Tag Archives: short story

Creativity? How to Force More of It and Have Fun Too

Did you know you can get a degree in creativity?  Oh yes, it exists.  I’m not sure what the criteria for the degree includes, but you can probably google it.  I want to talk about the guy I met at the Writers Institute who has this degree, a Masters in Creativity from Buffalo State College.  His name is Doug Stevenson, and he has a passion for thinking outside the box.  Well, actually, if you ask him, he’ll tell you to think outside the box, but don’t forget about the box.  Doug started out in American Studies, then Advertising, and then got his masters in creativity.  He spent years working in improv acting groups like Second City (a beginning point for most Saturday Night Live actors).

Doug Stevenson

Doug led two sessions at the conference and it was clear they were going to be creative in theme based on the title alone.  For instance, I went to a class called “Innovation is Like a Box of Chocolates:  A Savory Study of what Everyone Suddenly Needs.”  Doug highly recommended that writers take an improv class at some point.  Now, now, before you all start slinking to the back of the room, hear his argument out!

  1. Improv requires no judgement, it’s about accepting invitations and rolling along with the story.
  2. It teaches you the power of “Yes, AND…”  You build on ideas.
  3. You learn how to cooperate with discovery.

In the classes, Doug had us do several warm up activities from his improv days.  I pushed myself and decided to volunteer for one.  There were 7 of us lined up in the front of the room.  Each of us was given an emotion to portray and the opening line of a story “It was a dark and stormy night…”  (I know, a whole room full of writers, and that’s the best we could come up with!)  So our emotions included sadness, anger, frightened, bitter, giddy, confused and I got the lovely assignment of pretending to be in love.  The story took several interesting twists as each of us were allowed to spin our takes on it.  It began on a stormy night, a couple was going on a date (yep, that’s me), my date was sad because he was a lot older than me and the night certainly wouldn’t bode well.  Passersby were frightened by the storm and could only think of stripping in their fear, while others were bitter about them having the nerve to strip.  A giddy thief was stealing from our car and a woman was angry she was stuck in a city with the likes of all of us, and I ended the story by changing my mind and hooking up with the car thief instead of the old man.

That’s all hysterical and wonderful, but what’s the point, Jess?  The point was none of us could plan where the story was going, we had to continue from what we were given.  We could change the direction but we were forced to be creative and open-minded when doing so.  You constantly looked at the story with new eyes, and that’s what Doug wanted us to do with our own WIP when we were struggling.  If something wasn’t working, he said to put it aside, step away, and come back to it later with new eyes.  Or, use a story box of combinations and just go with it, maybe adding in an unknown will lead to something spectacular.  Here are some examples of what we did.

Story box:

The President                    Hypnotization                   Carnival

A Cartoonist                     Melting Apocalypse         Underwater

A Cowboy                          Greek Mythology              Underworld

A Bird Watcher              Murder Mystery                 Boise, Idaho

Ok, so we’ve got this box with columns of character ideas, themes and places.  You can randomly select from them and try to make a story.  For example, The President and a cartoonist must go to Boise, Idaho where everyone is melting in the Apocalypse.  Or, a lone bird watcher travels underwater to claim his true identity as a Greek God.  Whatever, I’m just getting your gears grinding!

The other thing we did was use story cubes.  Story cubes are a toy you can buy that lets you roll dice with pictures/actions on them and you can incorporate that into your story.  It’s up to you how many cubes you use.  We did a practice using just one roll with one di.  So I rewrote the story of Mary Had a Little Lamb, to be Mary Had a Gala Apple.  Again, do with it what you like.  You could roll 6 dice and try to make a story using all 6 images.

