Looking for Inspiration

“I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.” —Andrew Wyeth, American painter

Inspiration is a funny thing. When you’re searching for it, it often becomes slippery and elusive. And yet sometimes, in strange and unexpected ways, creative ideas will sneak in unnoticed and take root in our minds.

There are numerous examples of this principle at work among storytellers. For example, William Faulkner received the flash of inspiration for his novel The Sound and the Fury when he encountered a frightened little boy who had climbed a tree and couldn’t get down. (Apparently, the boy had been up in the tree so long he’d soiled himself.) Likewise, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the first line of The Hobbit while he was grading a tedious pile of examination essays. How these experiences morphed into Faulkner’s stream of consciousness novel and Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga is anybody’s guess, but this phenomenon is certainly nothing new among artistic folks.

In perhaps an even more bizarre way, certain imaginative endeavors originate when the creator’s conscious mind is turned off. For instance, James Watson, the famous pioneer of modern genetics research, envisioned the design of the double-helix DNA structure based on a dream involving two intertwined snakes. Elias Howe invented the first lockstitch sewing machine after dreaming he was being chased by Indians who were firing arrows at him through a piece of cloth. In the dream, the arrows snagged some material on the cloth and drew the threads through the tips of the arrows, thus inspiring the up and down motion of what would eventually become automated sewing machine needles. Even Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein began as a dream.

For me, some of my best story ideas have come when I was not thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something else, like taking a walk, mowing the grass, or some other mundane task. Perhaps the combination of doing something involving physical motion (while at the same time requiring very little mental concentration) allowed my mind to wander into that zone where creative ideas emerge. But like trying to see a feint star in the night sky, if you look for it too closely, it fades away. Instead you have to glance at it from the periphery and allow it to reveal itself in its own way and in its own time.

Six-Word Memoirs

The novelist Ernest Hemingway was once asked to create a full story in six words or less.  Here is what he wrote:  “For Sale:  baby shoes, never worn.”

Last year, the online magazine Smith asked readers to take up the same challenge and write the story of their own lives in a single, six-word sentence.  The result was the book, Not Quite What I Was Planning.  Here are some submissions the magazine received:

     Revenge is living well, without you.  – Joyce Carol Oats

     Well, I thought it was funny.  – Stephen Colbert

     After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.  – Robin Templeton

     70 years, few tears, hairy ears.  – Bill Querengesser

     Catholic school backfired.  Sin is in!  – Nikki Beland

     She said she was negative.  Damn.  – Ryan McRae

     I asked.  They answered.  I wrote.  – Sebastian Junger

     Joined Army.  Came out.  Got booted.  – Johan Baumeister

     Almost a victim of my family.  – Chuck Sangster

     The psychic said I’d be richer.  – Elizabeth Bernstein

     Mom died, Dad screwed us over.  – Lesley Kysely

     Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult.  – Linda Williamson

     Slapped by a nurse;  still sore.  -Matt Mather

After looking at these examples, I decided to write some six-word memoirs of my own.  Here’s what I came up with:

      “Hidden strife.  Unfaithful wife.  New life.” 

      “I taught them what I know.”   

      “English mom.  Irish dad.  Didn’t last.”

      “I thought I knew.  Not anymore.”

Now it’s your turn.  Come on, give it a try!

Sliced: A Storytelling Event

via ethermoon on Flickr

via ethermoon on Flickr

On October 3rd I participated in a live storytelling event organized by Robert Hoekman at the Hob Nobs Cafe in Phoenix. I was one of 5 storytellers, and had 10-15 minutes to relate a somewhat autobiographical tale for the audience.

I’m a gabby fellow to put it mildly, so talking in front of others didn’t worry me. It was when I sat down to really think of how to tell a story that I had a bit of a pause. Telling a story is not the same as talking, and it forced me to consider some basic elements I might have otherwise glossed over.


I needed first to tell the audience where they where, and what they saw. My story took place on a farm, so I explained the sights and sounds, the weather, the dusty tractor. It brought the audience into the picture with me, so as things progressed they had a common anchor.  Taking the time to build the setting forced me to think about the pacing and the elements that characters could interact with as I spoke. For example, a farmer climbing up on a tractor is more interesting if I’ve already described the tractor as a big part of the scene, rather than something that appears for the first time when he hops aboard.


