The chest of a thousand drawers lived for years in a shadowy alcove between my grandparents’ kitchen and their downstairs hall. Actually, it didn’t have a thousand drawers, but since I never actually counted the number of drawers, and since the contents always seemed so mysterious to me, it may as well have been a thousand.
The chest was not very tall. It came up to my shoulders as an 11-year-old, was made of some kind of grayish metal with silver handles and little silver-edged boxes and on the front of each drawer that was clearly designed to hold some sort of label to describe the contents of the drawer. None of the squares had any labels. It was wedged under a shelf that had originally been designed to hold one of those old telephones with the mouthpiece on a stand and the earpiece you would hold up to your ear, but which now held a jumble of photo albums and old phone books.
I could and sometimes did spend hours rummaging through those many drawers and their intriguing, though sometimes unidentifiable contents, which seemed almost fluid in that I rarely found the same thing in the same drawer twice. And sometimes it seemed as if the entire contents of the chest had been replaced overnight.
In those drawers, over the years I found an ever-changing assortment of everyday items including (but not limited to); nails, screws, safety pins, bits of sandpaper, magnets, scraps of paper, some with writing on them, some blank and no two pieces the same, stubs of pencils, leaky batteries, hairpins, naked crayon pieces, knotted shoelaces, unopened packets of alcohol swabs, foam curlers, rusty screwdrivers of various sizes, paint brushes, yellowed index cards, the pieces of what must once have been a transistor radio, tassels from the living room draperies, an unopened packet of toothpicks still in its cellophane wrapping, random partially burned birthday candles, long expired coupons, a good number of buttons booth lose and still attached to papers, half used packets of garden seeds, stickers and petrified Christmas hard candies still wrapped in plastic.
Then there were the more unusual items that would seem to randomly turn up.
There was a tiny metal cylinder that moo’d like a cow when it was turned over. This had obviously belonged to some sort of toy and I felt a weird sort of guilt as I turned it over and over, wondering what toy was wandering around without its sound box, mute and unable to communicate with the world. This of all the items seemed always to be in the chest, though always in a different drawer.
Once I found a drawer full of random doll limbs and glass eyes that creeped me out so badly, I didn’t open the chest again for several weeks.
There was one day I discovered a stack of letters written on onion-thin paper and tied up with a faded green ribbon that was knotted so tight I never was able to get the knots open enough to free the letters, which I ended up putting back in the drawer unread.
Once I found a drawer full of leather scraps. The scraps were butter soft and hypnotic to the touch. I kept finding them (though in different drawers) for almost two whole weeks, and then they were gone. I opened every drawer in the cabinet three times that day looking for those amazing leather scraps. When I asked my grandfather about them, he claimed he’d never seen them. When I asked my grandmother, she just shrugged and said she wouldn’t be surprised at anything I found there.
When asked where the chest had come from, both of my grandparents gave the same sort of vague answers “oh we just picked it up somewhere” or “we’ve had that for years.” When I asked my mom about it, she shrugged and said that it had always been there when she was growing up. When I asked her if she remembered the contents changing, she said “well of course they change, people put things in and take things out. That’s what drawers are for.” When I tried to expound on what I meant, that the contents didn’t just change, like the normal contents of drawers, but sometimes seemed to change from day to day or from hour to hour, she got concerned and asked me if I was feeling okay. I never mentioned the drawers to her again.
My aunt found me rummaging one day and laughed when I told her about not being able to find the leather pieces. “That thing ate my paintbrushes once” she said, laughing. “I put them in the top drawer on the left-hand side, and when I went back the next day they were gone. Let me know if you find them, will you?”
“Did grandma take them maybe?”
“She claims she didn’t touch them. But someone did.”
“Maybe the chest did eat them!”
“Maybe it did at that.”
In spite of the possibility of its actually eating the things put into the drawers, I was never afraid of the chest. To my 11-year-old brain, the idea that it was somehow alive in some way seemed a better explanation than just the idea of regular people putting things in and taking things out, and though I was intrigued by it, I never put anything of my own in it, just in case.
I don’t know what happened to the chest of a thousand drawers. After my grandfather died and my grandmother, mom and I moved to a smaller house, I never saw it again. I have to assume that it had served its purpose in our family and had now ‘moved on’ to another home where some other 11-year-old is rummaging through its drawers, their curiosity sparking over items they have no name for and coming up with stories to tell themselves about the piles of old letters and odd bits of partially carved wood.
I chopped off my finger.
Well, ok, I didn’t quite chop it off though at the time it certainly felt like it. I did slice it up pretty good though and deep enough that should probably have stitches, but having just enough frugal Mainer in my bloodstream I couldn’t bring myself to go into the walk-in-clinic with its $50 co-pay or heaven forbid the $100 co-pay they milk you for at the Emergency Room just to have someone stick some skin glue on and send me home.
So, there I was, swearing profusely as I dripped bright red blood onto the kitchen cupboard, the floor, my shirt, the cat and my unsuccessfully cut Asiago bagel from Panera. Yeah, I know, I should have gotten it pre-sliced, but it tends to dry out if you do that and don’t eat it right away, so there is that.
My first instinct was to rinse it off under the faucet (my finger, not the bagel). Wrong move, that just made it bleed more freely and now there was blood all over the kitchen sink and not a few of the dishes drying in the drainer.
I kid you not with this bleeding thing. I never knew that a finger had so much blood in its tip! What does the body do, store extra blood in the extremities or something? Is this what the old stories meant when they told someone to sign in blood? Except that it wouldn’t do too well for precision penmanship, more like “blot marks the spot.”
I finally got my wits in some semblance of order and wrapped the dripping digit tight in paper towel, which of course immediately soaked through, which surprised me. This was Viva, the cloth version not that “multi surface” variety they keep putting on sale in the hopes that it will sell.
Viva is amazing, my daughter did a science project years ago determining which paper towel was the strongest. The project involved like eight kinds of paper towels (both wet and dry) and a number of DD batteries dropped onto the towels from a distance of like three feet. I don’t remember if she won any awards for her project but it did convince me that Viva was where it was at, strength wise, and I’ve used it ever since, even though it costs more than the average household paper towel. It also soaks up fluid like a son-of-a-gun, so seeing the blood soak through almost immediately almost sent me into a panic. Just how much blood was losing, anyway?
So, I wrapped it again in a double dose of fresh paper towels and sat on the kitchen chair for a full twenty minutes glaring at the crimson splashes all over the floors and cupboards and (so sorry dude!) the cat. What a mess! I also glared at my phone, which I can work one handed when it comes to scrolling, but have not been able to figure out how to text one-handed yet. Even the damned phone had crimson streaks across the screen. I swear, the props set for a Stephen King horror story couldn’t have done a better job in creating a more realistic “crazy person goes on a hacking spree” movie set. Well, maybe a Stephen King would have contained more body parts, or at least a few credible monsters. Come to think of it, with the blood in his whiskers the cat could definitely have passed himself off as a blood drinking monster of some sort. When two more swatches of paper towel remained blood-free I finally took myself into the bathroom to assess the damage.
Yep, it was a nasty cut. It started at the outside edge of my finger and had sliced straight down to the fingernail. In fact, it was most likely the fingernail that kept it from actually slicing the entire tip off my finger altogether. Poking at it a bit I could see that it had a nice flap that opens up to…no, I don’t want to look too deep. Seeing inside of my own skin gives me the creeps. I mean, I’ve always known that there is stuff inside of the skin, but any time that the skin barrier is breached and the insides start poking out, I am so done. On the bright side, my fingernails must be pretty tough. That was a sharp knife from a new set we just bought a month ago. Now I can revel in feeling justified in believing that fingernails are good for more than painting red and sharpening into pseudo claws for spontaneous cat fights in office coffee break rooms.
A goodly splash of hydrogen peroxide caused Mt. Vesuvius to explode, bubble and froth from my finger (cue more Viva) and then a healthy smear of antibiotic ointment and two Band-Aids overlapping to keep everything together. The first pair bled through in about five minutes. But after that, things slowed down. Finally. I must say, I must have a goodly dose of blood in me, because in spite of the splashes and droplets everywhere I didn’t feel in the least woozy.
Of course, getting the kitchen cleaned up was a chore unto itself. I won’t even begin to discuss the issues with getting the blood off of the cat’s head and back. I did catch him licking it out of his whiskers with seeming relish, so now I’ll have to keep one eye open when I sleep to make sure that he doesn’t become a maneater now that he’s tasted human blood. Maybe that only applies to big cats in the wild, but I’m taking no chances.
I’m also taking no chances in cutting a bagel with just my hands and a knife anymore. I’m picking up a bagel slicer today. And more Viva, because I’m pretty sure I used up most of a roll.
In case you were waiting for a moral for this incident. Sorry to disappoint, for there isn’t one, unless it is to keep your wits about you when attempting to slice round objects with sharp pointy things. Or invest in a bagel slicer. Or maybe just avoid the little devils altogether or have the cashier at Panera slice them up for you.