Jess, you ask, I’m writing a story about a magic princess slaying a dragon and marrying the man of her dreams, who just happens to be a hobbit/wookie mix but through their love the people of the planet Condroidmilock find acceptance in intergalactical love.  What do you want me to do with the canoe I just rolled?!  Geez, you guys, do I have to do everything for you?  Where’s your acceptance?  Where’s your Yes AND…, where’s your cooperation with discovery?  *Bangs head on laptop*

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Sorry, about that.  I’m good now.  Use this as a warm up.  Use it as a way to hone your craft, pick objects that would never go together and try to make it work, just see where the writing process takes you.  If you’re writing the next sci-fi romance that is going to change the way we think of social class or race, then maybe incorporating a canoe into your story wouldn’t make sense.  But, what if while writing that side story, you discover in your protagonist a new strength or quirk you didn’t know they had.  What if it makes you view them in a whole different light?  Or more importantly, WHAT IF YOU HAVE FUN WRITING??

None of us would have chose to be writers if we didn’t love writing.  I’m not saying that writing isn’t fun, but we know writing can be work sometimes too.  When we’re stuck, feeling drained by the non-galactical chaos of normal life, wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to springboard our inner creativity into writing again?  That was Doug’s point.  And mine too.  I’m not trying to sell you guys into taking an improv class if it terrifies you, but DO think about improv as a way to non-judgementally accept new ideas into your writing.  We write because it’s our way of being creative, and who couldn’t use a few more skills in their arsenal of writing talents?

So, I’m challenging you, readers!  Write me your best quick story using these items:  a baby doll, a duck painting, a pillow shaped like a banana, and a remote control.  (These are random items collected in my basement.)  The winner of the contest gets:  A postcard mailed to you from exotic Wisconsin and a feature interview by myself to be posted on my blog!  Happy writing!

Ghostly Goodness

A page from Tim Burton's "The Meloncholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories" Click image for goodreads synopsis.

Resolution Update

  1. Watch a Jane Austen movie. I am currently watching the newest BBC version of Emma since I’m reading that book and enjoying picking up on all the little things that bring the quirks of the townspeople to life.
  2. Cleaning my room of clutter. Not yet, too busy coughing on everything and carrying kleenex in my arms everywhere I go.  Still on my to do list.
  3. Journaling for my own enjoyment. Yes.  And still recounting five things to be grateful for each day.
  4. Finish writing the icy mausoleum scene in my story. Not yet, but I at least reread what I have so far and found some great things to edit.  To inspire more graveyard goodness, I’ll share with you one of my favorite true life ghost stories below.
  5. Blog ahead at least 2 posts. When did I agree to do that?  My readers love my pantser style.  Ok, on the to do list.

Ghost Story

You can believe in ghosts if you want to, you can choose to call me crazy too.  I’m not sharing this story to change anyone’s opinion of the afterlife, I’m just sharing what happened to me as I recall it.

When I was in high school, I worked in a video store for several years.  I had my suspicions at night that someone was in the building.  I would hear the sound of tapes (yes, it was all VHS then)  being picked off the shelves and put back down down.  We had all metal racks in the store.  The other clerks I worked with said they heard the same noises when they were alone in the store too, but our manager always denied hearing anything.

I would disregard the noises like the rest of us do when we hear creaks and cracks in our own home.  But, there was more creepy happenings.  My then neighbor worked out of town and enlisted me to take her dog for walks after school and I would often walk her up to the video store.  Our store was family and pet friendly; we kept dog treats behind the counter for when people would come in with their pets.  So little me would walk this giant white dog into the video store and head back to the comedy and drama racks or pick up my paycheck from the back office.  The thing was this dog, who any other time would run up to people, chase squirrels, lick you to death, would get close to the back door of the office and would just sit down and halt to an abrupt stop.  She would not budge.  She’d stare at that door and I’d be pulling and pulling her leash to round the corner with me, and she’d be dragged across the carpet, and eventually bolt past the door and halfway down the next aisle before calming down.  I’ve never seen her do this anywhere else.

