Thanksgiving Writing Prompts

These Thanksgiving writing prompts come from blogger Bryan Cohen.  Check ’em out!

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“Sometimes you need to eat a pound of chocolate and it’s not good for you, and sometimes you have to eat a salad and sometimes you need to eat a huge steak.” -Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie

Music and writing have many connections.  Often, song lyrics are compared to poetry, and, just as often, the poets get offended.  Billy Collins said it best in a recent interview on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (2013) and in a Q&A in a recent reading I attended in support of his latest book of poetry, Aimless Love (Random House, 2013).  I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said that music isn’t necessarily better or worse than poetry, but it’s different in that it’s more of a social medium while poetry is personal, meant to be read by one’s self.

Sure, we’ve all been known to blast stereos in the comfort of our own rooms or to play headphones so loud while walking home that we can’t hear the city traffic.  That’s listening alone.  However, most music we listen to involves collaboration–of bandmates, of producers, of record labels, and so forth.  You go to a concert, even alone, and it’s a community experience.

I’m a fan of Death Cab for Cutie.  You may know them for their hit album Plans (Atlantic Records, 2005), which featured the songs “Soul Meets Body,” “Crooked Teeth,” and “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”  In fact, theirs was the first concert I attended alone, wearing a T-shirt sporting the word “Sweden” on the back from a The Sounds concert earlier that year.  It’s the ten-year anniversary of their first major hit album (for the indie-rock world) called Transatlanticism (Barsuk Records, 2003).  The titular song had a slow build into a beautiful swell, and “The Sound of Settling” was an up-beat song about, well, settling.

Yesterday, a brief interview with guitarist/producer Chris Walla appeared online from altpress.com.  Musical journalist Ryan Wasoba interviewed Walla, and Walla’s answer to the final question reminded me a lot of creative writing on the more commercial side–who knows what an audience wants and when they want it?  Do you need to just toss darts into the dark and hope to hit the board?  I think you need to write what you need to write, when you need to write it, and then send it out (that’s the hardest part for me), hoping it hits the target.  I think Walla agrees.

Q (Wasoba): In the months before Transatlanticism, I remember there was a feeling that this was going to be the record that really propelled Death Cab For Cutie into mainstream consciousness.  Even so, the album seemed to exceed all expectations.

A (Walla): I was totally surprised and I continue to be surprised–kindly and amazingly and happily–surprised at how well it was received.  We hoped it would do well but we didn’t think we were making a pivotal record; we were making the best record we could make, which is something I can thankfully say we’ve always done.  I’ve worked on a bunch of really good records at this point, but so few of them end up connecting or landing at the right place at the right time.  I think the world needs different records at different moments for different reasons.  Sometimes you need to eat a pound of chocolate and it’s not good for you, and sometimes you have to eat a salad and sometimes you need to eat a huge steak.  I just feel very fortunate and grateful to be a part of a record that I’m both fond of, proud of and people seem to enjoy (Wosoba, 2013, p.1).

References:

Wasoba, R. (2013). Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla reflects on Transatlanticism. Altpress.com. http://tinyurl.com/naqf6mu

Some factual information from wikipedia.org

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A writer falls …

A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away.

-Doris Lessing

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That is what le…

That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve known all your life, but in a different way.

-Doris Lessing

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The Caffeine Question, Revisited With Research

I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to caffeine.  God, I love coffee and soda and tea.  Without it, I just drop like a fly hitting a plastic swatter.  The sad thing is, I’m completely dependent upon it.  Yes.  I’m Catherine, and I’m dependent on caffeine.

What a weakness to admit!  I’m addicted to a legal drug, something that can be as stimulating as I want it to be, depending on how much I choose to drink.  It’s my choice to drink two cups of coffee in the morning, a soda at 9:30 or 10:00, another something with lunch, and, possibly, another coffee at 4:00pm.  How much is too much, though, in terms of medical aspects and “creativity cramping (phrase from The New Yorker, Konnikova, 2013)?  I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.  I’ve done some research I’d like to share, though.

First, why is this important to me and you?  I’m a writer.  If you’re reading this blog, which is focused on writing, you’re probably a writer, too.  Writers tend to be creative folks, and we tend to be highly stimulated by ideas, projects, and, sometimes, coffee.

I once read a passage in a book on writing called Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, and in it she makes a note that there’s a threshold at which the caffeine goes from stimulating creativity to hindering creativity, getting in the way of the process.  The tipping point is different for everyone.  Malcolm Gladwell, of The New Yorker, wrote a book called The Tipping Point (2000) about the time when something goes from being just enough to too much.  While he didn’t refer to caffeine specifically, the principle applies.  My theory is that each of us is different, that there isn’t one, particular number of perfect caffeine dosage to spur creativity while not going so far  that your hands shake too much to type or write.  However, if you want a number to aim for, two of the studies I read suggested that 200 mg a day (cite), several hours before bedtime, is a good number that won’t set one too far over the edge.  Again, I’m not an expert.  I’m not a medical professional.  This comes from my sources, and each person will have a different threshold, if he or she indulges in caffeine at all.

