Category Archives: Writing Toolbox

Sentence evolution

The Sentence is a tool to keep a writing project focused and I’ve worked over GOTS’ Sentence many times inthe past two years in an effort to refine that focus, or, in the case of last year’s massive setting shift to reflect the most important elements of the story.

It’s interesting to note how a story can change so much yet still remain the same project. To illustrate that, here are several incarnations of my summary.  The first is the actual first attempt to figure out what in the world I was working with.

  • A five year old passenger in a wreck that leaves her brother in a coma is sent to her grandparents’ while her mother gives all her attention to the injured boy. In a strange environment and with no friends, Kimmie discovers an unlikely and dangerous ally who sends her on a journey to restore her brother from unconsciousness.

Wordy, wordy, wordy, but I was merely working my way toward my point. Gradually I cleaned it up and had something I could work with for a while.

  • A dubious fairytale ally helps a little girl far from home discover the path to recovery from the trauma of a car wreck that left her brother in a coma.

I started working with that as my guiding principle – it gave the most important details of the story around which I could work new information and plot expansions.

Eventually, as detailed in The Convoluted History of GOTS, and What GOTS has Turned Into,  I realized I was on a tangent, a wrong track, for this story.  It has themes it wants to maintain and the decisions I was making for the story weren’t working for them.  Not that I have an ulterior motive in writing this, or that the entire point is the “message” but that this story has fundamental characteristics, or dare I say, needs, and that to deviate from them would be to undermine it.

I’m not going to out and out list those themes (sorry, no Cliffs Notes version of GOTS), because if I succeed in making the story I want, you’ll be able to find your own in it and I will have done my job well without hitting you over the head with blatant explanations.

Most recently, I started working again after a several month hiatus (encompassing an international move) and I started with the Sentence as written in the previous post. It’s obviously related to the last pre-setting-shift version, but with significant alterations.

  • A dubious fairytale ally gives a gifted student the means for her injured father’s recovery but immanent homelessness requires relinquishing her dreams to save her family during the Depression.

With the help of How to Think Sideways members to whom I offered a longer description of the story, I was able to work out a new and improved summary.  This is where I’m currently basing my story, what keeps me focused.

  • When a math-whiz risks her dreams to support her family during the Depression, a double-dealing frog promises the cure for her comatose father if she’ll sign her talents over to him.

Even rereading it now I find a few places where it isn’t perfectly consistent with the amorphous-but-still-fully-formed-in-my-unconscious story that wants to be written.  Every now and again I’ll revisit the Sentence and see if I can get it to reflect the project more succinctly and fully, but for now it works.

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GOTS – The Sentence

A dubious fairytale ally gives a gifted student the means for her injured, comatose, father’s recovery, but immanent homelessness requires relinquishing her dreams to save her family during the Depression.

small step – to heck with the “write a novel” idea

No, no, no – don’t panic!  I’m still plugging along with GOTS.  I just realized (again) this week that Big Project Titles intimidate me.  So no longer am I going to dangle it over my head, I don’t need the torment.

Instead I’m just going to keep up the small steps that are part of the whole picture.  Yes, I’m fooling myself intentionally – obviously I know I’m working on a novel.  But there’s a voice that says (with a whine): gee, don’t you wish you could “write a novel?”  How come you’re not “writing your novel?”  You’re not very committed to “writing a novel” are you, if you’re not actually writing it?  etc etc.  And that voice can officially shut up instead of freezing me up.

This week has been full of small steps (which look large in comparison to the months of no activity I’ve had recently) and I am pleased to keep keeping on with them.  They’ve involved clustering, and today a revisit to the Dot and the Line, HTTS’ Lesson Five.

The Dot and Line work are integral for me, even though they’re difficult, because I was not granted an intuitive understanding of the conflict in my story other than that which is completely obvious.  In the past I’ve tweaked the Dot with great results (the spoke shape Holly uses never worked for me, I’m more of a list maker at heart), and from the walkthrough I saw that it was possible to draw a three (or more)-pronged line to show conflict between multiple facets.

It’s good to be developing the story again – and not succumbing to hopelessness that I’d be able to come up with the depth the story needed.

small step – clustering

Mind mapping/clustering seems to be a good way to generate and record random half-thoughts that might eventually be used. Yesterday I spent some time mapping both what the Golden Gate Bridge means in this story and what’s important about the setting being San Francisco. I brought my SF map to Germany and yesterday looked it over – an exercise in both reminiscence and imagination.

