Some stories seem to write themselves. Some, however, come more slowly. I can force myself to get words on the page, but the resulting stories are like a pack of crackers at the back of the cupboard: stale, uninspired and easily forgotten.
As a storyteller, I aim to illuminate ideas and move readers. Stale crackers and cookie-cutter stories do neither. So, when my creativity needs a wake-up call, I turn to techniques I use in fiction writing. Below are my favorite four. Whether you’re struggling with a newsletter or a novel, these are great ways to awaken the senses and get the creative juices (not to mention language and images) going again.
Take a Walk – Go for a walk with your attention focused on one thing. Choose a sense, a color or some other detail. As you’re walking, look for all the different ways you see or experience this one thing. Since it’s summer in Philadelphia, I’m walking and thinking about heat: how it radiates from the empty asphalt lot at the Catholic School; how it rises off the tomato plant with an earthy, green smell. I don’t take notes (real or mental). I just absorb it. When I return to my desk, I jot down ideas, images and descriptive words that stick with me.
I Remember – My favorite book on writing is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and one of my favorite “get the ideas flowing” exercises from it is this: “Begin with ‘I remember.’ Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory, write that. Just keep going…”
This is a good exercise because it works if you’re stuck at your desk. It’s also a good way to capture some of the imagery and language conjured after a walk, an interview or field visit.
Go Where It’s Uncomfortable – I like the safety and security of routine. But that doesn’t do much for creativity. To keep the senses sharp and ideas percolating, I make a point of pushing myself out of comfort zones.
I take an approach I learned in meditation. Instead of avoiding something that gives me discomfort, I key in on it.
All those places (literal and metaphorical) that make us ache or feel afraid or uncertain – those are the places to explore. Out there is where we discover people and ideas beyond our ordinary experiences. And that’s where the most interesting stories are.
If we cling too much to the routine and comfortable, our writing becomes boring, uninspiring. Our writing needs to be inspired if we are to inspire our audiences to act. Feed your creativity and challenge your writer-self. Whether it’s a weeklong trip with a field staffer or attending a board meeting, go to the places that make you squirm.
This idea applies to writing, too. Is there a sensitive topic you don’t know how to tackle? Stop mulling over the “right” approach and just go there. Write without worrying about what others will think. Dwell in the discomfort. Explore it, and use it in your writing.
Go with No Purpose – When I have a story assignment, I can’t help but start pre-writing in my head. By the time I conduct interviews, I’ve already got an idea of how the story will go. All I have to do is slot the details into my pre-built framework. It’s quick. But do this too much, and the stories become tedious – to write and read.
I’m trying to shake the habit by walking with no purpose. It might be a walk through the office or around a work site. I might find someone whose story needs told, or I might light on a smell, a color or an image that will later appear in a piece. Or it might just give me a needed break.
What about you? What will you find when you go for a walk just to see what you see?
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