Keeping the Ideas Coming

The writing life is a sedentary one, requiring hour upon hour of sitting in front of a computer screen—not good for the eyes or the metabolism or that almost forgotten New Year’s resolution to lose ten pounds. Desk-bound inactivity is also not good, I’ve lately read, for the brain—particularly those portions of the brain that support a capacity of supreme importance to the writer: creativity. To keep the brain in good shape and new ideas flowing in, say scientists who study creativity, you need to change things up a bit. Do something active. Think about something else.

The solution for me is running. I run twenty-one miles a week on the back roads around my house. Because of my work schedule, I run in seven to ten mile chunks, which is a bit hard for a nonathletic person like me, so I’ve come up with various strategies to take my mind off of what I’m doing. In addition to thinking about my current writing dilemmas and planning new books, I count the different kinds of birds or flowers or grasses or trees. I carry binoculars for locating birds and have trained myself to recognize their voices and habits. I phone distant family members and friends whom I rarely get around to talking to otherwise. I pray.

On especially long runs, though, even these distractions get boring, so this winter I started playing a sick, depressing game of building alphabets from the roadside trash.

I made up rules for myself. I had to follow the alphabet’s order. I had to actually see a letter—not guess or surmise it from the visible part of the trash—for it to count. No slowing or stopping to look more closely. No stopping to turn a piece of trash over to see the other side. No touching at all! I had to read on the fly.

It was, as I say, a sick, sad game. So much trash. I fantasized about returning after my run with a box of trash bags and picking it all up but never found time.

Then spring came, burying the trash in weeds. That made the game harder and longer. I was on J one day—Js and Vs were always the hardest letters to find—and had been jogging along for miles without seeing even the Juicy Fruit wrapper I’d seen the last time I’d run there. Up ahead, a square of paper stuck up like a tombstone out of the freshly graded borrow ditch. On it was one word: TIME.

It occurred to me that it would be much more fun to collect whole words than single letters, so I wrote down TIME in my little bird notebook and jogged on. Soon I had grand, subway, rub, natural, ice, aqua, buried, cable, light, wet, ones, bud, sonic, key, stone, mountain, and dew and decided to make a poem.

It has always bothered me how advertising and brand names undo words. Light doesn’t mean light. Mountain has no real connection to a mountain nor dew to actual dew. My poem, I decided, would reclaim these words’ real meaning. I would redeem the trash words.

My rules were few. What linguists call structure-class words (pronouns, helping verbs, articles, conjunctions, etc.) and inflections (verb forms, plural forms, etc.) were allowed. So was divvying a word into its parts: keystone offered key and stone. Homophones—such as bush from Busch—were off limits. Once my poem got going, though, I threw out all my rules and just concentrated on making the poem work as a poem, importing non-trash words as I saw fit.

Writing that first poem made me cry. Don’t know why, exactly, except that it felt holy. I decided, in any case, to collect trash words and make poems routinely when I ran. I even started a blog of the poems that have resulted. I find the project profoundly satisfying, from collecting words to redeeming them as poems to posting them for others to read.

I don’t have much of a message here, except this: Get serious—and creative—about your creativity. Every moment, every event, all the minutiae of your life, even the worst things—even running!—can be re-purposed for something good.

In what ways will you choose to redeem your creativity this week?

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Associate Agent by Day, Writer by Night (Sometimes)

Like many of you, I had grandiose dreams of seeing my name on the front cover of a book in Barnes and Noble. I think it started when I was five, and my mom would post copies of my poems all over the fridge. Instead of drawing pictures of kittens or rainbows, I would write. Mostly about my Grandma Mason’s apple pie.

However, somewhere along the way, the dream of writing became a bit more fine tuned, and I realized that I really wanted to help others along their writing journey more than I wanted to write my own novel. I thought today might be a good one for looking at exactly what shaped my desire to become an associate agent over my desire to become a writer

I failed kindergarten cutting. As a left-handed cutter in a right-handed-at-everything-else body, I was doomed from the beginning. My teachers didn’t believe that I was really a left-handed cutter because everything else came naturally to me as a right hander. There were only a limited amount of left-handed scissors after all. As early as age five, I knew that only certain people could use the left-handed scissors. I was not one of them.

I used to memorize publishing houses. Not only did I read my favorite authors or genres as a child, but there was a time when I would only read from my favorite publishing houses. I would dream of the day when I could be a part of that particular team. My writing dreams were never really of me being a shining star—they were always of me creating something spectacular with others.

My story arc never expands beyond 15 pages. Have any of you ever read Moby Dick? No, let me ask that again. Have any of you ever read Moby Dick and liked it? To this day, I can only make it through the first 100 pages. About the time the crew leaves for sea, I give up. I love Melville as a short story writer but not so much as a novelist. And I like to compare myself to Melville, although I know I am not nearly as good. I am best with short forms of storytelling or even poems. I am just not a fan of writing 70,000+ words about the same people and place. I give up after about 5,600 words and want to move on to something else.

I do, however, love working with other people’s words. I like to think through how I can make someone else’s story even stronger. The words have already been written; now I get to go in and play. I am like a decorator on Extreme Home Makeover. (Anyone else sob during the last episode?) I am thrilled to let someone else build the frame and put up the drywall. I want to go in and build a pirate ship into a child’s room or create a sanctuary for Mom and Dad.

Even though I am not a novelist, I do still like to write. Writing is a hobby now—something that I do for fun now and then. And, sometimes, I like to share my words with others. So, if you can promise me that you won’t come after me with pitchforks and tar and feathers if you don’t like my words, here is my is my Saturday gift to you:

FEBRUARY 28

They say you will reach me at a time when the

Impassable becomes the necessary.

Like conscientious birds refusing to fly,

Mine is a tombless marriage.

Cotton-candied windows reflect

Pastel letters, “A”, “B”, “C”

The soft skull of books is no longer a comfort

Crushing frozen syllables,

My city is ineffective.

* Line 8 of this poem is taken from Neruda’s poem, “Heights of Macchu Picchu: VIII, Clime up with Me”

Since I shared my creativity with you, would you be willing to share some of your writing with me? I would love to read something that is outside of your normal genre. Pull your poems out from under your bed. Let me see the songs that you wrote (but didn’t send to) the winners of American Idol. Or, if you’re in a creative mood, write me something new.