With the map I was also able to think about whether or not it’s feasible to pull in a sunset seen from the East Bay, setting through the GGB.  Just a thought I had – and I guess it would mean that at some point I’d need to determine where on the horizon (during which particular season) the sun actually appears to set… Probably too much research than I need to be getting into at this point, but I did write the possibility down on my cluster.

This morning I stepped away from physical objects and put down “Characters” as a central circle for a cluster and promptly stalled out.  Maybe “Characters” is too broad for my creative mind – but I did something I’m learning to do more often and it helped.  I opened up my cheap notebook and wrote out about being stumped by “Characters.” Eeventually I turned from that page and clustered a little about one of the main characters, asking questions and getting more detail.

Asking questions is key, especially, “What if…?” and simply writing out what’s in my mind, journal style seems to help.  These are things that I need to be consciously aware of having in my toolbox.  I’m also finding that though I recognize that such things as a “toolbox” with “tools” in it is symbolic, it helps to accord them a degree of imaginal or magical reality.  I have a toolbox in my mind, and it’s in the studio of my mind where I work to bring words out into the world.

My next step is to continue with the clustering and then to go back and look through HTTS lessons (and walkthroughs) – backtracking a bit to make up for having pushed GOTS to the background.

who’s a muse?

You may have noticed that I sometimes refer to my creative side as my “Muse-mind.”  This is a term I use intentionally and, thus far, without explanation under the assumption that you pretty much get what I mean.  The concept of an artist having a Muse is, of course, well known, though probably regarded as anomalous except in certain Romantic literary and artistic circles.

It is possible to see the trajectory of the Muse concept as one that encompasses both the Greek notion of three, then ultimately, nine goddesses who bestowed gifts of creative output and sentiment on mortals as well as later (mostly European male) artists finding their creative source embodied in actual women (as in Dante Alighieri’s case with Beatrice).

Of course, given the Enlightenment and subsequent eras’ preference for rationality and biologically proven reasons for human actions, these ideas fell out of favor. I doubt, too, that upholders of Christian doctrine approved of something that sounds so like heathen idolatry. Personally I don’t require completely materialistic explanations of everything or adherence to such religious tenets, so I’ve had the pleasure of toying with this idea that’s experiencing a resurgence.

In the past few years of learning more about my creativity, including what works, what doesn’t, how I avoid dealing with it and ways I’ve been conditioned to think about it or value it, I’ve come across an ongoing revitalization of the idea that there might be such things as “muses.”  What’s interesting to me is that the notion has evolved over time and has come to incorporate some of the findings and theories of (mostly Jungian) psychology as well as a willingness to look back to ideas that were shaped by early humans’ recognition of an animate world filled with varieties of sentience and states of consciousness.

By 2009 I had begun to read many writers’ thoughts on inspiration, creativity, the unconscious, and archetypes.  Almost simultaneously, I came across the notion of the useful (and perhaps imperative) concept of a personified Muse from several different sources.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDtalk (embedded below) considers the Greek notion of one’s genius being something not wholly personal or subject to “ownership” but rather something one accesses or is given to use for particular work and it really struck a chord (and still moves me, two years later). Gilbert’s experience and the lesson in How to Think Sideways on personifying one’s Muse gave me a huge sense of relief and tools with which to actively nurture what until that point had felt like an arbitrary burden because of an underlying fear that there might be no way to encourage any flourishing while still feeling the pull of potential.  It felt capricious and mystifying.  In some ways it still does but learning to give (“imaginary”) form to my imagination was the first step in making this a mutual, reciprocal, engagement with the source.

As William Stafford’s poem, “When I Met My Muse,”  indicates, a generally unspoken but widely understood sense that it is one’s unconscious that adopts or receives a conceived form in order to facilitate engagement or communication between the conscious mind and the source of creative generation.  Matt Cardin, whose highly recommended site, Demon Muse, is a great source of detail on this topic, says,  

“In broad terms, everything a writer or any other creative artist needs to know about the psyche can be stated in a pair of linked propositions: First, your psyche — your entire inner world of thoughts, memories, emotions, drives, etc. — is comprised of two major levels, the conscious and unconscious minds, each of which plays its own discrete and proper role in the creative act. Second, your best gambit is to regard the unconscious mind as a separate presence, a personified entity with which you work in collaboration. And that’s it. That’s the whole truth in a nutshell. Everything else is just elaboration.”

