Category Archives: writing

Following the urge to be artists, or how we can astonish ourselves

I felt I had to follow up my previous blog about the never-ending story with this post on a similar theme.

I was a pre-school playgroup leader for a time when my children were young. For each day’s session I prepared a craft for the kids. I cut out all the bits and pieces so I could give each child with exactly the same materials. I made a sample of the craft so I could hold it up for all to see.

“This is what we’re making,” I said before setting them lose to create.

If there were 15 kids in the group, at the end there would be 15 completely different crafts.

I admired (and envied) how freely those children followed their artist souls and created without apprehensions about what other people might think. I loved how they danced with excitement with their finished products in hand, no matter what they looked like.

A workshop at the writers’ conference I attended recently reminded me of this.

In the workshop led by Cordelia Strube  we worked together to come up with a particular set of circumstances and characters, and then we each wrote individually for about 20 minutes. After the time was up we shared our work.

If there were 20 of us in the group, there were 20 completely different stories.

Once handed the common building materials, each of us scanned them to see what resonated with us individually. We attacked the story from starting points and viewpoints that felt right to us.

Writers in a workshop setting strive to be like those children doing crafts: honouring our artist souls and opening to inspiration, ideas and images, unimpeded by barriers and apprehensions. When we succeed at this, the work we come up with amazes us—shocks us, even—because it’s better than anything we could have foreseen in advance, with all our adult barriers in place.

When we get out of the way of our artist soul, the spirit of the work is good. True.

Astonishing, every time.

 

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The never-ending story

In a recent Sunday school class the kids and I played the “Let’s take turns telling a story” game.

I started them off with a character and a general setting and then we took turns with each person around the circle adding new characters, scenes and twists to the story. Plot development by plot development the story unfolded.

Often the ideas that other people came up with surprised us. We’d think to ourselves, “I didn’t see THAT coming.”

At a particularly challenging point in the story, one girl appeared stumped for ideas. She jokingly said, “The end.” But she quickly brushed that aside. “No, no, no,” she said. She gave the matter more thought and came up with an idea.

Sometimes we tried to think ahead so when our turn came we’d be ready. But then the person ahead of us would send the story off in a whole different unexpected direction. We’d have to adapt and think again.

Usually we’d panic a little when our turn arrived. We’d think, “Oh no. What am I going to say?” Once we set the panic aside, an answer always came.

We talked about all this after. We talked about how:

  • Life, like our story, is full of surprises. How often do we say, “I didn’t see that coming!”
  • It’s good to plan ahead but we need to be ready when things go off in a whole different direction. Be open and ready to respond to whatever comes.
  • Sometimes we want to give up. But carrying on is always more satisfying.
  • Panic paralyzes. Calm produces.
  • Working together is way more fun and interesting than puzzling through it on our own.

From this we can remind ourselves not to be surprised by the weird, unexpected plot developments in our lives and to be ready for anything. We can find the determination to never give up, not to panic, and to find some friends to make it interesting.

Have fun living your story.

Apple seed, apple pie: Don’t compare yourself with others

Delicious pie. Dig in!

At what point in your life have you compared yourself with others?

What has made you say, “I will never be able to (sing, act, paint, write, run, kick, score, pitch, speak, draw, teach, etc.) like that? I might as well chuck in the towel now, because I’ll never be that good.”

It happens to writers often. We read a book or passage and think, “That is so well written. I could never have created something like that. Maybe I should just set down my pen (or laptop) right now.”

At the CanWrite conference in Toronto, Canada on the weekend, keynote speaker Alissa York addressed this issue. She said that comparing our fledgling writing projects to completed gems is like comparing an apple seed to an apple pie. If we spend our time drooling over someone else’s pie, we ignore our own seeds. Better to spend our time, she suggested, planting our own seeds in good soil, watering them, placing them in the sun, watching over them and nurturing them. Doing so allows our apple seeds to grow into mature trees that bear fruit with which to make our own version of a delicious pie.

And all the while we are helping our seeds to transform, we can also dig in and enjoy those other pies, instead of wasting time drooling over them.

