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Prompts, Quotes, and Exercises to Jumpstart Your Creativity
By Hal Zina Bennett
New World LibraryCopyright © 2010 Hal Zina Bennett
All rights reserved.
Legend has it that Picasso once got into a discussion with a neighbor who looked at his paintings and told the artist that while his colors were nice and the picture was very pleasant, he should try making them a bit more realistic. Otherwise, he advised, nobody would know what Picasso's paintings were supposed to be about. The artist, exercising a rare amount of patience, nodded thoughtfully and asked his neighbor if he had an example of what he meant by realistic.
"Ah, yes, I do!" The neighbor quickly reached into his pocket, brought out his wallet, and handed over a photo of his wife for Picasso to see. "Now that's what I call realistic," he proclaimed.
Picasso took the photo in his hand, turned it this way and that, studied it from every angle, then handed it back to its owner. "She's awfully small and flat," he said.
In writing as with painting, there's an ongoing dialogue about what's real. Is the author's description of the house realistic? Is the communication between characters true to life? Is the story credible — could it happen in real life? Is the motivation of a character psychologically plausible? Is this or that action physically possible?
Sooner or later writers come to the full realization that the reality depicted on the page or on the canvas of the painter has its own reality and is not a copy of life. The ultimate question we need to ask ourselves is, Does it work as a story and on its own terms?
Consider Franz Kafka's short story The Metamorphosis, about a man who turns into a bug. It couldn't happen in real life but within the framework of the story it is convincing. Nor does that author try to convince us that it's possible for humans to turn into bugs. However, he creates a reality on the page that causes us to identify with the poor victim, so much so that our skin crawls. We suffer with Kafka's character, with his bewilderment, and then with his abject horror at what's happening to him.
How does Kafka draw us into this reality? As readers we must, of course, be willing to go along with what the author creates. It's that willing suspension of disbelief thing all over again. In this particular story, Kafka accomplishes this with the first sentence: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." The author never attempts to explain how this happened or to justify its feasibility. Instead, he focuses our attention on what Gregor is experiencing. He describes, well, nothing more or less than what any normal person would experience if he woke up one morning to find he had become a giant insect!
At first Gregor's reactions are very human: he notes the size and number of his insect legs, then a framed photo on his wall, then the alarm clock that reminds him, with horror, that he's late for work. Many of his responses are downright mundane, which oddly enough makes us believe the story even more. For example, he looks out the window and sees that the sky is overcast and it "made him quite melancholy." He also struggles to make the horrible reality of his metamorphosis go away, "shutting his eyes to keep from seeing his struggling legs."
As time goes on and Gregor becomes increasingly bug-like, he discovers that his feet have a kind of stickiness that gives him traction with the floor, that his efforts to speak only produce strange, undecipherable sounds, and that his appearance horrifies his parents and his beloved sister. Through trial and error, and her own loving kindness, his sister discovers that in his present manifestation as a bug he likes rotting foods and notes that he seems repelled by fresher foods. In fact, he drags the decomposing food away from the fresh so that he can better savor his consumption of them.
The ludicrousness of this story is made believable through the author's ability to describe the very human reactions of his protagonist. While we might not believe it possible for Homo sapiens to turn into bugs, we can imagine the experience of being rendered helpless, imprisoned by our own bodies, and alienated from our loved ones. In the end, that's the message we go away with, made possible by creating a reality that could exist only in fiction but that is nevertheless meaningful and purposeful, reminding us of the limits of our own mortality.
* * *
Using literary devices such as Kafka does in Metamorphosis, write a few paragraphs, or even a short story, about what it might be like to wake up one morning to find that you are living in a world and perhaps a body very different from your own. Create a reality that could exist only on paper, yet that is credible in whatever terms you set up. This could be anything from being an animal in the wild to being an inanimate object. Maybe it's a reality existing on a different planet, or in a parallel universe, or in an imagined world that nobody has ever heard of. The experience of the characters you create could be horrifying or wonderful, pleasing and filled with discovery and insight, or as limiting and dreadful as turning into a bug. But the bottom line is that this is a reality completely of your own making — and certainly not "small and flat" like the photo of Picasso's neighbor.
The process of writing, any form of creativity, is a power intensifying life.