(from A Writer’s Guide to the Psyche, Part 1: Muses, Demons and Egos.)

And though it may seem very farfetched when put forth in the form of belief (“Do you really believe in muses?” I can imagine being asked) as though they’re non-corporeal spirits floating about independent of everything, the whole concept is really one that one’s unconscious has to accept or deny, by trying it out imaginatively.  It’s a matter of whether or not it works for a particular artist, a choice of lens with which to understand things, let’s say.  Not everyone needs or wants a muse, many benefit by having the option. Something important, though, is that although the rational mind can justify the process with psychology terminology and awareness of the symbolic nature of the muse, the symbol still has to be treated with respect, with commitment, and with awareness that it simultaneously has a life of its own that wants to be lived. Only then can it find its power, no longer repressed.

The archetypal motifs of the Western religious tradition seem to have lost their effectiveness for the larger portion of civilized humanity or, at best, have been depotentiated to the level of a “merely psychological” reality.                                                                                                                        -Terence & Dennis McKenna (The Invisible Landscape)

Personally, my Muse-mind has a specific form it likes to be envisioned with, a name, and certain character traits (including a preference for Muse-mind rather than “My Muse” when being introduced to people) some of which I may share in a future post. Meanwhile, enjoy the video and Matt’s site to explore the ideas further..

>When I Met My Muse

>

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

William Stafford

I offer this in way of introduction to an upcoming post about the nature of Muses (well, mine, anyway), and what it really means to accept such a thing.

giving form to the voices in my head

Hmmm, that title sounds like I’m entering tricky territory, like maybe you wouldn’t want to meet me at your local cafe for a cuppa conversation.  But that’s not what I meant.  Really!

What this is about is a technique for working with the mind’s tendencies (the helpful and the harmful) to track off into non-rational territory, into the realms of feelings or desires, creativity or judgments, or what have you.

Early on in How to Think Sideways, there’s a lesson on getting to know your creative/unconscious mind by personifying it as a Muse.  While I will post about that experience at a later time, here I will give you an example of how it can be useful to follow with the images presented by the unconscious mind when you become aware of territory that seems “loaded.”  This is along the lines of Active Imagination as developed by Jung but as I really haven’t explored that too deeply, I can’t say that there are more than nominal similarities.  While Jung’s method was really about “following” the images that arise out of the unconscious and letting them lead the way in further, I’m not talking about that here.  This is visualization at a basic level.

In the first week’s lesson, Holly analyzes the mental barriers that prevent writers and others from being successful, in whatever way they define it.  One of my biggest stumbling blocks is a very insistent case of perfectionism and residual (carried over from when I was a kid it seems) fear of screwing up and not fulfilling my own expectations.

I’d benefited years ago from visualizing my “inner critic” who had austere hair and a sharp, no-nonsense face with an eye for mistakes.  I sent her out a door in the attic of my brain and told her I didn’t need her help.  With her gone I’ve been able to be relatively free in my writing – I don’t freeze up on the page, don’t generally stall and humm and haw for time while I scramble about trying not to write something that would reflect badly on me.  That she would have judged me as having poor writing style or choosing tactless subject matter (for example, writing about depression or writing about family stories) has not been too much of a hindrance.  I don’t suffer under her insistence that I conform to certain social standards, for example and allow my writing to go where it will.  Likewise, the grammarian/hyper-spell checker (who cringes at all my parenthetical statements) doesn’t get free reign.  That came in handy when I was writing for NaNoWriMo because the goal is quantity of words typed and apparently a lot of writers get stalled on word choice and grammatical errors or typos.  Over the years, though, I’ve learned to be relatively undistracted by those issues, or at least to be able to ferret out the trail of what I want to say no matter the distractions that show up.

What I hadn’t realized until this week, however, is that the judge had crept back into my life but in a new form.  Or maybe it’s that I’m now recognizing the other areas where self-judgment has become a stumbling block and am looking to clean the path up a little.

