Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The writer's walk

Lots of people want to write. Few really want to write anything. Writing is grueling work. Ask any journalist with daily deadlines. Non-writers talk about writing. Real writers write. Every day. No exceptions.

Many of the emails I'm getting this week ask questions about writing, the subject I've taught to college students on and off for 15 years, and the main source of my income for the past 20. How? Why? Where do ideas come from? What about writer's block?

The idea thing -- that is the easy part. Ideas are there for the picking. You don't need a muse or a bolt of inspiration or even a college course to find that great idea that compels you to write. Just go on a long walk in the park, on a beach or in your own back yard.

I learned this as an undergrad studying under the legendary Paul Baker, founder of the Dallas Theater Center and of the undergrad and grad programs in theater at Trinity University in San Antonio. He developed something called The Integration of Abilities, a creative philosophy that uses at its core a really beautiful system of finding ideas in "found objects." Ideas are anywhere and everywhere, waiting to be turned toward writing, composing, painting, sculpting, acting, singing -- living even.

In Mr. Baker's classes we had to do it all, even as freshmen. You couldn't specialize in any one thing. No one could say "I'm an actor" or "I'm a playwright." Everyone did everything, right down to sweeping the stage, sewing the costumes, hammering scenery and wielding a crescent wrench to hang fresnel lights from the creepy-dark overhead grid.

The first course, also called Integration of Abilities, really set the pace. I've used its exercises in many of my writing classes, always with success. Students are wary at first, mostly because the steps are so deceptively easy and require some physical energy. But the steps are the important part, not the finished product. As the fortune cookie says: The journey is the destination.

In the simplest terms, the first step toward creative discovery can begin like this:

1. Go outside. Find an inanimate object from nature. A pinecone. A shell. An interesting rock. A leaf. Something small enough to hold in your hand.

2. Now, look at the object. Study it. Carry it around. Get to know it. Place it in plain sight and stare at it whenever you can. Sniff it. Taste it. Become an expert on its lines, textures, colors, silhouette or sound.

3. Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Write down as many words as you can think of that describe that object based on your sensory contact with it. Fill up the page with words.

4. Now, here's where the creative process gets interesting. Using those words, write a short poem, a simple song, a little story or scene. You might think, hmmm, if these words described a person, what might that person be like? Write something about that character. What would that character do? How would he or she talk? And what about?

5. Draw or paint something based on what you just wrote. Did your pinecone remind you of a witch's hat? Did you write a little poem about a witch? Now you might paint a picture of a witch's bonfire or make a collage from bits and pieces of things that express the colors, lines and textures of the character you've discovered. Or was that leaf a butterfly in another life? Did your adjectives lead you to a song about a butterfly? You might draw or paint a field of butterflies or a close-up of just one wing. Don't be critical of your art work. It can be abstract. It doesn't have to be pretty.

6. Go further now. Get on your feet and walk across the room using the rhythms of your "character." (We did this in class and though students are initially embarrassed, once one does it, they all do.) Shape your body differently from your own posture. Gesture, kick, skip, twirl. Be bold! Be silly! Let loose! First walk in a way that's says "comedy." Now walk tragically or mournfully. Explore how your character physically cuts through an empty space.

7. By now you have at least part of a story, a piece of art, a bit of dance. You've thought of a character. You've inhabited that character in three dimensions. You can keep going by using that rhythm you've just created to make a piece of music. Nothing fancy. Just a simple tune with or without lyrics. You might just clap out the rhythms of your character with your hands.

And on it goes.

All of the above can be done in just a a few hours. It's best not to do it all at once. Take your time. What's the rush? To keep integrating those abilities (as we did for several semesters as students of Mr. Baker), you then take all of the exercises and choose one to explore more fully. Write a one-act play that uses the character you found in your nature object. Or write a really polished short story or long poem. Illustrate it with art, the more textural the better. Use those rhythms in the brushstrokes or in the pace of the dialogue in your writing. You don't have to be literal. Any word or image or sound might lead to something else. Keep following the flow as ideas pile up one on another. Let them take you somewhere -- don't edit yourself, don't allow doubt or fear to interrupt. Just keep going.

Integrating all of these abilities -- not unlike some of the exercises in the Artist's Way -- means you're using both sides of your brain and all of your senses. Maybe you'll discover a new interest in visual art or a new approach to creating the people who come to life in your fiction. You haven't just sat at a keyboard staring at a blank screen, waiting for that great idea to pop into your noggin. You've found a multi-dimensional way to create. And even if you use this only as a warm-up, it's bound to open new paths to creativity.

From a rock, a shell or a dandelion, you can be led to words, images, characterizations, plots, melodies, movement. I've over-simplified Mr. Baker's formula for creativity, but you can explore it more on your own and adapt it however you like. The rule is, there are no rules. Whether you're doing these exercises alone or with a group -- I've done them with kids as young as 5 -- you can't help but come up with something new and wonderful.

Writer's block, be gone.


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