— RITA MAE BROWN
STARTING FROM SCRATCHCHAPTER 2
CONTRADICTION AND PARADOX
Many students of human nature say that recognizing and coming to terms with contradiction and paradox is one of the key challenges of life; how can something be both true and false, both pleasurable and painful, both expanding and limiting? For example, in caring deeply about anything, we open doors not only for the pleasure of our own passions for a person, activity, place, idea, or thing but for the possibility of loss, disappointment, hurtful misunderstandings, and even betrayal. Similarly, making a choice to commit to one path in life means that we must give up other possibilities along the way. You might also consider that having knowledge or wisdom may provide its own satisfaction and expansiveness yet carry the greater burden and responsibility of awareness and pain.
Contradiction and paradox apply in nearly every area of our lives, be it with relationships, finances, education, developing a skill, ownership (of anything), having a passion for beautiful things, having a personal or spiritual practice, or holding a serious goal to have or achieve almost anything. George Santayana, twentieth-century philosopher, poet, and literary and cultural critic, said, "The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be."
* * *
Think of a contradiction or memorable paradox in your own life. This could apply in the case of any choice or experience where there could be, or already was, a simultaneous plus and minus, pro and con, pleasure and pain, expansion and contraction, or gain and loss. The contradiction or paradox may have been a potential that made the decision difficult or a reality that you had to live with after making the decision. Write this as fiction or nonfiction, poetry or even song.CHAPTER 3
While she's working in her garden Samantha (you can call her anything you like) strikes a hard metal object with her trowel. She proceeds to dig around this obstacle, wanting to remove whatever it is to make room for her plants. But she soon discovers what it is that her trowel has struck. It appears to be the lid of an ancient metal chest. She digs around it with considerable care and finally lifts it out. It is much heavier than she would have judged it to be by its size.
Once the chest is out of the hole she begins inspecting it more closely. There is a huge bronze padlock on it. She remembers that when she bought this house, some years before, she'd found a beautifully crafted skeleton key hanging from a hook in a closet. It was so unusual that she kept it, displaying it among her collection of curios on a shelf in her living room. She runs inside, grabs the key, then returns to the chest. After blowing the dirt out of the keyhole, she carefully inserts the key, and the lock opens! She pries open the lid, whose hinges groan because they are rusty and corroded.
The chest open, she finds a large parchment envelope inside, stained and yellowed with age. With utmost care she lifts it out and sets it aside. There is something more in the chest. She now sees what appears to be a brittle and moldering leather packet, secured by two leather straps with silver buckles.
She turns her attention back to the parchment envelope and carefully opens it. Inside is a handwritten letter, also on parchment, which is amazingly well preserved. The writing is executed in a flowery script that she can barely read. It describes the contents of the leather packet, which she has not yet unwrapped, and tells why the box was buried.
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Now it's your turn to take over the story. In your own words, tell what the note reveals. Describe Samantha's feelings as she lifts the leather packet from the old chest, unbuckles the straps, and peels back the brittle leather to reveal the contents. You, of course, will decide what she finds and what happens after that. Take the story as far as you wish to take it. Maybe you can even turn it into a novel!
The puzzle that I'm now trying to unravel is suggested by the observation that the creative person, in the inspirational phase of the creative furor, loses his past and his future and lives only in the moment. He is all there, totally immersed, fascinated and absorbed in the present, in the current situation, in the here- now, with the matter-in-hand.
— ABRAHAM H. MASLOW
THE FARTHER REACHES OF HUMAN NATURECHAPTER 4
YOU DO IT SO WELL
We are often blind to the things we ourselves are best at doing in life. It is not that we're overly modest or that we have a self-esteem issue or that we don't want to draw attention to ourselves by owning our accomplishments or skills; it's more a matter of taking what we do for granted. It's just something we do. Maybe it's so easy for us that we can't imagine it being a big deal for anyone else. We might not notice that others can't do it or that they don't do it as effortlessly or as well as we do it.
This is not to say that there aren't more dysfunctional reasons for being blind to what we do best. I recall a man in a seminar I was teaching who I happened to know was an excellent pastry chef. When he was asked to write about something he was exceptionally good at, he made no mention of his bakery skills. During the break I asked him why he didn't mention this. "Oh, that's just what I do for a living," he replied. "I come from a family of chefs. It's something I can do in my sleep."