One method for accessing the strange information in the unconscious mind is rapid, uncensored writing which is actively imagining on paper.  Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, uses “morning pages” (and recommends they be in the morning, before rationality takes over for the day) and Natalie Goldberg talks about “writing practice” where pen is put to paper and you write whatever comes up for typically ten or more minutes.  In my Tuesday writing group (which follows Amherst Writers and Artists’ Guidelines) we start with a prompt and write whatever wants to be written.  I’ve wanted to incorporate more of that kind of writing on my own time though, and have attempted morning pages of my own.  Usually it’s a struggle because my eyes still want to be asleep if I’m just going to sit in bed at 5:30 am, no matter there’s a pen in my hand.  But I can type with my eyes closed and let the keystrokes report what’s going on behind the scenes.

I found a site that serves as a repository for just this kind of writing and they have little bells and whistles that make it a fun thing to log in and type up a storm (all writing is kept private).  So I’ve been doing that since Wednesday, writing whatever blather is in my mind when I wake up.  Trust me, it’s mostly blather, however on the second day I was writing about what had been covered in HTTS and I suddenly realized that my mental space was being inhabited by a newly recognized inner critic!  Had I not been doodling about on 750words.com I probably would’ve been a lot slower to figure this out.

It turns out that Mr. Slick is a promotional agent and he’s judging everything I do to see if I meet his standard of awesomeness.  He cares about his reputation and how well I carry it for him.  He has an eye toward whether or not my life (and therefore my writing) meets the standards of the genre into which he’s steering me:  Am I imaginative enough? Mystical enough? Deep and mythological?  He requires it.  Do my ideas tie up tightly, like perfect intricate origami? Is there intelligence and subtlety?  Is the meaning profound?  Do I measure up on his cool-meter?  Apparently, according to him, I hired him so that I could fulfill his expectations of brilliance and edgy non-conformity.

He lives in Berkeley (it’s an easy commute), where on the street I never measure up to anyone who’s anyone and in Berkeley everyone is someone and if they’re not, they’re at least up and coming (in intellectual/creative circles.  I don’t think Berkely’s a hotbed of pop idols).

Thursday, when he knew he was ratted out and I was looking to sack him, this Mr. Slick started saying, “Why neighbor, you don’t mean that!  I’m here to help you. Stick with me baby and you’ll go far!  I have it all planned out, there’s a trajectory to stardom and you’re riding the train with the ticket I got for you.  If you don’t screw it up, you’re going to be the next big thing, the Billy Collins of the blogging world, the Mary Oliver of novels, the Rumi, the Rilke of the century [oh how he’s pandering to the poet these days]. You’re going to be different from all the other struggling writers with me on board.  I’m going to hold you to task and only then will you accomplish what you can’t accomplish on your own. Only I know what you’re capable of and without me you’re going nowhere.”

How the hell did this guy get on my payroll?

I imagined a wolverine eating him.  Neatly and symbolically, I mean.

Which seems to have worked because now I feel like laughing about how ridiculous it all sounds.
——
Later, the astute  Texanne suggested that Mr. Slick would make a great comic villain… something I hadn’t considered, but now the idea of him, working for me on a really short leash does sound about right.

image source: National Geographic
No wolverines or figments of my imagination were harmed in the making of this blog post.

>What happens when you are quiet.

>

You need not do anything.  Remain sitting at your table and listen.  

You need not even listen, just wait.  
You need not even wait.  
Just become quiet and still and solitary 
and the world will offer itself to you to be unmasked.
It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

–Franz Kafka

This sentiment came up in our comment-conversation over the past few days in conjunction with Dan’s desire to become still enough that he might be more available to poetry.  I wisecracked that I didn’t want the muses to think that by seeking quietude I would no longer welcome their unpredictable input.  I’m not sure I agree completely with Kafka, though this quote charms me:  truly I want to roll in ecstasy with the world.  Recognizing it as metaphor, I still know what Kafka means and that’s the part of the quote that’s most resonant for me.  I also recognize the draw toward being quiet and still and solitary – without those qualities in some small measure I lose my center, am pulled this way and that, filled with chatter.  I wonder, though, if it is true, that one should not listen, not wait.
I think the world wants us to listen, it wants to be beheld and held dear, it wants us to slow down and be quiet, yes, but with attention.  I don’t think Kafka is suggesting we find quiet created with fingers in our ears, with refusing to listen, but maybe I have to take his words a little further to make it work for me: don’t listen for something, tuned in to only what you expect, but be alert, attentive, aware; don’t wait, but be available.
I’m always up front here about how I’ve not really experienced any great mystical awakenings other than the moments during which the poetic arises from awareness of what is under (or beyond or below) the froth of the mind’s conversation with itself.  The world is communicating. 
I’m rereading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous and am reminded that it’s a new way of thinking we moderns have that allows us to judge the metaphors we use to show the world alive, and the sense we have that intelligence is all around us, as simply wishful, fanciful thinking.  In our solipsistic arrogance we condemn our experience of sentience everywhere as merely arising out of our own minds. 
Even I doubt, sometimes, thinking I’m just “merely” imaginative, that I see what I want to see in order to fulfill an inner need for community/commonality, yet perhaps it’s the imagination that’s most connected to the rest of an existence that doesn’t require of itself a livingness restricted to rationality and overt consciousness.