My friends at the time were obsessed with ghost stories.  And one night when I was closing, and it was quiet in the store, my two best friends and a coworker came over with a ouija board.  I will tell you right now I will never use a ouija board again in my life.  I agree with those of you who think it’s a scam and not real, and I agree with those of you who think it’s a doorway to the spirit world.  Why both?  I really believe it depends on the person using the board, and when we had just any friend use the board we would get gibberish answers, but when my best friend and I used the board, we who could finish each other’s sentences, we would get creepy real answers.

So, my two friends and coworker planted themselves in a back corner of the store in the action movies and asked the ouija board some questions about who worked in the store, what film title someone who wasn’t touching the board was looking at, and eventually who was it that lived in the video store.  Amazed, they ran up to me at the counter and told me there was most certainly a ghost in the store, and he was 13 years old.  He knew all the initials of the people that worked in the store.  They had learned his family died in a fire years ago.

I had had enough.  This was not appropriate at work, and I told them to pack up and get going.  I walked home, went about my evening, got ready for bed as normal.  My routine at night consisted of looping headphones over my bedpost and listening to one of the mixtapes I made while I fell asleep.  That night, I remember waking up and thinking I had only been asleep a short while, but the music wasn’t playing.  I reached up to my dresser top and picked up the tape player.  I hit play.  Nothing.  I hit rewind, fast forward, play again.  Nothing.  “Huh, guess the tape player died.  Weird.  Normally I wake up cause it makes that slooooow, drooooning battery noise.  Oh well, back to sleep.”

The next morning, I awoke and got ready for the day.  On a whim, while waiting for my mom, I picked up the tape player and hit play.  Billie Holiday crooned, “But I’ll be seeing you…” and the whole rest of the tape was erased.

I assure you I cannot explain how this happened.  There is no record button on my player, so I didn’t accidentally tape over it.  It was not placed next to anything electronic.  Whatever, or whoever, it was, from then on, I closed the store very quickly.  And my store manager, admitted to me after I left the store years later that she did think the store was haunted.

I think I have a healthy curiousity but a great respect for the spirit world.  Have you ever worked or lived somewhere you thought was haunted?

Everyone is Given a Box of Crayons in Kindergarten

So my wonderful blogging network of new friends has given me so many words of wisdom and helpful sites for writers to go to.  One of which included reading the book “Ignore Everybody and 39 other keys to creativity” by Hugh MacLeod.  I won’t re-tell you about the book, you should check out the blog post I read or the author’s site.  But one of his chapters is a reminder that everyone is born creative.

“Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they  take the crayons away and repace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc.  Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.'”  -Hugh MacLeod

The book is full of wacky cartoon drawings and keen combinations of hysterical no nonsense advice.  It talks inspirational process along with business necessities.  Mostly what I appreciate is the author’s honest voice that creativity is work.  The ideas that come to you can shoot out like fireworks, but somebody’s got to measure out the gunpowder, safely and securely measure out the display base, and strike the match.  He reminds us that good ideas are worth fighting for, and you’ve got to show up for the battle.

So this week, my quest was to practice writing prompts every day.  Today I went onto www.writeordie.com which is a site many other bloggers, writers, NaNoWriMo’s have all suggested, and I thought what better week to try?  The site offers a timed space for writing to measure word count, and if the author fails to complete so many words after a short period of time, subtle hints are given on the screen.  First off, I think write or die will be my mental undoing.  Always a bit of a competitor in the language field, I went straight to kamikaze mode on a grace period level of “strict.”  At first the sudden color change made me jump a little, I wasn’t expecting that.  In amusement, I watched as the screen went from a happy-go-lucky pink into a dip-dye evil red.  I was hoping there would be another color, but suddenly multiple words were deleted from my story.  Scrambling to put them back together I barely had time to think about what my character would see next before the pink background began it’s bloody dripping down my screen again.  I lasted only 12 minutes.  Write or die is not a place to do the brainstorming for your story.  Write or die is a place to take your brainstorming and crank it out on page.  Duly noted.  I should tell you the next level up is called Electric Shock Mode on a grace period of “evil.”