Anyway, thanks for listening to this random note from the life of JustSteph, watch out for random bagels, sharp knives, blood-thirsty cats, and enjoy your weekend if you can!
At first glance the concept of writing a short story seems to be simple. You have a story to tell. You sit down, pull up an empty page, and write it. So, why is it that so many people get as far as sitting down and opening up a new document, but then freeze up? So many times an individual knows what they want to say, but when it comes to actually putting it down in words it gets stuck somewhere between the their imagination and the fingers hovering over the keyboard. So, how do you get from here (an idea percolating in your head) to there (a completed story)? One of the best ways to do this is to start by creating a synopsis.
Begin With a Synopsis
A synopsis is a short summary of the story that you are writing. In order to create a working synopsis, it is necessary to ask yourself some questions to help you get all of your proverbial ducks in a row. The questions can be summed up with the following five phrases: Somebody. Somewhere. Wants Something. But. So.
The Five Questions
1). Somebody: Who is the main character of your story? Describe them in detail. What do they look like? How do they talk? What do they wear? What are their good qualities? What are their bad qualities? Yes, I know that is more than one question – but all of them come under the umbrella of the “somebody” who is your main character. The more detailed your character is in your mind, the more real they will come across in your writing.
Example: John is 18 years old. He is tall and lanky with sandy brown hair and freckles to match. He has a slight backwoods drawl to his speech and mostly wears jeans and t shirts, though he will wear a button down shirt for special occasions. He has just graduated from high school. He is polite and thoughtful but tends to be forgetful and is sometimes so caught up in his own world that he forgets what it is that he is supposed to be doing.
2). Somewhere: Where does your story take place? Describe the exact setting for your story. Is it a real location? A made up place? When does the story take place? What is the weather like? What is the scenery like? Are there Mountains? Oceans? Prairies? The more detailed you can be, the more real your story will seem to yourself and your readers.
Example: My story takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania, we will call it Hoboke. The town consists of just a few buildings, a town hall, a police station and a handful of stores, an elementary and high school and is nestled by a river that flows between rolling hills and while you can see mountains in the distance, they are a good ways away. The year is 1955. It is summertime and hot. The sidewalks are so hot they will burn your bare feet if you aren’t careful.
3). Wants Something: Every story is about someone that wants something. It can be as simple as that they are looking for directions on how to get to a specific location, or something as complex as that they are looking for world domination. Explain your characters goal or wish in the story including why it is that they want this particular thing.
Example: John has one great desire in life, and that is to go to travel and see the world. He would settle for seeing the United States, because he knows that there is more to life than one little Pennsylvania town, and he has to figure out a way to get what he wants.
4). But: If a person who wants something was able to get what they wanted with no problem, then there is not much of a story. A good story includes obstacles; challenges; hurdles that have to be overcome in order to achieve the goal. The BUT section is where you explain the problem in your story. Why is your character unable to meet their goal. What kinds of obstacles/challenges are they facing? Why is this a problem for them?
Example: In order to achieve his goal of seeing the world, John has to figure out a way to get what he wants. He does not have the grades or the money to attend college. He does not feel that he has the temperament to join the military. He has no real marketable skills that would land him a job if he were simply to get up and move to a new location.
5). So: Explain in detail how your character overcomes the problem/obstacle/challenge that they are facing. Be as detailed as possible.
Example: After weighing his options, John decides that he is going to use his life savings to simply take a visit the closest large city to see if there are any other options. After arriving in Philadelphia, PA by bus he gets robbed of all of his money and decides to hitchhike home. He is picked up by a 21 year old steel mill heiress who has just come in to her money and is off on a road trip adventure to California before she goes decides what she is going to do with her life and she asks him to come with her partly, because she likes him, partly because she wants to tick off her parents. They have many adventures on the trip and end up falling for each other by the time they reach the west coast where they decide to elope, much to the girl’s parents’ chagrin. While he didn’t actively attempt to overcome his obstacles to seeing more of the world, John inadvertently overcomes them by taking the step to go to the big town and go with the girl when she asks him to accompany her.
Using Your Synopsis
Once you have answered the five questions above, you will see that, if you put them all together, you have a synopsis of your story. It’s that easy!
Once you have linked the answers to the five questions together, you can use your synopsis to refer to as you are writing your story so that your characters, settings, conflicts and resolutions stay consistent throughout the telling. In fact, the longer your story is, the more important having a synopsis is so that you won’t forget the details.
Our society has a thing about being busy. We all complain about it, but simultaneously most of us take a weird, twisted sort of pride in it, as if, once we die, we will be able to wave the banner of busyness at the pearly gates and be guaranteed immediate entrance.
We all know the refrain; “I am so sorry, I’d really love to be able to help/go to/ see you with/at (fill in the blank) but I am really so busy, there is just no way to fit it in right now. Maybe next time?”
Most of us don’t take offense if someone uses the busy card. After all, we’ve all said it. We’ve all heard it. We all understand what it means. We know exactly what is going through someone’s head when they say it in a certain tone of voice. We might be a little hurt that they are too busy for us but really, we totally understand.
Yes, we all know what it feels like to be crazy busy; so busy that we hardly have time to brush our teeth, let alone floss. So busy that instead of sitting down for breakfast, we grab a muffin or bagel on our way out the door so as not to be late to work and then curse at the crumbs or coffee stains that get dribbled down our front. We spend out lunch break scarfing down something from a vending machine while making three different phone calls and checking our personal emails and bank deposits. We combine six errands on our way home from work, and, after eating a quick fix supper that we eat balanced on our knees while watching the evening news, we drop exhausted into bed at night with a whole list of things we wanted to do and never got to and feeling slightly guilty that we have to actually take time to sleep at all.
Weekends aren’t much better, especially for parents. Most times Saturday mornings are full of karate, dance or music lessons, afternoons are for soccer or football practices or games, Saturday nights are spent ferrying kids to parties, picking them up or dropping them off at movies or friends houses or hosting said parties and get togethers. Even those without kids end up most Saturdays running all the errands that couldn’t be done during the week and cursing out any business that doesn’t have Saturday hours because how on earth are we supposed to contact them when their business hours are the same as our working hours? (I’m looking at you doctor’s offices!)
And then there are Sundays. For those so inclined, Sundays may include Sunday School and/or church, which precludes any sleeping in and may go so far as to include pot lucks or afternoon services, and there goes your day.
For those not so inclined, it may be the one day of the week we get to actually sleep in, unless of course you have kids, or cats, in which case you will be getting up at the same time of day as the rest of the week unless you want to be jumped on or poked awake with carefully calculated claws. Maybe, just maybe you will have time to actually get some housecleaning done, or run the car through the car wash, do some yard work, or maybe get a start on cleaning out that closet. Or maybe not. Maybe you will just spend Sunday afternoon in your pajamas, binge watching some show that takes you away from all the stresses and ridiculousness of the week. But sooner or later on Sunday, usually just after 3 p.m., you will get that sinking feeling that tells you that you only have a few precious hours left until it is time to get ready for the new week and start the whole routine over again.
Why do we do it?
Why do we insist on keeping ourselves so busy that we never seem to have time for anything that truly rests or refreshes us? When did we forget what it is like to simply take time for ourselves to rest and recharge our batteries? Why is self-care so rarely on our list of priorities?
It is easy enough to say that we are too busy to take time for ourselves. We can even justify it by saying that our obligations to our work, our families, our church or whatever other groups we are involved in, preclude us from spending any time on frivolous self-indulgences.
The real problem is in our determination to insist to ourselves that any time spent on self-care is “self-indulgence.” Oh sure, we might find that we can justify a daily trip to the gym (have to be able to fit into those pants!) or a once-a-month trip to a hair salon (can’t be looking shaggy/have my roots showing at work!) But how long has it been since you truly did anything for yourself; anything that can in no way be justified as necessary, but which makes you feel absolutely amazing?
It is said that the Italians have a saying; “Il dolce far niente”, which can be translated as “the sweetness of doing nothing”. While there is some argument as to whether it is actually an Italian term or if it was devised by English speakers of the 1800’s in describing what they saw as Italians’ laid-back approach to life, the fact remains that the idea of “doing nothing” or, more accurately, taking time to unwind and recharge, has a distinct appeal, an appeal that is backed up by psychology.
“Taking care of yourself means compassionately accepting yourself for who you are instead of burning yourself out trying to be everything to everyone all the time. It’s living your life in a way that doesn’t leave you needing to check out or take a break just so you can have a bath, read a book, or sip tea.”Psychology Today, April 23, 2021
The problem is, our society is so focused on busyness and accomplishment that if we purposefully slow down our pace (let alone taking time out altogether) we get hit with a wave of guilt over all of the things that we could have been doing; of all the time ‘wasted.’
But time spent on recharging your personal batteries is never time wasted. After all, you can’t get any mileage out of a car that has no fuel, and you feel no guilt over spending the time to pull into a gas station or hook up to a recharging station. Neither should you feel guilty over taking the time to refill your own inner battery. In fact, if it feels better, tell yourself that by taking time every day to recharge you are being proactive, because it is a known fact that if you refuse to take time to rest and regroup, eventually your body will break down and force you to rest. It will give you no choice.