Caffeine can stimulate the brain; that much appears to be true.  Caffeine can make one more aware.  Caffeine can make one too aware, and, as James Hamblin from The Atlantic mentions in his article “Caffeine: For the More Creative Mind” (2013), if it interferes with our lives, as with any addiction, obsession, or activity, then there’s a problem and the person should probably step back and evaluate what’s going on:

“If you’re taking in enough caffeine that it messes with your sleep, the benefit can definitely be negated. If you become so motivated and vigilant that you spend hours perfecting every aspect of basic tasks, neglecting others, or your own relationships or hygiene, or not exercising, all of that is also no good. Like every drug, its effects can’t be considered in a vacuum. Like all good things, moderation. You can’t get too much moderation. ‘Fear can sometimes be a useful emotion.'” (Hamblin, 2013, par. 13)

This article from The Atlantic followed an article called “How Caffeine Can Cramp Creativity” from The New Yorker the week before (2013).  As the article’s title suggests, the following excerpt sums up its thesis: “. . . modern science is challenging [Balzac’s] view of caffeine causing ideas to ‘quick-march into motion.’ While caffeine has numerous benefits, it appears that the drug may undermine creativity more than it stimulates it” (Konnikova, 2013, par. 2).

What’s the truth?  What’s the truth for you?  The best take-away from this may be to step back and examine your caffeine usage, as I am.  Also, the study I read, “The Combined Effects of L-Theanine in Caffeine on Cognitive Performance and Mood”  (Owen, 2008) described the effects of studies conducted on people in “general good health” who regularly drank caffeinated beverages (Owen, 2008.)  Medications one takes and overall health can affect the effects of caffeine on a person.  Talk to your doctor about that.

In this guide to nutrition during college students’ study times for exams from “Food to Fuel Concentration and Memory: Can Diet Make a Difference When Preparing for Exams,” there’s a chart of how much caffeine certain popular beverages contain (Saxelby, n.d., p. 6).

Certainly, I’m not Balzac or Kerouac.  I’m not writing novels while ingesting very high amounts of stimulants, period.  As Hamblin suggested, perhaps I’m scared of what leaving the caffeine behind will do to my creativity.  Is my creativity innate?  I certainly can’t accomplish anything if I’m sleeping all day, right?  Will my projects be motivation enough to keep me awake and focused?  In fact, could it be that the amount of caffeine I consume actually hampers my ability to process, analyze, and write?

Last, there’s sleep.  Sleep is so important for everything.  Everything.  I strongly believe this, as I am in bed by the ungodly hour of 9:00pm and up at 6:00.  If I fall asleep at 10:00, that’s a solid eight hours of rest.  Afterward, sure, I drink my morning brew, but I also get a lot accomplished.  Sleep is vital for optimal brain function and productivity, including physical activity (Saxelby, n.d.).  The most important thing about all of this, to me, is that caffeine can make one not get enough out of sleep, no matter how many hours one puts into it.  That could be the one thing that pushes me back to the other side, back to the mythical 200 mg or none at all.

I’ll let you know how that goes!

What’s your relationship to caffeine?  How do you think it affects your creativity, productivity, and focus?

 

References:

Hamblin, J. (2013). Caffeine: For the more creative mind. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/06/caffeine-for-the-more-creative-mind/277069/

Konnikova, M. (2013). How caffeine can cramp creativity. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/06/how-caffeine-short-circuits-creativity.html

Owen, G.; Parnell, H.; De Bruin, E.; Rycroft, J. (2008). The combined effects of L-Thianine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.com

Saxelby, C. (n.d.). Food to fuel concentration and memory: can diet make a difference when preparing for exams. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Killing Your Darlings

It’s an often-given piece of advice in creative writing courses to “kill your darlings” if those elements get in the way of storytelling. What this means is that you might have to cut favorite lines, characters, plot points, and so forth for the betterment of the story as a whole.

Why would you ever do this?

Perhaps your favorite character in the piece needs to step back to let another, more intriguing character, tell this particular story. Maybe that fantastic line you wrote just doesn’t fit, or, the opposite, maybe all of the other lines need to meet the quality of that one.

I recommend saving each draft of your work separately (“draft one,” “draft two,” and so on) so that you can always revert to a saved draft and go a different way with a story or use one of those “darlings” later, should you choose to do so, possibly in a different project.

This adds a challenge to the writing process, sure, but where would we be if we did not take our work to the next level?

Think of it like rock climbing: you’ve got to let go of that last foothold to reach the next handhold.

