August 10, 2020
Last time, we established the need for a writing community. Now it is time to start writing. You are inspired? You have an idea? Excellent. But you are not done the pre-writing stage yet.
Inspiration is the raw ingredient, not the finished product
Put up your hand if you have ever eaten raw cookie dough. Now look around and feel ridiculous for having a hand raised. If you are one of the few who have never indulged, I commend your Zen-like restraint. It became so popular to consume the mixture of flour, butter, sugar, and egg that companies said, “why are we bothering to sell cookies when we can charge as much for the dough?” It may seem delicious, but often halfway through a cone of raw cookie down ice cream we begin to regret our life’s choices. Yet, we manage to forget this the next time the craving comes. I use the 1st person plural to make myself feel better.
But where is this metaphor going? As it is tempting to stop halfway through baking a batch of cookies and eat the dough, so is it tempting to pluck inspiration from the real world and call it a story (or poem, or blog post). Inspiration, an idea, the spark of a piece of writing, is an uncooked product.
Here’s a personal example. Years ago, I was living in Toronto. Part of my daily commute involved the College streetcar, which, as those in the know will know, is a hub of interesting characters. Listlessly looking out the window, I couldn’t help but overhear the man near me as he loudly ranted to the stranger beside him. Both what he said, and his manners were – interesting, and I happened to have my pen and notebook. I tried to be surreptitious, but the man called me out (very loudly) for recording him. Was I in the wrong? Yes. Worse still, I decided that plunking this recorded dialogue into a story would make for good character development. I was wrong. The rant I recorded was nothing but flour, sugar, butter, and egg that I tried to sell as cookies. A couple years later, I was looking through the notebook in which I had recorded this speech.
Side lesson: always save your notebooks.
I thought about him beyond the dialogue, teasing out the wants and needs of such a man returning home on public transit. The character I ended up with was far from the man who berated me on the College streetcar, but he was far more interesting, and the story had some mild success.
You may be thinking, this is an obvious point that he is passing off as profound. Maybe. However, I believe we are still living under the curse of verisimilitude. Even in fiction, although it is far more apparent in non-fiction, I believe you can find examples of stories in which the writer has copy-pasted events or characters from their lived experience and called it a day. Maybe you have done this.
I have. Many times.
It is tempting. It is also tempting to think that we can take a lived event and wrap it in well-wrought words. This is still just raw cookie dough. Ideas need to be baked. Ideas need to be transformed. Yes, a memoir, autobiography, or copy – the strength of these pieces of writing comes from a compelling subject, but the beauty arises when the writer bakes the subject, by which I mean, serves it to us through the filter of their unique voice and style.
Let’s bake some cookies (writing exercise): Clustering
Now that I’ve dispensed true “wisdom” (thank you for reading), let us move on to the practical.
One exercise I have become slightly obsessed with recently is clustering. The beauty of this short and simple exercise is that it can be useful for creative writers (particularly poets and short story writers) as well as content and copy writers.
Clustering is a free-association writing exercise accomplished in a few easy steps:
- Get a blank paper, whiteboard, or digital equivalent
- Begin with a word in the centre of the page
- For best results, use a noun, verb, or adjective
- Underline and circle the word
- Draw a line from the word. At the end, write the first word you associate with your central word.
- Circle that new word and repeat the previous step (building off the new word, not the original)
- When you feel you have come to a natural stopping point, return to the original word and start again.
- When you are finished, record the words at the end of your chains.
Here is my example, using the word light
My final words are: change, danger, hole, new, begin.
Thus, if someone were to ask me to write a blog post about light, I wouldn’t write about how light travels, or about light sources, or literary examples of light as a symbol – but rather I would write a piece about change, and the fear of change, the dangers that come with thinking that I have dug myself into such a hole that I couldn’t think about new beginnings. The piece is now about the anxieties of shifting your life after you thought you had established yourself. Light is the potential of infinite beginnings, and the blinding force that obstructs us from what we want.
What I like about this exercise is that it encourages you to think about a topic in a new way: to take raw ingredients and bake them. Will every batch be perfect? No. Such is the shared frustration of writers and bakers.
Don’t stray too far
I have stressed the need to take inspiration from the real world and, using your skills as a writer, transform reality into something interesting and meaningful. There is a danger is going too far down this road. We have termed this postmodernism.
There are some great works to come out of the postmodern movement, but in some instances, the need to transform reality became the work’s defining feature (Infinite Jest). We are past the postmodern itch in the art world, settling in the mundanely-named contemporary era. I’m still upset that atemporalism never took off, but that’s a matte for another time (no pun intended). The point is that, in part thanks to movements like #ownvoices (new promise: one hashtag per post), and in part thanks to a renewed interest in deep character driven moments, literary works are returning to substance over style, and many are finding a nice balance between raw ingredients and burned cookies: stylistically altered reality that does not forget the heart.
How do we find the balance: Show Me the Moment
Think of something you did recently. Pick a truly mundane moment – walking the dog, drinking a cup of coffee, going to grocery store (maybe not so mundane these days). In 100 words or less (a guideline not a rule), create a scene that makes this mundane moment engaging. No alien attacks or car chases: find that pearl of humanity in the moment. Make us see the activity like we never have before, make it your dog-waling that only you can write.
This is a great exercise for creative writers working on character development, but also for copywriters. For what drives a sale better than building true empathy within your target audience and showing that you understand your customer?
If you are up for it, share your scene in the comments below.
Otherwise, I hope you have found this interesting, insightful, or at least entertaining. As always…
Thank you for reading.