So don’t wait to be forced into taking care of yourself. Find the time now to recharge. Do it today. Do whatever it takes to replenish your battery; Stop and smell the roses. Take a walk in the forest. Sit on the beach and watch the waves come in. Plant a garden. Go cloud watching. Splash in the mud puddles. Dance in the rain. Stare into the eyes of your cat. Whatever makes you happy; whatever makes your soul smile and fills you with awe and wonder, make time to do that. You will be happy that you did.
Words are powerful things.
Nearly every ancient culture has traditions telling of “words of power” that were used to focus divine power or harness specific earth energies in order to bring about a desired effect.
For millennia these words were closely guarded secrets. Only those initiated into a specific tradition were allowed to hear or write the word and learn how to direct its use. In fact, some cultures were so protective of their traditions that they forbade writing anything down and instead directed their followers to memorize all of their wisdom in order to prevent any uninitiated person from learning their trade secrets.
For generations, memorization and the oral tradition was the name of the game. Even once cultures became large enough that they needed to use alphabets and numbers to keep track of harvests and seasons and incomes and taxes, many mystery traditions insisted that their adherents only pass their secrets down by word of mouth.
As many mystery traditions began losing followers, either because of encroaching religions or invading armies, their adherents began using the written word to record their closely guarded secrets so that those secrets would not be lost altogether. But it was only with the invention of the printing press that major inroads into information previously passed down strictly through oral tradition began being made.
Today we tend to view the written word with a lot less wonder and amazement then did the people of ancient civilizations. In fact, everywhere you look there seem to be words written down; in books and magazines, on internet sites and online shops, on billboards and newspaper advertisements, on food labels and even the tags on pillows.
In fact, words in general seem to have lost so much of their power and ability to entrance and enchant, that many people find the written word to be boring. I mean, why bother writing down what you are thinking when you can do a quick Tik Tok, Facebook reel or Instagram video instead? But in spite of modern society’s blasé attitude toward words in general and the written word in particular, if you look carefully, you can still see just how much power those words still have over us.
Have you ever been moved to tears when reading a story about a child or an animal who had been abused or abandoned and then been rescued by some loving individual? Have you ever found your heart hurting as you read reports of death and destruction from whatever war or conflict is currently the center of media focus? Have you ever found yourself stirred to a love of your country by reading the transcript of a great leader’s speech, feeling annoyed as a politician recites everything that is wrong with society, or rooting for a specific cause after reading an activist’s plea? The stronger your emotional reaction to what you read, the more skilled you will find the writer of what you are reading.
Social media in particular is very much a public display of the power of words, even in a society to whom words in general are not of much consequence. With just a sharply worded comment you can cut someone down to size, shame them publicly, belittle them, or even goad them into committing suicide.
On the flip side, the right words can uncover the truth, help to bring peace, bolster someone’s self-esteem, encourage others to be their best selves and even save lives. Its all a matter of what we choose to do with the words that we use; whether we choose to use those words to spread fear and anger and intolerance, or to encourage love, peace and inclusion.
So, as you develop your skills as a word wizard, remember that the power of the written word is not something to be taken lightly. In addition to choosing your words carefully as you create worlds and the people who populate them, as you describe a product or a place or recall an event to share you’re your readers, remember to also think carefully before posting that scathing comment, belittling critique or sarcastic response.
Being honest or authentic in our responses does not require us to be cruel. It is quite possible that the words you choose, especially as you become skilled in how to provoke certain emotional responses from your readers, can have as much power as the ancients believed their own special, magical words to have on others and the world around them.
The choice of how you use your words is, of course, always up to you.
Most everyone has heard some version of the story of Rumpelstiltskin; where the miller bragged to the king that his daughter was so clever that she could spin straw into gold? The king of course, being the greedy sort of ruler that he was, had her immediately imprisoned in a cell filled with straw and a spinning wheel and commanded to spin the straw into gold before morning on pain of death. She can’t. She cries. A weird little man appears and says he’ll do it for her if she gives him her necklace. She gives it to him. He spins the straw into gold. The king wants more and the demand is made again and again, day after day, until the girl has nothing left to give but promises the little man her firstborn child. At this the little man spins so much gold that the king immediately makes the girl his queen and then they have a child and the weird little man reappears and demands his payment.
It is a strange story, full of disturbing issues such as, why would you agree to marry a man who imprisoned you and threatened you with death if you couldn’t live up to your father’s bragging about you? What did the weird little dude want with a human baby? How did the little guy actually turn the straw into gold? The last one is not so much disturbing as it is fascinating (at least to me) because it deals with the concept of alchemy.
It was once believed that when practiced, the art of alchemy could turn everyday materials, such as lead (or straw) into gold or could be used to find a universal elixir that would provide eternal (or extended) life. And isn’t that exactly what writers do every day?
The Alchemy of the Written Word
The practice of Alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt and the city of Alexandria that was a center of alchemical learning in the first few centuries AD. The written word has been around far longer than that.
Creative writing is all about turning ideas into words. If done correctly, these words take an idea, a world, characters that only ever existed in your imagination and make them come to life. If you spin your words well, that story, those characters, that world, your idea will live forever. And if that isn’t real alchemy, I don’t know what is.
Think about it, we have an idea for a story; an inspiration if you will. It may grow in our minds over time or arrive completely intact, in one instant. In whatever way that it arrives, that idea then has to be spun in such a way that it becomes real to the reader and that entails finding the right words.
All the ideas in the world do you absolutely no good unless you know how to put those ideas down into words. You can sit there staring at your computer all day and will have nothing to show for it but a blank screen and a headache. So how do you bridge the gap? How do you get the ideas out of your head and down onto paper in such a way that they will actually make sense to someone else? It begins by collecting your thoughts.
Bridging the Gap between the Idea and the Reality
The bridge between the ideas that you have and the words that you write is actually quite simple. It consists of learning how to collect your thoughts. Just as the miller’s daughter couldn’t make gold (or have her little visitor do it for her) without straw, so you cannot create a story worth remembering unless you are able to put your thoughts down in a coherent manner.
Many people believe that their thoughts and ideas are coherent; that they make sense. And in their minds those ideas may seem perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, there usually comes a time between having of the idea and getting it out on paper where something important gets lost. Somewhere you misplaced the nuances that made your topic so appealing when you first thought about it. The following five tips can help you in collecting your own thoughts in order to more easily bridge that gap.
- Keep a Writing Journal. Not only should you keep a writing journal, it should stay with you at all times. This doesn’t have to be a large journal. It can be a small, pocket sized notebook if need be. And yes, it can be an annoyance to always carry a journal around with you. However, being able to write down your thoughts as they occur can be a lifesaver, especially if you are in the middle of something else; like a meeting at work or a family activity.
- Write Down Everything. It isn’t enough to just have a writing journal; you have to get into the habit of writing everything down. I don’t care if it is just a fleeting thought; you need to write it down. You need to write everything down. Get used to putting your ideas into words and make sure that when you re-read what you have written that it makes sense to you as well. If you look back through your journal and find that you can’t understand what you were talking about, then you need to refine your note taking style.
- Re-Write Every Day. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but at the end of every day you need to go through that day’s pages of your writing journal and take those ideas that you have written down and copy them into a working notebook or even type them into your computer. This will not only help to keep your ideas fresh in your head, it will also help you to begin a working copy of your idea; one which you can adjust and adapt as need be.
- Be Your Own Worst Critic. It is not enough to simply write your ideas down, nor even enough to re-write your ideas so that they flow smoothly. Sometimes you have to pull the entire structure apart and re-build it from the ground up. Even though the idea may have sounded good the first time you wrote it down, it can always be better! Write and re-write your ideas out until they say exactly what you want them to; until you can see the picture that they paint in your mind.
- Use a Sounding Board. It helps to have a sounding board; someone who is willing to read your work and give you their unbiased opinion. It will not be this person’s job to edit your work. You simply want their reaction to how the words are written; what sort of picture that it paints in their head. If you do not have a friend or acquaintance who is willing to serve as a sounding board for you, there are other options, such as websites out there that allow you to post your work and have readers critique it for you or creative writing coaches that can help you work your idea into an actual completed project.
Just as with any skill, successful getting your ideas down where you can see them and work with them takes time and practice. You may not immediately start turning straw into gold as a writer, but eventually you will see the alchemical process begin it’s magical work.
Just like the concept of working from home, creative writing gets a bad rap. I can’t count the number of times I have told people what I do for a living and watch as they fight to keep from smiling. Some don’t even try to fight it but just flat out laugh. It’s a joke to them; a poor excuse for someone who just can’t find or keep a ‘real’ job.
I still remember one lovely person who, when I told her that I was a writer said “are you serious?” and then laughed as if she had never heard anything so funny. When I asked her what it was that she thought Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts did for a living and she wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes as she said “but sweetie, those are real writers.”