I’d like to reconsider Kafka’s original, “it will roll in ecstasy at your feet,” with how I posed it above: “roll in ecstasy with the world,” and pass along the gift of Jane Hirshfield’s words from “Against Certainty,” where she reminds us of waiting as path to disappearance into the world and becoming, again, one with it.

*
When the cat waits in the path-hedge,
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.

I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.

To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
one shadow fully at ease inside another.

*

So I’m curious – tell me about how the world is alive and personal for you: it’s not metaphorical – I’ve had plants call out to me, stopping me in my tracks until I turned and turned and spotted who it was.  Tell me about your moments sitting quietly when the world did or did not roll at your feet – in meditation I feel vaguely impatient and nothing talks to me, but walking near the creek or in the hills is another story. When you’re in a different mindset do the birds not fly from the branches on your approach?  Sometimes I feel like I’m am blundering through everything and there’s not a bird in sight.
Do you need to live a life in which it’s possible to be still and quiet and solitary?

beginning (again)

>One of the writing paths I follow is influenced by Zen Buddhism as interpreted by Natalie Goldberg, whose Writing Down the Bones woke me up to writing truth out of experience, without allowing the judging mind to intercede.  Fueled by mindfulness practice, this type of writing requires awareness of the immediacy of lived experience.  It’s free to be exactly what it is: from the minutiae to the expansive but writing it doesn’t mean only repetition of lifeless facts.  Creation is involved.

Creation is, of course, a beginning, but it’s only recently that I’ve actually let that sink in after years of struggling with the act of beginning.  It’s easy to not begin, to not sit down and do the work, to avoid it in favor of the vacuuming.  Many who have written about writing,  from Dorothea Brande to Anne Lamott, have already said this.  Yet the beginning – and not just the beginning of a story or poem, but the actual beginning of the day’s creation no matter where you are in the project – is the hardest part.   Rituals are helpful tools, like on-ramps to a freeway that allow no exit, that solidify your commitment to travel.  They can be applied across disciplines and to suit your needs.  For example,  in The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp has written about her daily ritual of getting up and dressed and hailing a taxicab.  The hailing of the taxicab sets her in motion to spend two hours exercising at a gym.  She says:

First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym.  Like everyone, I have days when I wake up and stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, “Gee, do I feel like working out today?”  But the quasi- religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.

It’s vital to establish some rituals –  automatic but the size of patterns of behavior — at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, are going the wrong way.

There’s a reason I say on my profile page that I’m  “beginning (again) with writing practice” and that’s because creativity is made up of beginnings – the most challenging thing ever.  But all I have to do is start.  Something always follows.  Obsessing about it, ignoring it, avoiding it and postponing it are all impediments to recognizing the fact that creative activity is made up of a million beginnings.

So far this year, my ritual is to go to the library.  That’s worked well for me in the past and it seems to be very helpful this time around too.  Once I’m at the library I feel I’ve entered productive space, that it’s a place to be quiet and focused and since I’m not interested in checking out more books (in deference to the pile next to my bedside), I only have what I’ve brought with me to keep me occupied.  Unpacking the backpack and setting up the table space clears the field and reminds me of what I’m doing, what I want to pay attention to.  Then I do the same with the writing: pay attention.

Author Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes,

“I begin with what is, and I am surprised as I write to feel my way into a wholeness, finding connections that are created as I write, stumbling across insights that remind me of what matters and allow me to simply be with what is.  The Danish writer, Isak Dinesen wrote, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.”  Stories, songs, images help us be with what is.