Since I was relating something that happened to me, the people in the story were familiar to me. To my audience they were strangers. I needed to set them up as they entered the story – their look, their clothes, their accent, their demeanor.  This proved to be a nice way to refresh the characters in my own mind, and emphasize parts of their personality that helped the story.

Story Arc

Did my story have a beginning, a middle, and an end? I gave this only partial thought beforehand to make sure I met this criteria, but I was really glad I did afterwards. There is a clear difference between talking, and going somewhere with what you are saying. Especially when relating something that happened to us personally, we meander down tunnels and tangents.  Knowing my story beats kept me much more focused.


What was the point?  What did I take away from this event? How should the audience?  It didn’t have to be epic, but it needed to be something that gave some context to the story and wrapped it up. If you do it well, the audience should see things wrap up as you go, and be right along with you in the progress.


All the above helped me focus on being able to improvise a bit, and really have fun with the telling.  If I had been focused on the structure, and saying things like “Oh yeah, there was also this weird old lady!” as I backtracked around, I wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

I appreciated being invited, and would love to go it again. Storytelling is an ancient art, and one I’d like to continue to learn from as I practice it.

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“‘Tis an unweeded garden…” (Hamlet I.ii.135)

I spent Saturday morning trimming bushes. The shrubs surrounding my house had grown pretty wild over the summer, and if people saw them in a forest, they would likely say the flora looked good. However, nestled among the neat front yards of my suburban neighborhood, the plants looked ragged and unkempt. So after two hours of hacking and raking and stuffing debris into trash bags, my house was once again ready to be viewed by civilized society.

As I was sweeping up the last of the trimmings, I realized that the process of writing is much like gardening. In order for plants to grow, seeds must be nurtured and allowed to germinate. Once the seedlings pop into view, a wise gardener lets them grow for a while untended so that the roots may take hold and the stems can thicken and sprout more leaves. The time will come, however, when the gardener will need to trim back the plant in order to ensure its health and productivity.

In the same way, writers often begin a new work with merely the seed of an idea. They aren’t really sure where that idea will lead or what form it will take, but if they are smart, they nurture the idea and follow it in whatever direction it goes. (This process is sometimes called “free-writing,” but it’s a strategy that applies to any first draft. The purpose is simply to put words on paper.) After a while, the writer steps back and looks at the results. If he or she has been diligent, there are likely plenty of words to sort through, and there may even be enough material in this tangle of sentences to create a good piece of writing. But in order to find it, the writer needs to cut away all the nonessential fluff and give the piece some shape.

Far too often in my teaching, I’ll have students who turn in an assignment and say, “Look how long this is. I worked really hard on it!” While it may be true that the student filled up plenty of pages with words, unless there is some discernable form to those words, the end result is merely a jumble of sentences with no apparent structure or focus. Part of good writing is good editing, and just like my overgrown bushes, it’s important to prune the ragged edges of a piece in order to make it suitable for public viewing. In the end, the writing will be stronger, and people will enjoy looking at it much more.

Literary License

My students are reading “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. Recently we went through the history behind the Salem Witch Trials and 1950’s McCarthyism that inspired Miller to write the play. Miller used the trials in Salem to comment on the tragedy that was unfolding during “The Red Scare”.

A point of confusion for my students is the difference between historical fact represented in the play and the literary license Miller took to answer to why the witch trials happened.
Historically speaking, Abigail Williams and several of the other girls involved in pointing fingers during the Salem Witch Trials were all around 11 years old. In Miller’s play, Abigail is 17 and has had an adulterous affair with John Proctor.

Why did Miller choose to make such a change? Personally, I think it speaks to motivation. Throughout history countless experts have attempted to determine why the mass hysteria of the witch trials in Salem happened. Miller, because he was writing a play and needed to keep the attention of his audience as well as provide an answer as to the reason why, chose to paint Abigail as a young woman in love with a married man willing to do whatever it took (including turning to black magic) to get the man she loved. Does it make for an interesting story? Absolutely! Can it be confusing to students who are trying to separate fact from fiction? Oh, yes!

Literary license is such a nice tool to have as a writer, but I think it is important to use it wisely. When taking an historical event and morphing it into a fictional story the writer needs to realize that the event itself brings with it a universal schemata that could very well sabotage the theme of a story. Luckily, I believe Miller dodged this particular literary bullet with “The Crucible”. And while my students are befuddled at times, he definitely gets his point across in the end.