Well, she’s wrong. I may not yet be a popular writer (note the use of the qualifying word “yet” as the key part of that last phrase). I may not have my books on the best seller list. But they are published and they do sell. I may currently make the bulk of my writing income by writing blogs, giving creative writing seminars, creating newsletters and informational eBooks or by providing creative writing coaching to those who find the written word challenging, but that does not make me any less of a writer than those who are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars per book contract or who are getting assignments that pay thousands of dollars a pop.
Unfortunately, this is a concept that many aspiring writers find distinctly difficult to grasp, and, when confronted with those who would belittle or criticize their claim to be a writer they become depressed over their seeming lack of recognition and sometimes even give up writing altogether.
Perhaps they give up because, in the back of their heads they have the expectation that their talent will immediately be recognized and that they will go from being a total unknown and unpublished writer to an overnight success at the top of the New York Times best seller list. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is quite a bit different.
Yes, there are a few rare individuals who have extraordinary talent and who are in just the right place at the right time and get recognized immediately, but most writers have to work at their craft. Like any other talent or skill, writing has to be honed, practiced and refined and this means writing on a daily basis.
Most writers start out by honing their writing skills while maintaining a day job. Those who are truly addicted will make a point of trying to find a way to work on improving their writing skills in whatever way they possibly can, writing on lunch breaks, weekends or late into the night.
Personally, I got started in writing for a living by helping fellow college students refine their papers. At first I would sit down with them for free and go over their reports and papers, helping them to tighten up their prose or making suggestions as to new ways to approach the subject. Then someone made the suggestion that I could actually make money by offering my services for a small fee. As your standard starving student, that sounded good to me! And sure enough, there were enough fellow students who were desperate to make suggestions for improvements to their papers that they were more than willing to pay a small fee to have me go over their work, especially when most times it resulted in a jump in letter grade.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a writer since I learned out to write. As a kid I scribbled stories in my spare time. I was on the newspaper staff in both high school and college. As a young adult, I submitted bits and pieces to local newspapers and local writing contests, but I didn’t realize that I could actually do this as a regular job until I actually was.
For years writing was just a second job; a secondary source of income that helped to ‘fill in the gaps’ so to speak; gaps left by my “bread and butter” day job. Now writing and helping others improve their writing is my bread and butter, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do I still have my eye on the New York Times best seller list? Of course, I do! I have great hopes for my current in-process novel. Doesn’t every writer? But in the meantime, I write. I write because I can’t not write. And that need to write, to tell a story, that is what defines a real writer. By that definition, no matter what that long ago lady once said, I am very much a real writer, and if you love to write, you so are you!
As long as mankind has had writing we have been recording our ideas and thoughts in written form. From the temple priests of ancient Egypt to the philosophers of ancient Greece to the Victorian writers who took sixteen pages and a bottle of ink to describe a sunrise.
Indeed, there has always been a driving desire among writers to get their words out of their heads and down on paper, or vellum ,or parchment, or, in the case of the Mesopotamians, bricks. But only in the last two decades has the idea of putting words down in a non-tangible format actually become something that would seriously be considered.
In fact, there is something of a debate that is still going on regarding the need to save a hard copy of all of your online work or ideas that are stored in electronic format. Those against saving a hard copy point out that with so many backup systems available, the chances of losing your online work (or the work stored on your computer) is slim to none while those for it say that electronic documents are nothing more than an illusion and that, given the right set of circumstances, you could end up losing all of your work.
Oh, did you think that your online blog is the equivalent of hard copy journals? Let me ask you this, what would happen if your webhost had a complete system failure? Well, hopefully you would have backups on your hard drive (or thumb drive) right? Well, let’s hope, for your sake, that the webhost’s system failure wouldn’t go hand in hand with an electronics failure (such as could be expected in a major solar storm) or even just a system crash on your own computer due to a nasty computer virus.
The point is, while you can take multiple steps to safeguard your information on the Internet and even on your own hard drive, the fact is that you are recording your ideas in cyberspace, it may look as if you have a page of written words, but it is really an illusion, and if for some unforeseen reason you no longer had access to electricity (as I did one memorable summer when dealing with two hurricanes on top of each other) you also have no access to any of the work that you have done as well. And then there are the dangers of confronting the cyber-dog.
ATTACK OF THE CYBER DOG
Wait, what was that about a cyber-dog?
Well, you remember that old excuse that kids used to give to their teachers, the one about the dog eating their homework? Well, in today’s world of electronic communications the culprit is an electronic dog, one that eats bits instead of kibble and whose byte is annoying as it can take great chunks out of your stored information.
How many times have you sent an email, or uploaded a picture from your iPhone, only to never have it go through? That’s because the cyber-dog ate it. Of course sometimes it shows up hours (or even days) later maybe Fido was playing fetch. Ok, so it wasn’t the cyber-dog, it was actually it was because all the pieces or Packets of information that got sent out failed to get reassembled at their destination. While most online systems have safety features in place to help prevent this, sometimes it’s just impossible for the information you sent to get to where it’s going. Mind you it doesn’t happen often that all of your information completely disappears, but it can happen. This is another reason to always make copies of everything that you’ve written.
In fact, there are at least three layers of protective “clothing” you should be wearing to protect yourself from the bite of the cyber-dog:
1). Always save a copy of your work on a separate hard drive or thumb drive. While this may seem like overkill, especially if your computer has a great deal of storage space on it, remember that accidents do and can happen.
2). Never write your blogs or written work directly on the website or in an email. If you write a regular blog or upload written material directly through an online uploading system, at least write it out (and save a copy of it) on your own computer. This will prevent needless re-writing should your document go missing in cyberspace.
3). Print out a hard copy of any work that you particularly value. Trust me, if something unforeseen happens, you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t.
I’ll never forget the completed and corrected version of my book that I blithely sent off to the publisher via email (without printing it out) only to find that it never arrived. And when I went to retrieve it off of my computer I found that a worm virus had eaten through the bulk of my stored copy. I had a copy of the uncorrected manuscript on a thumb drive, but I had lost three months worth of editorial work and had to start from scratch. Try explaining that to your editor.
Of course then there was the time that I not only lost an article that I had emailed to the magazine I was writing for, but the thumb drive that I had the copy stored on literally broke in two and my IT dude was unable to retrieve any information off of it. I lost the commission from the article because I missed the deadline (the editor didn’t like the cyber-dog excuse). But I certainly learned my lesson. I now have stacks of hard copies of my completed work. They take up a whole corner of my den (and probably a small forest), but it certainly beats the alternative.
So yes, while computers, computer storage systems as well as online uploading and online blogs can be marvelous tools for today’s writer, keep a wary eye out for the cyber-dog. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the cost of printing off a hard copy of your documents definitely beats the sinking sensation you get when you realize that it is gone for good and probably buried like a bone under some virtual reality shrub on a back street in Second Life.
It is one thing when, as a writer, you create a character so realistic and believable that they seem to come alive on the page. It is another thing altogether when the character that you have created takes on a life of their own, sometimes taking over the narrative all together until it feels as if you are dictating the story as it is told to you instead of writing an original piece. Worst of all is when a character becomes unruly, digs in its heels, and refuses to follow the plot line in any way shape or form and even finds ways to undermine your well-planned story.
Not all writers experience the process of characters becoming autonomous, but enough do that it is common to hear writers refer to characters who seem to take over the story line by either refusing to do what the author directs them to, or by taking actions other than those dictated by the author. There are also a good many authors who report that they can actually hear the voices of the characters they have created in their heads, some authors even claiming that they find themselves entering into dialogue with them.
Indeed, while there are some writers who claim that you can’t truly have a successful story unless your characters actually do become autonomous, there are others who claim that the entire idea of a character taking over the story is nothing but hogwash and an indication of a lazy mind on the part of the writer.
But if you find that your characters do talk to you and that they sometimes seem to take over the story line, don’t be alarmed. Even some very famous writers have reported that their characters seemed very much alive. Take Alice Walker for example.
When Alice Walker was writing The Color Purple, she stated that not only did her characters seemingly choose their own actions, but sometimes they would visit her and even comment on her own life, and not always in a very complimentary or welcome manner.
There are some psychologists who say that the feeling of characters choosing their own actions, of characters taking over the plot line of a story is just a product of the writer’s imagination. They say that these characters have become so detailed in the writer’s brain that the mind is writing their story automatically, without conscious choice from the writer. Further, they suggest that when a writer runs into roadblocks thrown up by a particular character, it is really the writer’s subconscious indicating that it is the writer that is not yet ready to deal with this particular issue. Even if this is the case it doesn’t change the fact that the experience of having your characters write themselves can be disconcerting. Indeed, having them become unruly and destructive of the plot line can be downright frustrating.
Whether you believe that character autonomy is all in the writer’s head or that the characters actually do take on a life of their own, there are ways to deal with the ones who get out of hand.
Ways to Manage Unruly Characters
Dialogue With Them. One of the best ways to dialogue with your characters (both primary and secondary) is to have a sit down with your them as they are developed. Write out their back story, then imagine yourself sitting down with them over lates at a coffee shop or wherever you feel most comfortable with them. Tell them the story that you have in mind, why you want things to develop the way that you have planned and what your purpose for writing this story is. Most importantly, make sure they understand that even though unpleasant things may happen to them in the story, when it is over it is just that, a story, and that they will be free to go on and create their own story after you have written out the one you have planned.