I am reminded, through her words, why it is important to keep starting, to keep starting over if necessary, but just to start, each day, by paying attention:

We create as a way to be with what is hard and beautiful and unexpected without closing our hearts or pretending something else is true…And as we create we make it all – the sorrow and the joy, the failed efforts and the places of ease – count.  Our stories and images and sounds create, explicate, or point to a deeper meaning that helps us receive, celebrate, and be fed by beauty and bear what is hard.

A friend in my writing groups said last week:  “So much cannot be known, as Story is creating itself.”  And I understood too that we are meaning, being made, as much as we are trying to find the meaning.

In the process of working on the G.O.T.S. project (which I am, though it didn’t manifest during NaNo), I’ve been aware of how the writing demands something of me, requires that I be open to the ways it can shape me, even as I try to understand the ways it wants to be shaped.

George recently shared an excerpt from  Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner and this sentiment is relevant here.  He’s writing about literature in this sentence, but the excerpt opens up to include all art.  Buechner writes:

From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention….In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.

So in spite of some stray thoughts that would like to demand that my writing fulfill certain objectives (all related to utilitarian things), that I remember to “be productive” and try to be “successful,”  I’m finding there’s  a rich undercurrent that is impervious, disconnected from all that and that it’s this undercurrent that makes writing and creative work the absolutely necessary thing it is.

G.O.T.S. progresses slowly becauseof its progress.  In some ways it is itself because of the inner work I’ve done in the past year.  And the inner work, bolstered by readings, by exploratory writing, with feeling my way along a heart-centered path, is what will allow the project to take the form it needs in the time it needs.  It is made of little beginnings and each next step and the next one after that, every whole joining others, forming a connected, beginingless whole.

>How do you cultivate ideas?

>We left off in the first post with having recognized that ideas are everywhere, that they’re obviously a product of your mind – but that they’re elusive and for some of us, hard to capture.  Obviously some people have an easier time of it (see #2, below) and so today we’ll start there.

Like everyone else on the planet, I’m full of “electrical impulses in my brain-meats,” (#1 in the previous post and #3, below)  some of which are more worthy of notice than others.  I’m also firmly in the school of thought that says, “no matter how much you protest that you’ve not got a creative bone in your body, that’s completely impossible unless you’re in a deep vegetative state.  If you’ve got a functioning brain, or even just consciousness, you’ve got a chance at being creative.”  (I’m not going to deny creativity to the myriad life forms who don’t happen to be graced with brains, it’s not my place to say slime molds and spider plants don’t have some form of creativity even if “we” don’t currently recognize it!).  That being said, though, it comes down to what you do with what you’ve got.

I asked, at the end of the previous post:  “How do you recognize ideas?  How do you relate to them?  How do you cultivate them?”

Maybe that’s what has frustrated so many writers and artists, that ideas are everywhere available to everyone, but the challenge is to see them.  Yet there are many, many methods out there that suggest ways the hopeful can welcome more ideas into their lives.  With their flighty, changeable nature, ideas are sometimes resistant to being caught but there are ways to become more aware of them and work with them.

Ideas might be related to but are structurally different from discursive thought.  If you’re at all aware of how your mind works, you know that thoughts come and go constantly.  Discursive thought is something like this:  “My bedroom is such a mess, I guess I’ll go clean it up, why am I always doing housework, gee the weather’s nice, I hope the seedlings didn’t get dried out, I should go check them.”  Images, on the other hand, are much more elemental – they flash on the scene, bare bones ready to be fleshed out with a little help.  I saw the books on my floor and before I was consciously aware of where this could go, I had the sense of the image-inary aspect of the stack that turned into this:  “There’s a stack of books on the floor near the bed, piled as high as the bedside table on which are piled another six or eight; as a woman goes to sort and re-shelve them she finds four copies of the same book within the pile, which is puzzling because she’s certain she has only one copy, the one give to her by her ex-boyfriend a week before he was killed in a robbery.”  Both types of thought started out the same – I had a pile of books on the floor – but I went with the image of the pile and maintained it until I saw something in that image and allowed it to move beyond the discourse.