I argued that, regardless of how easy it was for him, he was exceptional at what he did, so would he please try to write about it. He finally did write something. But what came out was that he felt like a failure because his father and his older sister were both top-rated and well-paid chefs in five-star restaurants. Meanwhile, he struggled financially as a baker at a co-op coffee shop and bakery. Any time he saw his father or sister, they invariably got into a discussion of how talented he was and how he was wasting his talent working for little money for a low-prestige organization. He wrote how he looked upon his talent as a burden rather than a gift.
Once he'd described these things in writing, he got in touch with the fact that he really did take a great deal of pride in his skills — and loved baking. He went on to write a piece about his skills, describing in considerable detail the experience of baking and the pleasure he got from others enjoying his creations.
The lesson for us here is if we find ourselves confronting negative feelings around what we do best, we may first need to write about that experience. Like the baker, we may find our way clear to write about our gifts.
Every time I start on a new book, I am a beginner again. I doubt myself, I grow discouraged, all the work accomplished in the past is as though it never was, my first drafts are so shapeless that it seems impossible to go on with the attempt at all, right up until the moment ... when it has become impossible not to finish it.
— SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCECHAPTER 5
You've been invited to visit a friend who recently moved into an old fixer-upper in a small town in the Midwest. The town is quaint and picturesque, with a population of around five thousand. The house is huge, a two-story Victorian in great disrepair. Your friend tells you that previous renters had complained the house was haunted and friends informed her that there is a legend about the place that goes back in history about 150 years. However, your friend, who has restored several old houses, shrugs off the idea, saying it is pure superstition and to pay no attention to the rumors circulating about the place. She loves the old house and doesn't want to hear anything bad about it, so she has refused to listen to any of the stories people tell. Old houses, she argues, make funny noises, usually due to structural problems. The ghosts have a way of disappearing after a new foundation is poured and rotting walls are repaired and squeaky hinges are replaced.
That night you are shown to a large, nicely furnished room on the second floor. Stepping into it is like stepping into the past. You quickly fall asleep. Then, around 3 AM you are awakened by a strange sound and are alarmed to realize that someone is in your room. You hear a woman's voice calling your name, and a hand on your shoulder gently shakes you. You bolt upright even as the woman tries to assure you that she means no harm and is not a ghost. Rather, she is seeking your help. You turn on the bedside light. It's a real woman — and, no, this is not a dream. The woman pulls up a chair, sits down, and begins to tell you her story. For several years she has been living, along with one other person, in secret rooms hidden in the basement passages of the house. More than a hundred years ago her great-grandfather built this place, and nobody outside her family knows of the underground rooms and passageways. Now the woman fears she must move and thus reveal a truth that will result in great danger to her, the second resident of the secret rooms, and the present owner of the house. She shares a secret that makes you part of a mystery that you cannot ignore.
* * *
Pick up this story at any point that you wish, telling it in your own words and going on to reveal the mystery.
As well as being good company for writers, cats and dogs can make good muses. (If you love animals, you'll understand. If you don't, just skip this.) My cats, Stuart and Charlotte, have listened to more bad prose read aloud, to more moaning about how hard it is to write, as well as to bizarre moments of my over- the-top optimism — and they never lose their cool. They never say to me, Oh, stop whining, and find some real work, or Don't count your chickens, cookie, or Don't you think this might be a little too personal to write about?
— BARBARA ABERCROMBIECOURAGE AND CRAFT: WRITING YOUR LIFE INTO STORYCHAPTER 6
FIND YOUR INNER DOG ... OR CAT
Write from the point of view of a dog, cat, or other animal. Think of the animal's inherent limitations and abilities — extraordinary abilities in particular — as you do. For example, writing from a dog's point of view you might focus attention on the canine's highly developed sense of smell. If I were a dog sniffing the cuff of my human's pant leg, I might know exactly where he's been — across the street with that blond lady who lives with three cats and smells like roses and cooking cabbage. At the same time, I might be quite puzzled about the funny noises humans make whenever they kneel down to pat my head and I lick their faces — awrh poochypoo suchawunner fulfelle izent tea yesseeeiz.
Excerpted from Write Starts by Hal Zina Bennett. Copyright © 2010 Hal Zina Bennett. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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