Bon appétit

The biology of story: Pick up, listen, restore

I spent the weekend in Toronto, Canada at the Canadian Writers’ Summit. Hundreds of writers from across the country gathered at the Harbourfront Centre to share ideas, learn from each other and evolve as writers.

Are you surprised I chose to attend a session entitled “The Biology of Story”? 

At the session, Amnon Buchbinder, associate professor of screenwriting at York University, talked about the “interactive documentary” he created to explore the idea of stories as living things.

Buchbinder’s documentary, found at www.biologyofstory.com, outlines three principles.

1. A story is a living thing

“A story will choose to be with you, but you have to choose to pick up the story.” —Nigaan James Sinclair

If you want to drive a writer crazy, ask them, “Where do you get your ideas?” You might hear something like “Out of the clear blue sky.” Perhaps it’s a matter of writers choosing to pick up the stories—those living beings—that come to them.

Watch: Stories are living beings. Period

2. Living is a story thing.

“Listen and you will see your own story will speak to you.” —Jean Pierre Makosso

Do you drift aimlessly from one event to another in your life? Are you listening for what your story—living being that it is—has to tell you?

Watch: Listen and your story will speak to you.

3. Not all narratives are stories.

“A real story is the possibility of restoring the world.” —Deena Metzger

Buchbinder writes: “We live in a world crowded with narratives. Many of them lack key properties of story. This accounts for the lifeless and/or destructive forms that some narratives take.”

Watch: Stories are about wholeness

Buchbinder’s documentary encourages us to pick up the stories that come to us, to listen for what our own stories have to say, and to work with those stories to restore the world.

I just sent you a story. Pick it up, listen, restore. 

Tell the truth, write the story

“. . . tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story.” —from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

At my writing circle last week, our group discussed how fiction writers often draw on real life experiences for their work. In some cases, these writers try really hard to transfer the factual events into their fictional stories exactly as they happened. They assume that something that really happened will end up feeling more authentic than some fictionalized flight of fancy.

Memoir writers must stick to the facts, because their readers approach non-fiction books expecting truths. But fiction writers get to have more fun. Their readers come to fiction with a different mindset. When fiction readers pick up a book, they do so with the unspoken understanding: This writer is going to tell me a really good story. They want the story to be the best possible version of a set of circumstances. Reality usually isn’t the best possible version of events so, paradoxically, fiction stories that stick too closely to real events end up feeling oddly . . . out of sync. Fiction works better when a writer takes the seed of a real event and then plucks out the weak spots and makes the story about what should have happened. 

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at life this way. Our past, the events and twists of fate that lead us to where we are today are the facts, and we can tell people exactly what happened. When we look to the future, we can say, “Well, that’s all well and good, but what should have happened is this . . . 

We can aim for the best possible version of events.

dream

Dream

 

 

Failing positively: Lessons from Henry Ford

“We have been taught to believe that negative equals realistic and positive equals unrealistic.” —Susan Jeffers

Wouldn’t it be enlightening to gather statistics on how many people have given up on dreams because someone told them their aspirations were unrealistic? How many hockey players have hung up their skates because a coach told them the National Hockey League was a long-shot? How many entrepreneurs have stopped seeking investors after being told their ideas would never sell? How many writers have filed stories in drawers after reading dire statistics about the state of the publishing business? How many people have given up because they’ve been told that “NO” equals sensible, but “YES” equals dreamland.

More importantly, how many people equate failure with negativity? 

Henry Ford didn’t see failure as negative. On a recent trip to Michigan, I took this picture during our visit to the Henry Ford Museum. (Side note: Please visit the museum, if you have the chance. It’s about much more than cars; it’s about life.)

henry-ford

“I would rather build a big plane and learn something, even if it didn’t fly, than to build a smaller one that worked perfectly and not learn anything.” —Henry Ford

Henry Ford would rather try something unrealistic and fail positively than try something realistic and succeed negatively.

Mind-twisting, isn’t it?

Sharpen those skates, dust off that business plan, pull the stories out of the drawer: Dreamland is a fun place to live, and failure is useful too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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