There’s an interesting short article in Slate.com by Forrest Wickman in which he ascribes the first mention of this advice (“murder your darlings”) to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1914 lecture, “On Style” as part of the “On the Art of Writing” lecture series at Cambridge. For the full article, please click this link: http://tinyurl.com/qj4ta39

Also, jumping ahead a century, now we can use tools like Track Changes in Microsoft Word to follow what we’ve deleted and added to our work, along with comparing changes between drafts. Use the tools available to you while following the age-old advice oft-repeated by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Allen Ginsberg, and Anton Chekov.

Reference:
Wickman, F. (2013) Who really said “kill your “darlings”? Slate.com. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/10/18/_kill_your_darlings_writing_advice_what_writer_really_said_to_murder_your.html

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Random Musings – Reading as a Writer

You know how when you were in high school, your English teacher would make you read Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (or was that The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)?  And remember how you hated it when s/he asked you to find the theme of the story, whether it is that love conquers all (or maybe the inequal values of a Puritan society)? The discussions talked about what caused Romeo of the family Montague and Juliet of the family Capulet to ignore the bloody feud of their two families and fall in love, and why they were forced to go to such extreme measures in an effort to be together (and why it all tragically goes wrong for them). Remember that?

That’s what we in the English business call a literary analysis of a story. We look for patterns, we study themes and characters, and perhaps most importantly of all, we look for meaning. What was Shakespeare trying to say by having Romeo and Juliet needlessly commit suicide at the end of the play? What did he mean? And we’d do this for whatever we read. Literary analyses are at the heart of an English career.

Now it does have its uses outside of reading a book. We learn how to do this sort of reading because it helps us read more deeply into things as we grow older and need to understand hidden meanings in our own lives and careers. That’s why we learn to do it in school, because it is a skill that can be applied to many areas of our lives.

But I’m not here today to defend literary analyses. I’m here to talk about a different type of reading, one that gives a totally different perspective on stories and one that is rarely ever taught outside of a writing program, but one that is essential if you are serious about being a writer: reading as a writer.

Reading as a writer isn’t concerned with the “what’s” and “why’s” of a story (nor the “who’s”, “where’s”, or “when’s” for that matter). As writers, what we focus on is the “how’s” of a story. We don’t care what Shakespeare (or Hawthorne) had to say, but rather how he chose to say it. In other words, rather than looking at the literary elements that Shakespeare uses to get his points across, we instead look at the craft he employs to deliver those literary elements.

Broadly, we look at the form of the story. Romeo and Juliet is a play in five acts. Considering the time period, that doesn’t really tell us much, because most of writing then was either poetry or plays. Prose books as we know them just didn’t exist, so choosing to tell the story in play form rather than as a poem tells us that he intended this story for an audience. He wanted the masses to experience it, and since most people then were not educated enough to understand a poem, a play was the next best thing.

If we look at something a little more modern, we can see similar ideas in place. Take Harry Potter for instance. What is the form of the Harry Potter novels? Well, the most obvious pattern is that each book takes place over the course of a single school year. They begin with Harry getting set to go off to school and end with Harry returning home for his summer holidays. Everything that happens to Harry happens within the context of a single school year.

So why might Rowling have made this choice? Consider her intended audience: she wrote these books (initially at least) for a juvenile and YA audience—people to whom the context of a school year makes complete sense. Consider your own childhood, how often do you tell a story of something that happens to you and the story starts with “When I was in 6th grade…” or “My sophomore year…”? It’s a context that is easy for people to understand that is specifically a child’s context.

As you get older, those stories begin to start, “In my early 30s—I was maybe 31 or 32, or it could have been a bit earlier—perhaps 28 or 29—whatever, it doesn’t matter…”. Not quite as exact, is it? Sure, everything happening to Harry during the school year makes sense from a narrative standpoint, but it is also a calculated choice Rowling made because it is something that kids can easily understand.

Narrowing things down a bit, reading as a writer can teach us much about craft. We don’t care that Harry has to face off against a dragon. What we care about is how Rowling imparts on us the danger that Harry is in. We make note of how she says says “a jet of fire” rather than “the dragon breathed fire” and consider how the choice of words affects our understanding of the scene (Rowling, 2000, p.354). We catalogue every sound, every descriptor, every verb—frankly every word that is written on the page. We read so that we can understand how she gets her point across to us.

Why do we do this? The short answer is to learn. The longer answer is that the more we read and the more that study how other authors write, the more opportunity we give ourselves to refine our own writing style. Maybe we learn new writing techniques that we want to try out (The Unreliable Narrator, anyone?), or perhaps we learn some new words that we didn’t know before. Sometimes it’s just fun to examine the choices an author has made to tell his/her own story and consider how you might have done things differently. The point is that by studying other authors’ craft, we can more easily reflect upon our own and expand it in ways we never considered.

So give it a shot. Next time you sit down to read something, don’t pay attention to what the author has to say; study instead how it is that s/he says it. You never know what you might learn about your own style.

Reference

Rowling, J.K. (2000). Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic.

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