Tag Archive | "Eileen Myles"

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Ten More Shining Inspirational Exercises Or, Thirty Shots at Creative Inspiration, Part Three


You could be writing, right now. I remember spending a strange evening in a hotel room with a somewhat famous poet. She read me Gertrude Stein and made me want to write. I guess people don’t usually take you up to their hotel rooms because they want to make you want to write. She wasn’t inspired to write with me, and I ended up leaving shortly thereafter to drive the long, dark highways of upstate New York to my own apartment with no television in a town with no bookstores.

What makes you want to write? Is it the same thing as what makes you actually write?

Knowing what makes you work–and not the fantasy you have about what makes you work–is very useful for a writer. Supporting the habits you have–and not the habits you wish you had–takes a lot less energy and provides a lot more creative productivity. In other words, spend your time writing, not changing the way you write.

If it helps to fool yourself, you could pick up a pen right now. Really, you are reading this blog, surfing the net, waiting to refresh the status list of your Facebook friends to see who else has posted. But at the same time, let’s say you were holding a pen or opening a blank document on your computer and carelessly, haphazardly throwing down some words, right there on a page or screen. Here are ten more places you might begin. But you can begin anywhere. Any time. You can begin now.

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 . . .)

21. Interview people about their lives. People actually love to talk about themselves. Ask about sensate details, about motivations and desires, about changes and turning points, about extreme emotions and challenges. Learn about the details of a place or profession or time that you don’t know about. Then write fiction and feel free to invent beyond what you’ve been told (so long as you aren’t passing it off as fact).

22. Go to the library. Wander the stacks with your notebook or index cards. Research a subject you know nothing about. Let the research seep into you, then emerge in your writing.

23. Use horoscopes from the newspaper or online to create characters and stories.

24. Create a deck of writing cards: ten brief character sketches, ten locations, and ten objects–one each on index cards. Shuffle each pile of index cards, and then draw two characters, a location and an object. Make both your characters compete for the object in the location.

25. Play, “what if?” Imagine roads not taken, for yourself or for other people you know. Imagine yourself or others to have different characteristics or circumstances. What if you won the lottery? What if your greatest dream came true and it didn’t make you happy? What if your deepest fear manifested? What if you had never . . . met a certain person, moved to a certain place, had a certain opportunity or loss? You can ask these and other “what if?” questions of any number of characters.

26. Take an ordinary object: a dollar bill from your wallet, a pair of socks, an antique desk. Imagine its history, the people who’ve handled or used or made it, their desires and hopes, their lives.

27. Write nonsense. Use real words and sentence structure, but let go of meaning altogether. Or look at a text in a foreign language you don’t understand and “translate” it. What might it mean?

28. Think of two irreconcilable goods or two irreconcilable evils. Now put a character in the situation of having to choose between them.

29. Listen to a song or even a piece of music with no lyrics and write the story you hear there.

30. Make up your own exercises. Writing will teach you to write and will show you what you think.

Tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008) is the end of my early enrollment discount for Building Your Book, an online revision and editing course. Come join this wonderful, warm, smart community of people writing books, and finish your book in 2009!


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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

OR

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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Depravation, God and Grammar: Thoughts on Hatemail and Writing


It’s a funny day. The fog gathered around my house this morning, turning everything gray and soft. Now the sun has broken through, but inside my head it still feels gray and soft. I’m in a different library, in the teen room, surrounded by the books that formed me. When I was a child, my father mostly read Scientific American and The New Yorker, and my mother read books about healthy diets and finances and thing. I didn’t know there were adult novels when I was little–though I was delighted to learn that there were.

What are the stories burning inside you? What are the books you desperately want to read that do not exist?

I put an ad on Craigslist for a babysitter and received, along with a passel of nice replies, the following:

“Who gave you the right to have kids? Under Gods law only a man and a women can have kids/raise kids, poor kids what example r u setting foe their future ? In school for instance, ohh yes I have 2 moms, right? They are going to ask, where is your father. Find God get them a real father, meaning! Get a man stop this sin, God made the woman for the man to rule this earth not the sick and depravation you are causing. Find God, you still have time to repent”

My own righteousness lies all in the practice of grammar, I suppose. Perhaps school is to grammar as church is to god. There are lots of people who go to school and learn nothing about grammar. There are lots of people who go to school everyday, but who do not care about grammar one little bit. On the other hand, there are people who forget that all human languages have grammar; school is not required for grammar to flourish. We humans develop systems for understanding each other whenever we gather together.

This is what I have to say to the man who is concerned about the depravation I am causing.

A long time ago, before I knew her, I took a class with Eileen Myles, and she had us watch an old movie with the sound turned off and to write as we watched. We were narrating the movie, essentially. Similarly, I could list off for you the titles of some of the books around me, and you could pick one and write your own book from it, or a short story at least. Angie listens to music when she writes–all kinds of music. I listen to interviews with writers while I clean the kitchen. My point, however, out of the soft gray fog of my brain (oh and I was leafing through Faulkner just now, which didn’t help), is that sometimes having two tracks running–the one you are imbibing and the one you are creating–can move you in different directions than just the silence of your own mind.

How does it feel to be hated?

Unfriendly, to be sure.

I was leafing through Light in August to see if I could map Aristotle’s incline across it. For example: There are 507 pages in the Vintage paperback edition I am holding, the one with the gold and burnt umber cover with a picture of a road on it. This one also has a sticker with a list of dates stamped and penned in (library book) and a Summer 2005 Selection sticker from Oprah’s Book Club (Faulkner being less able to object that the arrogant living writer who’d rejected her attentions). In any case, the midpoint of a 507 page novel should fall somewhere around page 254. Chapter 12 begins on 256 with the line, “In this way the second phase began.”

There is a mathematics to literature as there is to music.

I just finished reading A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon, who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I wrote in my newsletter tip about his excellent use of sensate detail. The whole books was visual; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it was nearly a film. Haddon has a background in writing film, so that may explain it. It was a funny and fast read–much like watching a romantic comedy with, say, Hugh Grant. (He could play the gay son, I think, or the sister’s fiance if he wanted to step out of type.) Omniscient narration with short chapters that spun among the main characters.

Haddon did a great job of pushing the story as far as it could go without becoming science-fiction or horror or something. Within its genre, I mean, he really let things happen and get bad and then worse and then . . . because it is a romantic comedy . . . better at long last.

Forgive this rambling little blog entry this morning. It is time to go retrieve the boys from the park and the babysitter and go have lunch. I leave you with five ideas for planning your novel, in case you, too, are going to start writing one in the next three or four days:

1) Write out everything you know about the book.

2) Write out everything you do not know about the book.

3) Make a list of twenty concrete images, scenes, people, moments that you want to include.

4) If you are stuck on a point, write out five different ways to solve it.

5) Ask yourself what you believe: what truths do you hold to be self-evident? Make a story up about that. Be sure you put that contrary character in there–the one who things that your best, most human self is a deprivation before god.


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