So that’s a story idea that could be worked into something and it all started with an image.  Ideas are fundamentally images and the expansion of images.  By images I don’t mean only the visual – all senses are involved and so you have to learn to pay attention to your senses in your regular life – that’s part of the training to allow the images to take form into ideas that resonate with real life.

Ultimately what’s known about how the mind works, about how it’s possible that we are creative to begin with, is that we have better luck when we consciously choose to access the unconscious, which is the source of the image and its expansion.

I got this far through this post and then I hit a bit of a stuck spot.  So I pulled out a notebook and wrote:

“I’m at a stuck place in what I want to say about generating ideas.  So I have to talk it out in writing, which, after all, is the point of what I’m trying to say – the conscious mind wants control, wants its demands met in a a way it recognizes, wants everything neat and tidy and easy to understand immediately and so it acts as a kind of lid to everything percolating underneath, a filter – only letting a few things, pre-approved, slip out.

“I suppose everyone has to work it out for themselves – you have to find the methods you can rely on to slip past the control-freak mind and stick a hand down in the water.  You have to constantly be brave enough to want to do this without really knowing what exactly is swimming down there, without a guarantee of its suitability for being pulled out into the company of others.”

For me, my most reliable tool is freewriting.  It masquerades as journal work and so in the past my creative writing has been creative non-fiction and personal essays mixed with poetry.  Now that I’m dabbling in the water of fiction, I’m beginning to see that I’ll likely need new tools (and I have been introduced to a few, including the Sweet Spot Map from Holly Lisle as well as the usefulness of the question, and Active Imagination, all of which I’ll explain later).  Though I definitely write a lot of real life into my fiction, there’s a difference between autobiography or journal explorations and spicing a story up with experience.”

Quite possibly the freewriting technique (see Brande, Cameron, Goldberg or Ueland) works for storymaking thought I haven’t found my own groove for that yet.

What’s involved is a commitment to write for 10 minute increments – then writing whatever comes to mind, without judgment or hesitation – not stopping, not correcting, just allowing the writing to come as it does.  When I did that, as in this case, the stuck spot broke free and my idea continued along its intended path.

What freewriting does is allow the ideas that are housed in the unconscious to break through the grip of the conscious mind and come spilling out.  Not stopping to reread or even really notice what you’ve written gives the unconscious permission to come up with what it wants.  It’s often suggested that you don’t go back and reread for a few weeks even.

Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write talks about the importance of daydreaming or “moodling” – just letting your mind wander and paying light but persistent attention to what shows up.  Maybe this is why so many of us stall at the idea stage – we’re supposed to live up to an ideal productivity and moodling doesn’t look productive.  Neil Gaiman, too, says, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

So, pay attention.

Another method I’ve come across lately is termed Active Imagination.  Jung utilized this technique and the results are collected in the recently released Red Book. This is a much trickier endeavor, it seems, as Jung and others consistently press upon their readers that it’s best to undertake Active Imagination in a supervised or supported setting.  Jung apparently went through a phase where he figured he had become insane through his insistence to see Active Imagination through, deeper and deeper.  James Hillman, in Healing Fiction, writes,

     This method of active imagination which Jung inaugurated in modern psychology is an answer to the classical question of introspection at such a profound level that it changes the image of human being, of the psyche, and what Know  Thyself essentially means.”  

 In active imagination, the images are granted the right to have their own being – they are not merely figments of the imagination, they are archetypal images with their own existence.  As I have no experience with this, I can only refer you to other resources (online, in particular, The Iris of Time is a fascinating, touching, look at one writer’s experience with the process), but my sense is that when the unconscious mind recognizes that it has “permission” to be itself, it can step in, revealed as the source and reveling in its purpose.

Ultimately the cultivation of ideas comes down to paying attention to and then accepting what is given, initially without paralyzing the unconscious mind with censorship.  Later, having prepared the soil, it’s possible to know which seeds of ideas are likely to germinate and produce something nourishing and thus you can be selective about which ideas are kept and which are not.  That will be the eventual (and hopefully brief) third installment in this “series.”

***
#2: This author says, “The problem isn’t a shortage of ideas; it’s choosing which ones to use.”
#3:  When he’s asked, Neil Gaiman says: “‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.’
People don’t like this answer. I don’t know why not. They look unhappy, as if I’m trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there’s a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I’m not telling them how it’s done.”

Again, the paintings are by John William Waterhouse (link to a different site than in the first post)