Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination

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The Gift of Prompts

I used to find writing prompts annoying. I mean, they didn’t add up to anything. They just sat there in a notebook. Magnificent or pointless, they were words that would never be published or publishable, that would probably never be read again.

But lately I’ve been giving prompts in most of my classes. I’m doing them myself and finding them oddly freeing. Sometimes they’re just a single word or simple concept: “Write about insects… a spatula…. your first memory…. Write about something worth stealing.”

In class, we generally free-write only for about ten minutes. Sharing is always optional. Since we’re really just spitting on the page, it’s stupid to expect much. Often enough, I’ve gone back to read my own responses to my exercises and discovered just a bunch of mismatched thoughts. Free association, irrelevancies. Other times, I’ve found kernels of brilliance.

These prompt-writing moments bring back a feeling that I’d forgotten – when I was 7 years old, discovering that I loved to dance. I had no dreams of tutus and sugarplum fairies when I first heard the music coming from that rundown rec-hall at my New Hampshire summer camp. It was a beautiful solo piano piece – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that it called to me.

The dance counselor was working on some choreography when I quietly took a corner and started to move. After a moment she paused her own work to watch, and a few weeks later, I performed my improvisation before an audience of campers and counselors. In that moment of complete freedom, the marriage of movement and music, and the succeeding applause, my future plan to become a dancer was sealed.

Well, I can’t dance like that anymore, not only because I’m no longer so young or in shape for pirouettes and grand jetes. It’s because I spent years learning what was right and wrong through training. Technique embedded itself in my body until the initial inspiration and joy were nearly strangled. It took me years to undo the binds of that rigorous training until I found a shadow of the original joy that had moved me before I knew anything about anything.

The same danger lies in the process of writing. We can get caught up, even lost, as we work our way through a big project, or even a small one. We can write ourselves into corners, or edit until we’ve killed the very thing we were attempting to nurture. We can work so hard that we forget why we’re writing in the first place.

Herein lies the grace and benefit of prompts. They’re moments of total letting go. They have no greater purpose than to explore, to recall the freedom that comes at that first, naive moment of free-writing. We use them to stretch, to reach deep into muscles that perhaps we’ve forgotten to use in the midst of our struggles with an especially difficult story, memoir or novel. The only objective of a prompt is to let the words flow, just as I danced as a child.

Oddly, my youngest writing students often struggle with prompts. They can verbalize fantastic stories, but when they have to write them down, it’s as if the words get stuck somewhere between their minds, mouths and pencils. I’ve often asked kids to just tell me what they imagine, then simply say, “Great. Now write that down.” Over and over, moment by moment, “What’s next? What will your character do? How does your character feel about what just happened? OK. Write that down.” They often speak their thoughts in simple, beautiful words. So I say, “Now grab them! Just write them down on the paper before they fly away.”

Because words are difficult to master – their shape, their spelling, their syntax, are not natural to us the way they are in spoken form. Just the opposite of the primal act of dance, music, even storytelling, with writing, training must come before inspiration. To solidify our thoughts into lasting form is a sophisticated skill that requires education and practice.

So, with older students and adults, I take joy in the smoother flow of pen on paper. I revel in the scratchings as we all open the gates and let the words slip down. As I listen, sometimes I hear pauses, breathing spaces, or perhaps tighter curves in the flow of thought. I murmur, “Don’t worry. Just keep going,” recalling Natalie Goldberg’s advice to just keep your pen moving no matter what.

I assure my students that these ten minute spitting sessions won’t add up to brilliance. They shouldn’t. Just like stretching before a run or a dance, these fluid moments of non-judgment and free writing are just that – warm-ups. Improvisations.

So I give you the gift of a few prompts for the holidays. This week’s New York Times Magazine online featured a series of videos, Fourteen Actors Acting. Each short film is wordless, accompanied only by music. The actors’ emotions are vivid and clear. As the subtitle states, they are intentionally iconic character types from the silver screen, but each moment can be interpreted in infinite ways.
14 Actors Acting
Click and watch a few. Absorb their feeling, their moment. Imagine their circumstances, their settings, their lives. Then write for ten minutes or as long as you like. And don’t judge what you write. If there’s a glittering kernel there, you’ll find it. Just enjoy the slip and flow of pen on paper, jamming, improvising, dancing as words form on the page.

Happy holidays. I wish you all good writing.


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Getting Ready for the Next Wave: Our Future as Storytellers

I was listening to NPR on the drive home the other night, hearing how we should be preparing for the rise out of this economic downturn. They were advising everyone to keep retraining, keep improving our skills, and to stay attuned to our industry, so that we’ll be “ready for the next wave.”

Well, in publishing, the next wave has already crashed. Many of us are swimming around, trying to find something to grab onto. Just yesterday, the news was rife with stories about the new Google eBookstore. It’s an encouraging sign that Amazon finally has competition in this exponentially growing segment of the book market. At the same time, those who adore the book as a physical object must resign themselves: digital books are here to stay.

There are some pretty cool things about this new digital horizon. First, your “book” can turn into a wild, multimedia experience. Check out Interactive Alice and enhanced Narnia. These are truly fantastic examples of what the digital platform offers.

But what does it mean for creative writers like ourselves? Are we expected to become multimedia wizards, able not only to write wonderful stories, but to create “books” that are more akin to interactive, animated movies? Will this part of the publishing process become the purview of our publishers, taking the author’s ageless craft and enhancing it, pairing us with digital illustrators as we have only been paired in the world of children’s picture books before?