Dialogue can also be done as the story progresses, especially if you find yourself with a character who is resisting your lead or who keeps finding ways to throw a wrench into your plot. Again, sit down with them, ask them why they are doing this, what they wish would happen instead, what it is that they want out of this story. Most importantly, listen to the answers that they give! You never know when something they have to say, some way that they would prefer things to be done just might end up being better than the original story line.
Bargain With Them. If a character is being particularly difficult, and if they will speak to you, then don’t be surprised if you find yourself bargaining with them. “Sure, I will find a way to write about this particular bit of your back story if you will work with me by sticking to the plot line.” Perhaps you find that they don’t want to marry or become romantically involved with a specific character you had in mind. If so, ask yourself if that relationship is necessary to the plot line. Perhaps the characters can be involved as business partners or as friends instead of romantic interests. Does the lead character’s dog/child/relative/friend really have to die, or can it just be badly injured or have a close call?
The most important part of bargaining is to listen to what the character has to say about the situation. What do they want? Why are they digging in their heels over this particular scene or sub-plot? What are they afraid of?
While you may not get everything you wanted to in the bargaining process, it can certainly make writing your story much smoother when direction-resistant characters are involved.
Ask Other Characters for Input. If your unruly character will not listen or speak to you, try sitting down with one of the other characters, preferably one who interacts in the story with your problem child on a regular basis. As them for input. Why do they think that the character is refusing to go with the story flow? What to they think that particular character wants out of the story or thinks that they will get by changing the narrative? Is there any way to give them what they want without ruining the plot line?
Write Them Out. Like a troublesome actor in a soap opera, there is always the option of writing your character out of the story plot. The most permanent way of doing this is, of course, by killing them off, but less permanent solutions can involve sending them off to a foreign country or setting them sort of quest that will take them out of your direct plot line. Then there are the old standbys of having them get married off, or choosing a line of work or a lifestyle that will take them out of the story’s telling range.
Keep in mind, however, that short of killing them off, the particularly troublesome souls will find a way to re-enter the story, usually when you least expect it. Sometimes even the dead ones find a way back. In fact, your best bet in managing a particularly unruly character is to be diplomatic and reserve writing the character out of your story as a last resort.
Try it Their Way. Finally, unless you are particularly attached to a specific story line, plot or ending, why not try it the character’s way? Even if you are attached, there is always the option of writing a second version of the story from the new point of view, then comparing it with my own original plot line. In doing this I have had some fascinating plot developments, some even better than I could have come up with myself.
At the End of the Day
At the end of the day, remember that you are the writer. You are the one who has control over the delete and save key. If worse comes to worst, don’t hesitate to close out of your story and work on something else. Even the unruliest character can be ignored, if need be, and even the most favored of stories can be left in computer storage as long as it takes for the character(s) in question to cool off and open themselves up to sticking with your plot or at least open up to talking to you about it.
Keep in mind that if the psychologists are right and autonomous characters are really products of our subconscious issues, then it might be you, the writer, who is not ready to walk down this particular road yet. Be patient with your characters; with yourself. Chances are that one day you will open that particular story back up and find that you are once more in the flow and that the story comes effortlessly.
Creating Believable Fictional Characters
Creating believable fictional characters is detrimental to creating a successful story. In truth, without a character that comes alive in the reader’s mind, you will find that your entire narrative may fall flat.
Have you ever read a piece of fiction where the characters seemed two dimensional? Perhaps the protagonist seems like a cliché, perhaps the conversations seem stilted, the decisions made by the characters are predictable, the plot itself is boring or the description of the character is done is such a way that you feel as if you were dealing with paper dolls and not living, breathing characters.
By learning to create believable people for your stories; believable people with believable personalities and voices, you can literally make your work come alive.
Below you will find some techniques to help you in creating believable characters. Each of these can be expounded upon in far more depth, but for now, consider this an overview of how to create story people who come alive in the mind of the reader.
Chances are, you know what you want your character to look like; tall, short, petite, full-figured, stocky, specific hair and eye colors, skin textures, the works. In fact, the overall description of your characters may be a very important part of your story, but the way that you convey this to the reader is even more important.
Knowing what a character looks like, in detail, is important for you, the writer. But in story crafting it is better to let the reader create the full image of the character in their minds.
One of the biggest mistakes in story writing is to create a scene where the character is described in detail. Usually this is done as the person is introduced, or views themselves in a mirror, or is observed in detail by someone else. These approaches are predictable and often-times wordy to the point of ridiculousness (who considers their own lips to be “full and luscious” when looking in the mirror, or, upon meeting a new acquaintance, goes into raptures about their muscular body and likens their hair to the color of wheat?) Quite frankly, short of a classic romance, where the description is part of the appeal, this kind of description can be a put off to the reader.
It is better to let the reader create the full image of the character in their own head. Of course, you don’t want them to get entirely the wrong idea about a person, which is why referencing their description in more subtle ways can convey your view of the character without forcing the full description of them on the reader against their will. The best way to do this is in working bits of their description into the narrative. Instead of saying a character is short, you could say something like “Joan was startled to find that when she was toe to toe with Frank the top of his head came to her chin.” Indeed, by working in references like this throughout the story, you guide the reader to your view of the character without making them feel as if you are forcing the issue.
Create a Back Story
In order to write a good character, you have to not just know what your character looks and sounds like, how they dress and what they like to eat, you need to know why they do those things. The best way to do this is to create a back story.
A back story is the history of the character. While aspects of the back story may be mentioned or referred to in the narrative, it will usually not play a big part in the actual telling of the story. Its purpose is to flesh out your own personal understanding of the persona you have created and help you to make them relatable and find their unique voice.
A back story helps you to discover how they became who they are, why they do what they do. It explains what events impacted them and turned them into who they are today. This doesn’t have to be a book-length endeavor, just a paragraph or two can do wonders in helping you to understand who your character is and how they became that way.
Make Them Relatable
One of the most common mistakes in creating story people is to make them unrelatable. If your readers can not relate to the characters in your story, if they cannot see a bit of themselves in one or more of your characters, the chances are that they will lose interest in the story altogether.
One of the best ways to make a fictional person relatable is to give them a human failing, a fault or characteristic which, when it presents itself, makes people say to themselves, “ha! I know exactly how that feels!” Think of a private detective who has a problem with body image, or a clumsy personal assistant, a psychiatrist who has anxiety, or a music aficionado who can’t carry a tune in a handbasket.
We are all human, making your characters human can go a long way towards endearing them to your readers.
Give Them a Voice
If you are an avid fiction reader, you will understand what I am referring to when I say that the way an actor verbalizes and brings to life a fictional character can make or break a movie that is based on a book. If the actor, producer and screen writers are worth their salt, the movie version of a well-loved book character will bring the written character to life on the big screen. If not done correctly, it can leave you feeling seriously disappointed, for the character that seemed to live and breathe on the page falls flat on the screen.
Giving your characters a unique voice of their own is one of the most important parts of creating a believable persona for your story. A living, breathing voice can make the difference between an “okay” and an “amazing” narrative.
Character voice can be defined as a fictional character’s unique way of expressing themselves both inwardly and outwardly. The voice is told through the character’s personality, their thoughts, their process of reasoning and evaluation, even the way they talk and the kinds of choices that they make.
One of the best ways to create a truly unique voice is to ‘listen’ to your character as if they were a real person. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and close your eyes; imagine that the character as you see them based on their description and back story is sitting across from you. Now, ask them questions about their life, their needs and desires, friends, hobbies, anything. Write down the question and wait for them to answer, then write down the answer as you “hear” it in your head. Soon you will start to get a feel for your character’s unique voice.
Once you have the voice for your various characters, you will find that writing dialogue between them becomes easier and their decisions and actions within the story line become far easier to write. In fact, there may come a point where the characters become so well developed that they begin taking on a life all of their own.
But that is a topic for another day.
Writing is gloriously creative chaos. Except when it is not.
On the best of days an idea takes hold, inspiration ensues and the result is pages of unique and well-written text that flow effortlessly from your fingers. On those days it seems as if writing is the most natural thing in the world and there is nothing else in the world that you would rather be doing.
But then there are other days; days when you sit in front of the screen desperate for a glimmer of the inspiration that filled you to overflowing just yesterday, painfully eking out a few words or sentences and wondering what on earth could have possessed you into thinking that you are actually a writer.
On those days it is very easy to find a reason not to write; very easy to let yourself get distracted by phone calls, errands, housework, something, anything else. But if you are going to write for a living, indeed if you are going to make any real progress with your writing at all, even as a hobby, it is important that you not let the down days grow to become down weeks, months, or years. This means keeping yourself focused, and to be focused, you need to be organized even if you normally consider organization to be four letter word. Below you will find five tips for staying focused, organized in order to give your creative juices the opportunity to flow, even under the most distracting of circumstances.