The one fantastic thing write or die did for me was illustrate just how much I need to brainstorm the next plan of action for my short story.  I’ve recently dumped my protagonist, Lydia, into a labyrinthian underworld through which she must walk a series of strange parallel worlds.  In order to bring her to life again I have to plan what will happen to her, who she’ll meet, what she’ll find.

And that brings me to next week’s writing resolution.  I will create a storyboard.  I’m an immensely visual learner, so trying to brainstorm while using write or die only distracted me more watching the color of my screen change, so my brainstorming needs to occur beforehand.  Crawl, then walk, Jess!  Duh!  Using photos and language that inspire me, I’ll make a storyboard of Lydia’s journey.  I also plan to read before bed each night.  I have a hard time “turning my head off” as I call it, I lay awake thinking about the day, about work, the laundry list of things to do (which reminds me I need to change my laundry), so I plan to read before bed and hope I think about my story as I fall asleep.  Better keep a pen and paper handy too, just in case inspiration sparks!  Good luck to all of you on your writing endeavors!

Girl Gets the Dickens Scared Out of Her

Last night I was visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Writing.

It all started when I came home around 1 am from work (oh yes, I’m in retail).  I changed into my pajamas, turned on a terrible on demand movie and began victoriously dominating my second bag of chips for the week.  In fact, other than a few stray peas in my fried rice, no vegetable has touched my lips in the last six days!  Hmm, that’s bad, isn’t it?

Anyway, I must have dozed off, because the next thing I hear is a bunch of moaning and chain clattering behind me.  I twist my head around and there is my best friend, Drakob Farley, all blue and dead and dragging an iron ball behind him.

“Drakob, what’s up?  I thought you died; it’s great to see you!” I said.

And he’s all like, “Jessiiii, you haven’t been true to your writinggggg!  You’ve forgotton the passionnnn and voice inside youuuuu!”

“Who has the time, man?  I’m working 60 hours a week as a human punching bag for last minute Christmas shoppers!  I just don’t have the strength anymore.  Cut me some slack, Drak!”

“You will be visited by the Ghosts of Christmasss Writinggg.  Take heeeed, they will come shortlyyy.”

So now I’m all irritated and grumpy.  Stupid Drakob waking me up after only 2 hours of sleep.  But the next thing I know, there’s a huge gust of icy wind and I’m freezing!  The picture window in front of the couch is wide open and this giant rendition of my favorite middle school english teacher comes breezing in all covered in rags and shaking snow everywhere.

“Jessi, I’m the Ghost of Christmas Writing Past.  Why have you forgotten who you are?”  She starts throwing all these journals that I’ve kept since seventh grade at me and folders of short stories and poetry I wrote since I was five.  One of the journals hits me on the head and knocks me out!    

When I come to, we’re sitting in my old room in the house I grew up in.  I can see my old self scribbling in a notebook writing a series of poems I dreamed about publishing.

“Do you remember giving me these poems to read?”  my teacher/ghost asked.

“Sure I do.  I was really proud of those.  The series took me all summer.  I had elaborate plans to publish them with illustrations by my brother.  I even had my mom get me a blank hardcover book so we could sketch out a sample copy.”

“Do not forget your childhood enthusiasm!  You know who you are!  If you do not change your ways, you will surely suffer.”

With that the dream fades, and I’m back on the couch, blanket pulled up to my nose in a creeped out and scared fashion.  Wow, that was weird.  No more chips before bed.  Better brush my teeth and hit the sack for real.

No sooner than I put the toothpaste and brush in my mouth than the bathroom door starts shaking uncontrollably!  Seriously?  Again?  So soon?!