It’s a fascinating prospect, one with tremendous creative and marketing potential. But, as you can see from the tried and true titles digitally enhanced above, there has been a pretty solid market for a book before publishers are likely to make that kind of investment. For now, digitally enhanced ebooks are likely to remain a fantasy for all but the most well-known or tech-savvy authors.

Meanwhile, we writers must still ply our craft, refining our skills and our stories as we hang on for this uncertain, if exciting, future. Some of us are already experimenting with new forms, like friend and local novelist Pamela Redmond Satran and her blog novel, Ho Springs. The blog format, with its generally short entries (well, maybe not mine!) is a fascinating venue for developing new forms of fiction. There are other, even shorter formats out there, as I detailed in my post last year, The Evolutionary Invention.

I find all this fascinating, a real cultural revolution. As Haruki Murakami mentions in his recent New York Times essay, Reality A and Reality B, “The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.”

Eventually, great art may come from this short-attention-span, digitally enhanced new medium. The questions we must all ask for now are:

  • What form will our stories take?
  • How will they be read?
  • How will they be appreciated?
  • What will really move our readers?

These are the same questions we’ve wrestled with all along.

In the end, does it really matter what form our product takes? We are, all of us, just storytellers, aren’t we? Stories were told orally long before writing existed. As I tell my youngest students, “Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire listening to a storyteller’s words. Now imagine that you are the storyteller. Now imagine that you want your story shared in a village hundreds of miles away.” Writing, and particularly the printing press, made it easier for those stories to survive and be passed along. The new digital media is just Story’s next wave.

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The Freedom to Dream

In Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood, he writes “Childhood is a branch of cartography.” Chabon muses about the long passages of time when, as a child, he was able to roam free, inventing his own reality as much as exploring it, creating an emotional map of the places where things happened.

This emotional map is largely absent today in a time when children’s lives are circumscribed by schedules and “playdates”. For all our honest concern for our children’s safety and enrichment, we have largely removed that necessary freedom to explore, create and imagine from our children’s lives.

The Freedom to Dream

The Freedom to Dream

But children are resilient. And they are natural explorers. As Chabon writes, “Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure.” At a recent outdoor concert in a nearby park, I allowed my two young sons to drift away from me, only to discover them minutes later – one ankle deep in a nearby creek and the other halfway up a tree. They had no interest in listening to the music. They wanted to explore the boundaries of their world. They were playing out scenarios of adventure I saw on their faces and read on their lips as I discreetly watched them from the underbrush so I didn’t interrupt their explorations.

This desire for adventure is at the heart of our love of story. Even as adults, we feel a need to share the stories that inform our existence or explain to us, and to anyone who reads our words, the contexts and conditions of our lives.

Adventures are best created in the absence of structure. The essence of imagination is the freedom to dream. Just now the summer spreads before us like a glimmering, golden field. It is an invitation. Go forward and embrace it. Explore it with unstructured joy. Then write what comes to mind, adding details to enrich the map that little by little will tell the many stories of all our lives.


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The Storyteller’s Fire

As our Writers Circle prepares for its Creative Arts Showcase next week, I can’t help but be fully aware of the challenge of reading aloud, both from a perspective of performance and as a tool for the writer.

My classes and groups have almost always worked orally. We sit around our table and learn to listen carefully. We rarely pass around copies to mark up or follow along. Sometimes new writers are surprised by this approach. “Isn’t this about READING?” But I say, no. It’s really about listening. You are telling a story, and if the story doesn’t hold up when read aloud, it’s probably missing something on the page.

Certainly, at some point, someone has to do the nitty-gritty editing that takes paper and a big red pen in hand. But before that moment, in the midst of the creative flow, I find it’s reading aloud and listening that are key to discovering a story’s truth – its voice, its pace, its action, its intensity. I often read my work aloud even as I’m writing. Perhaps that’s a bit weird, or maybe it’s because I used to be an actress, but for me, it’s often the only way to know if what I’ve written has any grace or truth at all.

In the days before books were readily available, before people knew how to read, before writing even existed, people listened to stories. It is one of the most primal arts, along with dance, drumming and song. The greatest storytellers had power. They were literally imbued with a mystical connection that held sway over life and death and the fortunes of people’s lives.


Perhaps our writing today has lost that sort of magic, but the mission of the storyteller remains the same. Delivery can be as important as content – cadences, the subtle distinction of voices, the florid verbal canvas that draws images, characters, and action in the listener’s mind.

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, Some Thoughts on the lost Art of Reading Aloud, reminds us that until recently, reading aloud was a routine experience that created community and enriched family, that was an activity of choice, not a boring homework assignment (as it is for my 8-year-old son) or a nerve-wracking proposition as it so often is for many authors. Whether amateur or professional, as we step onto the literary “stage”, it is critical to remember what Klinkenborg writes: “Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.”

As writers, we are not only the person reading, but the person whose soul – obvious or obscured – is coming to life through those words on those pages. Slightly different from raconteuring, which has also gained new prominence recently, we writers frame our experience and imagination in concrete sentences carefully honed. For these sentences to speak, they must be lived – first in their creation, then in the reader/listener’s mind. When we read them aloud, they become vital and alive, crackling like the storyteller’s fire, rich with sparks dancing before our eyes.