FIVE TIPS TO STAY FOCUSED & ORGANIZED
#1. Schedule a Dedicated Writing Time
The first order of business in being a writer, is to write. Not just to write when the inspiration hits you, but to write each and every day, no matter how you are feeling, no matter whether you feel the creative juices flowing or not.
When you are “in the flow” of an idea, dedicated writing time is hardly an issue. In fact, when inspiration takes hold, it is sometimes more difficult to stop long enough to take care of necessary daily activities. On those days it is laughable to think that you would actually need a dedicated writing time. This particular tip is not for those days.
Setting aside a specific block of time dedicated to your writing is imperative to keep yourself on track, especially for writing projects. Block this time off on your calendar, turn off your phone, mute your notifications, and write. It is especially important to keep to this schedule even when you feel as if you would rather not touch a pen or keyboard.
#2. Carve Out a Dedicated Writing Space
Being a writer is often glamorized as being the ultimate “portable” job. All you need is a computer and a fully charged battery or available electrical outlet or, barring access to a computer, a legal pad and pen, right?
While the ease of portability is definitely a plus when it comes to writing (and who doesn’t like the idea of sitting in a coffee shop, typing away at your story while watching incoming patrons and sipping on a caramel late?), the reality is that when it comes down to brass tacks and you find your writing derailed by your cat sneezing (forget the steady flow of coffee shop patrons) it is best to have a place where you can go where you can block out the world around you and focus completely on what needs to be done.
It really is important that you have a space dedicated solely to your writing. While a separate room is ideal; a place where you can enter into your writing “routine” when you enter and close the door on outside distractions and concerns when you close the door, a whole room isn’t necessary. Even the smallest space can suffice if it is dedicated only to your writing. A desk tucked into the corner of your bedroom, or even a folding tray table and chair set up in the dining room. Sit with your back to the room and add a pair of noise cancellation headphones and even the folding tray table scenario can suffice as a dedicated work space
If you have a whole room to work with, decorate it with things that inspire you; pictures or art that stir your imagination, quotes from your favorite authors, a calendar dedicated just to your writing schedule. If you only have a corner, you can still tack up a photo or bulletin board to serve as the focus to your space.
One thing is important. No matter how small the space you allocate for your writing, that is all that it should be used for. Don’t use it for stacking unused books or let the kids use it as an art space. This space is yours. It belongs to your writer’s soul. This is where you will come when you are at a loss for words; when focus and creativity seem to have deserted you altogether.
#3. Know & Write Out Your Goals
It is not enough just to have scheduled dedicated writing time and have a dedicated writing space. In order to keep the focus on your writing, it is important that you know just what it is that you are wanting to do. Are you trying to finish a particular project? Are you wanting to learn and practice a particular writing technique? Are you wanting to generate ideas for new material? Are you just wanting to keep your writing skills sharp until inspiration hits you with a new idea?
There are many kinds of goals when it comes to writing. Most of these goals can be broken down into long-term, medium-term, short-term or ongoing goals.
Coming up with new ideas or keeping your writing skills sharp can be seen as ongoing goals. These are things that you are going to want to do daily, or weekly in order to hone yourself into the best writer you possibly can. Other projects, such as creating a weekly blog post or submitting one of your poems into a competition, for example, would be examples of short-term goals. Telling yourself that you are going to turn your adventures on last January’s Caribbean cruise into a short story that you want to get published in an online format would be a medium-term goal, while writing and publishing a novel would be a long-term goal.
Regardless of how long it will realistically take you to complete a goal, the first step is in writing down what it is that you are looking to accomplish. Then you can move on to tip #4.
#4. Break Your Goals Down Into Bite-Sized Pieces
If you sit down to a steak dinner it would be more than a little daunting to think that you would have to eat the steak without cutting it up into pieces. The same holds true for your writing goals.
For example, writing and publishing a novel can seem beyond daunting; impossible even if you thought that you would have to do it all in one sitting. But if you break it down into steps and then focus on each step until it is completed, chances are that you will end up with a completed manuscript without even realizing it.
Taking the time to break your goals down into bite sized pieces, then focusing on the first step, then the next step and so on can mean the difference between having piles of un-completed, unpublished work and making a successful career or financially lucrative hobby.
#5. Do Not Become Attached
No matter how useful they are, beware of becoming attached to scheduled writing times and step-by-step goals. This may seem as if it is in contradiction to the rest of what has been written here, but it is important to remember that the four tips listed above are designed to help you stay on track, to keep you organized in what it is that needs to be done and focused on the goals that you have for your writing during the down times; times when you are lacking in inspiration and motivation.
You and I both know, however, that when you once again find yourself caught up in the flow of creativity, and you will, there is no fighting it.
Getting into the habit of writing daily, even when uninspired, of having a dedicated writing time and of breaking down writing goals into logical and organized steps, can be addictive. You feel as if you are actually accomplishing something, and to suddenly abandon this clear-cut schedule with its step-by-step instructions can seem like a risk. However, you need to be flexible enough to know when to let go of the steps and the schedule and just ride that creative wave for as long as you can stay on the metaphorical board.
Writing, after all, is, at its best, gloriously creative chaos. Except when it isn’t.
Being a writer is about tapping that inner wellspring of creativity, not just now and again, but consistently. Every day I talk to two kinds of people; those who want to become good writers and those who are already good writers but want to become better. At some point even the best of writers asks me “how do you keep coming up with topics to write about?
It’s true that even the best of writers; people who can create vivid and animated characters; people who can write prose that is full of wit and wisdom; sometimes find themselves stumped when it comes to choosing a topic to actually start writing about.
It doesn’t matter if you are a blogger, a screen writer, a feature writer, a poet, a web content writer, a playwright, a short story writer, a novelist, or if you just write for your own personal pleasure; the desire to write is only going to get you so far if you aren’t able to generate ideas to write about.
So where do you begin? How do you generate ideas that will turn into the stories and articles that you need to produce in order to go from wanting to be a writer to actually writing? The following five concepts have all proven to be effective idea generators both for me and for other writers, so why not try one or two – or all of them – and see if we can’t get those creative juices flowing!
Five Creative Writing Idea Generators
#1: The Daily Journal
One of the most important aspects of a writer’s idea arsenal is their personal journal. I’m not talking about a blog. Blogs and journals are two different things. Unfortunately today the concept of blogging has become synonymous with journaling with blogs being touted as “online journals.” And while that is all fine and good, there is, however, a big difference.
When you blog you are (usually) sharing your ideas with people around you and this exerts a certain kind of pressure on you to deliver. When you journal, it is for you alone and you can feel freer to write whatever comes to mind without having to live up to someone else’s expectations.
In order to be practical, your journal should be small enough to carry comfortably in your purse or backpack or even in a coat pocket or briefcase. Use your journal not just to record your daily events, but also to jot down any ideas that you might have during the course of the day. Write it all down – no matter now trivial or mundane. You never know when one of those seemingly ‘trivial’ ideas will generate the next great American novel – or at least your next blog entry!
#2: Stream of Consciousness Writing
Stream of consciousness writing is very effective when you are at your wits end as to what to write about. The short version is that you are letting your inner self out onto the page – no holds barred. Sometimes it is quite amazing what you will find when you let this happen. Simply sit down with a blank piece of paper (or a journal dedicated to stream of consciousness) pick a subject, and start writing about whatever comes into your head.
One way to simplify the topic you will be writing about is to open up any news website and pick the first topic on the headline list. Another topic source is a dictionary or encyclopedia. Simply open the book at random, put your finger down on an entry, then start writing about it. Give yourself 10-15 minutes (timed by setting the alarm on your clock or computer) and simply write, without stopping, until the timer goes off.
With stream of consciousness writing you do not have to stick to your subject. What you write doesn’t even have to make logical sense. Instead, you use the subject as a launch pad for other ideas and thoughts that are probably bottled up behind concerns about your everyday worries and responsibilities. Chances are that when you’ve stopped writing you’ll find that you’ve uncovered at least a half a dozen ideas without even trying.
#3: Using Mundane Activities as Springboards
You may think that mundane activities such as taking a shower, eating breakfast, getting your oil changed, shoveling snow from your driveway or driving your kids to school may not be very inspiring activities, but in truth, you can find as many writing ideas in the everyday and ordinary daily activities as you would in the more glamorous adventures most people associate with generating creativity.
Be on the lookout for ideas even in the most boring and routine things. Usually these ideas will occur as a question in your head. For example, “this toaster pastry tastes like cardboard; I wonder why so many people eat them?” Ta-da! You’ve just uncovered an idea. Take out your journal and write down “why are toaster pastries popular?” in your journal. Did you find yourself staring at that dress in the store window and wondering how long it took it to get from the factory in Indonesia to the sales floor? Congratulations, you may have just discovered a feature article on international supply chain management.
#4: Tap Your Inner Child
One great way to get your creativity flowing is to tap into your inner child. Seriously, sit down with a piece of paper (or your journal) and make a list of those things that you loved to do as a child. Did you like riding your bike? Were you really into dinosaurs? Did you have a tree house? What was your favorite music? What kinds of things did you not like? What foods did you hate eating (and why)? What things did your parents make you do that you absolutely detested? Good, now take a look at your list. You’ve just uncovered an entire world of writing topics.
