d been longing for the weather and the simple creativity and pleasure and all of that). I never saw him again.

And then last week on Facebook, someone posted that he was sad because Reginald Shepherd had died. I googled him and found his blog, with its last posting on Aug. 26, 2008, from the hospital.

I found this link:


offering a copy of his last chapbook. At first I thought, well, that wouldn’t be for me, but then later I thought, why not? So I asked for one and it’s been sent to me. I’ll let you know when I’ve had the chance to read it. The way the man saw slices of the world is left behind for us, poems and writings . . .

I believe in the life-and-death system–I mean, I believe it is the way things are (the way some people believe in god and some people believe in santa claus), and I also believe, intellectually, that it’s probably a very good way to organize things, probably makes our days on earth precious in a way that they would not be were they infinite. But as more and more people I knew die, I have to say, on a personal level, I really do not like the system. It’s okay with me that we move around and lose touch, but I want everyone out there–on Facebook, say–close to my fingertips, if only in reach of the keyboard.

Allen Berube was a teacher of mine one quarter at USCS. He taught “Queer Life and Social Change,” and I think his class shaped the rest of the work I’ve done since then. Vito Russo had taught at UCSC the year before and then died, of AIDS, and so people were very emotional at the end of the quarter, when it was time for Allen to go back to San Francisco. And Allen brought up Vito Russo and his recent death, and he made us a promise: “I am not going to die of AIDS,” he said.

He was right. Allen Berube died this year–at 61, I believe–but not of AIDS.

Thanks for the company in that upstate winter, Reginald, and for the beauty of your vision; thanks for the lessons in ways of looking at the world, Allen, and seeing beyond the history we’d been taught before. Thanks for crossing paths with me on this brief journey we call life, and showing me what it means to do meaningful work. Rest in peace.

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