Bursting through the wood, creating thousands of splintered debris, enters who I can only assume is the Ghost of Christmas Writing Present.  With a nod, the ghoulish thing that looks like a publishing agent, but with the face of a gnarly mountain goat, beckons me to follow her.  I’m tiptoeing and hopping through the bathroom door damage in my sock feet and when we step through the entranceway I’m half expecting another dreamlike transportation.  But no, she nods to me again, and basically we ascend the stairway from the downstairs bathroom and actually just walk ourselves to my room where my computer is on and the few pieces of work I have managed to write are sitting freshly printed out, still warm from the press.

“Yes, I know.  It isn’t much, but it’s a start right?” I plead.

She stares at me blankly then begins to eat page after page of my work!

“Stop that!  Oh my god, do you have any idea how long that took me?!  Give it back!”  I began tugging and pulling the pages out of her mouth, but it was too late.  My work became a pile of half masticated goat goo.

“I hope you choke on it!”  I yelled and crumpled into a ball of blubbering sobs.

When I looked up again, there was a hand extending a tissue out to me and smiling.  Ah, the Ghost of Christmas Writing Yet to Come, thank heaven!  Finally, she would show me the way of what I needed to do and I’d be able to view the immense success I would surely achieve in the next year or so.

“Oh, sweet Ghost of Christmas Writing Yet to Come, take me to my book signing please!  Or to my book tour, if we’re running late.  Do I have time to put some make-up on?  I just ate a whole bag of chips and I feel downright disgusting.  What’s that?  No time?  Very well, lead on, but please let it be something joyful.”

The ghost wore flowy angel garb and had shiny, wavy hair like in the movies.  She didn’t have wings, but she whisked me away flying over the city which looked so peaceful with the twinkling Christmas lights in the snow.  When we landed, I was home again at my family’s old house.

“You’ve brought me to my family Christmas?  I see, you’re right, it’s important to be with the ones you love at Christmas.  Thank you, Spirit.”

Inside, I saw my future self, I looked old and fat.  Too many potato chips, I’ll remember that.  I was hugging my siblings and we were all talking about what we had been up to the past year.  I was impatient to hear myself speak.  Surely, I was gifting my entire family with my new, best-selling novel.  When I could see it was my turn to answer I gasped.  I was still working in retail!  I had been transferred from store to store to manage new teams and drive sales!  I’d spent the year moving and repeating my coaching methods.  I hadn’t written anything at all, not even an annual Christmas letter!  This was serious.

“Oh Spirit!  Take me away from here!  This cannot be my Christmas writing future!  I won’t allow it!  Just look at my previous blog post and you’ll see that I plan to follow through and work on my writing!  I do, I do, I do!  Please, Spirit, take me home so I can change my Christmas writing future!”

I awoke back on the couch where I had started the night.  I immediately bolted up, threw the blanket to the couch, put the chips in the cupboard (I couldn’t throw them out, one step at a time, spirits!), and grabbed a pen a paper.  Today I vowed to figure out the next scene in my story.  It all starts with Lydia walking into a snow covered area and being met by the ghost of christmas brainstorming…

Day 4: Junk Food and Writer’s Block

Prepare yourself, writers, NaNoWriMo is not for amateurs.  I can’t imagine what all the poor writers committed to writing 50,000 words are feeling right now.  I’m having a hard time with my 500 words a day pact.  My story is about Lydia, a little girl whose best friends are ghosts.  I’ve done alright with the background story and the character quirks, but now I have to actually invent some sort of plot, there needs to be conflict!  Introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and denoument.  Isn’t that right?

My dinner diet of cheetos followed by breakfast/lunch of cheetos and a luna bar cannot be helping me.  What a terrible idea to keep a food journal when you’re stressed out.  It reads “hello glutonous, overworked and unimaginative swine.  You could make yourself a spinach salad, but there’s a bag of peanut butter chocolates right next to you, and really, won’t they do?  P.S.  Your writing sucks.  Love, indigestion and doubt.”

I’m determined to keep this up.  I want to continue this project next week by starting a new story or creative writing piece again.  I have to tell myself this uneasy, worrisome, daunting and inopportune task I’ve assigned myself is good for me.

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