You can also use childhood games to generate ideas for writing topics. For example, the game “Never have I ever.” This game is a version of spin the bottle where the kid who the bottle points to has to answer the question “Never have I ever _____” and fill in the blank with something that they have never done. This is supposed to be embarrassing, especially for teenagers when they admit that they have never done or tried something. Do this yourself, and then research those things that you have never done and write about them. Gosh but letting your inner child out is great for your creativity!
#5: Create a Book of Inspiration or a Pandora’s Box
Is there a writer or author that you really admire? Perhaps you find yourself drawn to particular photographs or artwork; things that fill you with the desire to be creative and to do your best. Creating a book of inspiration filled with beautiful pictures, a special quotation, short pieces by favorite authors, lyrics to favorite songs and anything else that gets your creative juices flowing can be a great idea generator.
If you are more hands on oriented, you may want to opt for a creativity box. I have one, I call it “Pandora’s Box” and it’s filled with all manner of things that make me smile. New crayons, a Rubik’s cube, brightly colored post cards from all over the world, bits of fabric (silk, denim, corduroy, leather), an assortment of interesting stones, ticket stubs, pins, bumper stickers, a glass doorknob from the bedroom door of the house where I grew up, and much, much more.
Many times when I am stumped for an idea, I simply open my box and start rummaging. Before I know it an idea has usually popped into my head and I find myself writing furiously, determined to get it all down.
Whatever you do, don’t be afraid if you find that one or more of these ideas breaks through a sort of dam in your mind and the ideas just start pouring out. It can be overwhelming at first, but just keep that journal ready! Write everything down as it occurs to you but do not feel as if you have to pursue that particular line of inquiry right then and there. There will be plenty of time to follow up on your fresh influx of writing topics. Soon you may have more ideas than you know what to do with. But that’s a good thing, especially for a writer looking to generate inspiration.
It’s Groundhog Day…again. Unless it’s not.
It has occurred to me that Schrodinger would have been better off using a ground hog than a cat for his famous thought experiment.
I mean let’s get real. How many cats do you know that don’t like boxes? Schrodinger’s cat had he been real would probably have stayed in the proverbial box indefinitely and would have attacked any hand that tried to open the box in order to observe the cats’ status. Besides a cat being simultaneously a solid and a liquid already exists in multiple Quantum States.
The groundhog on the other hand would have been a perfect example to use. Schrodinger could then have said that until the groundhog emerges and sees his shadow (or doesnt) that it is both spring and winter.
Then not even a thought experiment animal would have to die. And none of this mucking around with subatomic events.
Anyway. Happy Groundhog Day!
Is it too early for flapjacks?
When I was little I used to go to the fair or a carnival and feel so bad for the merry-go-round horses.
It was so sad! They had a pole through their bodies and never got to go anywhere except around and around foever.
Some nights after visiting the fair I would dream that I was a merry-go-round girl; that there was a pole bolted into the carousel platform keeping me from being free and that I was doomed to forever travel in the same circle, doing the same thing over and over again for eternity.
But most of the time I dreamed that I could set the carousel horses loose.
I used to imagine that when the carnival would close for the night i would be able to say the magic words that would allow those brightly colored carousel horses to shake the paint flakes out of their manes, throw off the bolts and poles that kept them tethered and finally be able to run free into the night.
Some nights I even dreamed about it; whisperimg words into painted ears, then watching as their flat painted eyes would blink in the moonlight and become real eyes; eyes full of life and energy and then watching the transformation of garish painted wooden horse bodies into real, breathing creatures galloping through the night.
I used to love that dream.
As I got older the dream of the carousel horses faded away until it was just a memory. Until one night, not that long ago, it came to me again. Only this time it had a nightmarish quality.
At first it wasnt so bad. I was a child again, awed by the fantastic beauty of the painted carousel horses. As before I whispered the magic words, but this time the horses didn’t break free.
This time the painted wooden horses remained stationary and lifeless. I went from one to another, crying and begging “Wake up! Please wake up!” And I could feel that they had life inside them, but that there was something keeping them from becoming the gloriously free horses that I knew they were inside.
And then the horses began to change. They were turning real like before, but this time they remained pinned to the platform; bolts piercing their hooves. This time they were writhing as they revolved on the ever turning carousel platform, warm bodies skewered by the poles that held them stationary, and there was nothing I could do to free them.
In fact, my magic words had made things worse. They had woken the horses up, but I could not set them free.
They had to set themselves free.
The magic words could wake them up, make them realize that they were indeed living horses and not wooden carnival attractions, but they had to choose to free themselves from the tethers that kept them pinioned to this ever revolving fun house.
I woke up crying.
You see, we are not so very different than those carnival horses. We are born with the potential, with the ability to become those glorious creatures, our imaginations and creativity running free and creating a reality beyond our wildest dreams.
Instead we become tethered, pinnioned, bolted to the ever turning floor of societal religious and familial expectations. Stand still. Sit straight. Smile. Speak when you are spoken to. Time to go to school. Time to get a job, get married, get a house, have children and start the cycle all over again, nailing the baby carousel horses feet firmly to the platform for their own good.
How rare is it that we see a carousel horse break free of its restraints? How often have you seen those painted wooden horses shake the paint flakes out of their manes and run free into the night?
There are no magic words that can set them free. Perhaps there are words that can make them realize who they are deep inside, under the wooden saddles and the layers of paint and varnish. But those glorious carousel horses have to be the ones to shake off the paint flakes, shrug out of their restraints and head off into the moonlit night of freedom and possibility.
We woke up this morning deep in a fog bank. It was surreal. Tendrils of mist crept into the room when I opened the balcony door and quested into corners seeking out whatever it is that fog searches for. So we made cups of hot chocolate and coffee, donned sweatshirts and sat out on the balcony, making friends with the fog instead of shutting it out. Letting our eyes adapt to the swirling,, changing patterns and listening to the deafening dawn chorus of birds and the gentle, underlying shushing of the sea.
There are times when, as a nation, as a society, our vision is clouded. We see the billowing clouds of anger and the fogs of discontent rolling towards us and our first thought is to protect ourselves, to shut them out, to focus inward and ignore what is happening around us, to turn on the TV and binge watch something that takes your mind off things. We close the doors and flip on the electric lights and crank up the heat until it all goes away and we are comfortable once more.
But maybe, just maybe, the sooner we open the balcony door of our minds and allow ourselves to truly SEE what we have become, what is generating the storms, to invite the fog in so that we can come to understand what it searches for and what we can do to help it in it’s quest, the sooner the storms will pass and the fogs will dissipate and allow us all to bask in the healing rays of the sun.
One day you will be able to look back on early 2020 and say “I survived The Great Pause”
The Great Pause: a brief moment in time whe the world stood still, peoples and nations united, however briefly, against a common enemy.
A moment when people were given the time to re-evaluate their priorities and decide what things are important enough to die for, and what lengths they are willing to go to to protect those they love, or even those they will never meet.
A moment when earth took the first full, deep breath she had been allowed in a hundred years and when wildlife of all sizes and shapes began wandering back into lands that they had been chased from decades earlier.
We got a glimpse of the kind of world we could have chosen. A simpler world. A quieter world. A world where people care unconditionally about their loved ones, their neighbors, total strangers and the living breathing world that they call home.
It is sad that it took thousands of lives lost to even give us that glimpse into this alternate reality.
It is even sadder that there are those for whom the quiet and the simplicity glimpsed are so repulsive that they will risk death itself to break free of it. That they would sacrifice those they love to get back to the hustle of “normality” where the world is so loud that they don’t have to think.
This is not an all or nothing game. We don’t have to choose whether we want quiet and simplicity or the pre-pandemic hustle. Each of us has the ability to choose which pieces of each reality we want to incorporate into our post-pandemic world.
The choice, as always, is yours.
Finding a scapegoat for what is wrong with our lives, for what is wrong with the world seems to be a part of the human condition. But lately things seem to be getting out of hand, especially when it comes to the tussel between the Baby Boom generation and their grandchildren, known as Millennials.
You see it everywhere. Boomer vs. Millennial. Boomers claiming Millenials are lazy and ruining the status quo. Millenials claiming Boomers are responsible for the mess the world is in and the difficulties they are facing.
While reading through the comments section of a news article I saw a meme that stated:
MAKE BOOMERS GREAT AGAIN; TRUMP 2020.
Now, the Baby Boom generation (1946-1964) have officially become senior citizens (the youngest are or will shortly be turning 55). Millenials (1981-1996) are now in their 20s most are finished with schooling and have entered the workforce.
As a GenX-er, you know, that bunch that fall between Boomers and Millenials? Thats okay, we are used to being looked over. We were born between 1965 -1980. Our Boomer parents couldnt even come up with an actual name for us they were so busy so we get assigned a letter. We are the children of Boomers and parents to Millenials and so we bear the brunt of this continual bickering.
Now Boomers, please, I am 51, at the front end of Generation X, So I get it. You Boomers dont want to lose your voice. You dont want to be considered obsolete. You dont want to go gentle into that goodnight. But think for a minute what this meme is being used to promote (remember the meme?).
It is saying that the boomer generation stands for racism, hatred, bigotry, sexism and ageism. It is saying that all of you boomers would rather elect someone who goes against everything ya’ll claimed to believe in when you protested Vietnam and mucked around in the mud at Woodstock. It is claiming that only your voices matter, and I know too many of you too well to believe that is true.
You used to believe that you could change the world and make it a better place for everyone. I know because you raised us (GEN X) to believe that everyone deserves a fair chance, that skin color and gender and nationality and economic status DONT MATTER.
We listened you see. We believed you. We grew up and in turn gave you grandchildren who EMBODY those principals and all you can do is complain about how they are ruining the world.
NEWS ALERT: you cant be blaming the millenials for how things are now because guess what YOU ARE THE ONES WHO HAVE BEEN RUNNING THE COUNTRY FOR THE LAST 20 YEARS. If they cant afford the lifestyle you had as young adults it does not necessarily mean they are lazy. It means that the society you created when you gave up protesting and bought bras and went back to work is unsustainable.
What happened to you? Instead of the parents and aunts and uncles that taught us to love everyone and treat everyone as equals, I’m seeing so many who instead are acting like their very fundamental beliefs are being challenged by those who actually embody those beliefs. BUT IT WAS YOU WHO TAUGHT US THESE BELIEFS.
I get it. The world is a mess. It has been a mess for a long time. You guys tried to fix it and I understand that most of you gave up on actually changing it and instead became part of it. Probably hoping to fix it from within, but that didnt work out so well did it? You became what you feared. But why do you insist on belittling your own grandchildren?
Where did your free spirits go? Imbue those spirits with the wisdom and rationality of experience and come back to us. Please come back, we need you. These kids are amazing, I am so proud of them, THEY ARE OUR FUTURE. Help us help THEM change the world. If we work together we could actually do it this time.
Come on guys…just imagine! -SSG
I always feel so guilty when I thin out seedlings. I even find myself apologizing; “I’m sorry sweetie, I know you were trying your best, if I had space each and every one of you would get the chance to grow to your full potential.”
In a way I find myself akin to the ones that don’t make the cut. In almost every area of my life that has always been the case. I may be well read and have a lot of knowledge in a wide variety of areas; a lot of skills in a wide variety of specialties, but someone else is always better. Someone else always gets the lead role, the award, the solo, the contract, the promotion. In the end I always get weeded out.
I don’t hold it against them, the ones who win. They worked hard for it. In most cases, they have dedicated their lives to this one thing be it academics, music, drama, a career, or whatever else it is that they succeed at. They deserve it, and I will be the first one to congratulate them on a job well done.
It does sting though, to admit that I will never be quite good enough to be best; that somehow I always end up in the supporting role, in the chorus, as part of the team support, or as the wind beneath their wings, the one the successful ones mention when they thank all of those that got them there and made this possible.
It is the dabbling that it is my downfall you see. So many successful people know what they want to do with their lives from the time that they are kids. For most it has been their lifelong focus. They start gymnastics or ballet at the age of three and go on to win tournaments and perhaps go on to the Olympics or make a career out of being a ballerina or teaching others to dance or tumble.
Perhaps they have been playing the violin since the age of six and their dream is to play in a professional orchestra or come up with the next immortal symphony. Perhaps they have been drawing since they were born and so it should come as no surprise when they open their own art gallery or become a famous illustrator or find their niche in teaching or painting.
Some people find mathematics or science or religion and throw themselves into their vocation with a diligence that always amazes me. Seriously, to spend a career studying one type of molecule or a specific type of invertebrate? I am astounded by their dedication to their chosen topic. Even more astounded at their insights and the advances that they contribute to humanity’s body of knowledge.
These successful individuals work harder than I do, I will admit that. They dedicate their lives to one thing; throwing themselves into their chosen vocation with a focus that is simultaneously admirable and terrifying, so it is no wonder to me that they succeed.
Part of me wishes that I could have that sort of focus, but another part of me shudders in horror at the thought of being locked into any one thing for my entire life.
And so, I will settle for being a weeded-out seedling. After all, it’s not like they get tossed out in the trash. They get tossed into the woods; discarded in favor of the bigger, stronger and more beautiful.
But discarded seedlings still have the opportunity to bloom and grow and become what they were meant to be, even if it is out of sight in the woods where the wild things are.
Uninhibited by containers or boundaries, this seedling’s roots will grow deep and wide. Her blossoms and fruit will be found in the most unexpected places and at the least expected times.
And so, I will perform for the ground hogs and the rabbits. I will write stories for the crows and for the hawks. I will sing for the deer and paint my pictures for the Fisher Cats. My performance reviews will be written by moonlight and documented in the leaves of the trees and my riches will be in the golden spill of morning sunlight, the silver sparkles on the river, and in the knowledge of a life not contained by anyone or anything, but where every moment has been lived to the fullest.
It is everywhere.
You don’t have to go looking for it.
Turn on the news; it doesn’t matter what channel. You’ll find it there.
Scroll through social media; any platform will do. You’ll find it there too; permeating the atmosphere like the stench of rotting garbage.
Anger. Hatred. Violence; the by-products of fear.
There is one very real thing about the stench of over-ripe garbage, and that is that no matter how much deodorizing spray you squirt, no matter how much lemon-scented soap you use, you can’t truly get rid of the smell unless you take out the trash.
Now before anyone gets their panties in a bunch, I’m not talking about voting one political party or another in, or out of office. It doesn’t matter WHO gets in. In truth, unless we deal with the underlying fear, it doesn’t matter who wins, WE LOSE. Why? Because we haven’t taken out the garbage. We haven’t dealt with the fear.
Until we deal with the fear, the stench will remain; a constant reminder of the rottenness at the core.
You have heard it said that people fear what they don’t understand.
This is true of EVERYONE who gets angry for a cause.
In the current political climate you have one side you have where individuals’ fears stem from the changes that they see as coming with a progressive platform (they want to take away our guns / kill our unborn babies/ turn everyone gay / give our hard-earned money away to freeloaders/open our boarders up to violent criminals etc.).
On another you have those who’s fears come from the contemplation of a world where conservative views impinge on the inroads progressive platforms have made in the last hundred years (they want to take away our social security/steal our medicare/deny us the right to marry who we want/keep us from affordable health care/deny us the right to love who we want/ attempt to control our bodies / punish us because we are a different skin color or religion etc.).
I’m not saying that the fears on either side are not justified. There are plenty of those on BOTH sides who can give convincing arguments as to why they are right and why everyone else is wrong. But at the end of the day those that act out of fear, even if it is for a “just” cause, have more in common with their opponents than they would like to think.
Why? Because the anger and the hatred and the need to justify one’s position or view point or ideology ALL STEM FROM FEAR.
I’m not saying that the issues being argued are not important. They ARE important, extremely so. This is a pivotal moment for our country and I am not saying that we should sit back and do nothing. I am merely pointing out that no matter what side you take, no matter what your personal views on a subject may be and no matter how justified you may think those views are, if you are acting from a place of fear, you lose.
What I am saying is that we ALL lose if we do not address the fear that lies behind all of the anger and hatred.
Confronting one’s fears is never an easy thing to do. Most people avoid it like the plague.
It is not done by forcing political, social or religious views on those who disagree with you whether by posting angry memes or passing legislature designed to suppress the opposing side.
It is not done by arguing and getting defensive every time someone disagrees with you.
And it is certainly not done by picking up a handy weapon and killing those that you fear.
Fear is not always loud and obnoxious and obvious. It can be insidious. It is pervasive. It hides in just causes and in thinking you have the high moral or intellectual ground in a situation.
In fact, there is only one thing in this world powerful enough to counter fear, and that is love
Stop wincing, I’m not talking about new age cosmic love; all glitter and unicorns and “good thoughts”. I’m not talking about the kind of love that features in pop songs and teen magazines or indeed romantic love at all.
The kind of love I’m talking about does not look at one’s outward appearance or bank account or position or political ideology, or how many time’s one meditates a week or national identity or religious affiliation or sexual orientation to deem another worthy of being loved.
I’m talking about the kind of love that empowers another to be their best self by believing in their worth as a human being.
I’m talking about the kind of love that fills up your heart and heals you from the inside out.
A person with that kind of love in their heart simply loves. Everyone. Without reservation or judgement.
I’m talking about unconditional love.
To come from a place of unconditional love in every decision that we make as individuals, as communities, and as a country is the only way to counter the fear. And it is the only way to undo the damage that millennia of living from fear has caused.
By living from love we don’t just take out the garbage of our own fears and the innate fears that come from being human, we transform them. We turn those fears into compost; fertilizer that feeds the soul and strengthens the human spirit.
Unconditional love is real.
Living from a place of unconditional love is possible.
It is as simple as choosing in each moment to ask yourself “what would love do?”
And then go out and do it.
-Just Steph. October 30 2018