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Writing outside the box at Writers’ Night Out

Betty Firth
Posted 2/19/20

Recently, I participated in the Writers’ Night Out, an event orchestrated by people and for people who enjoy words in a multiplicity of ways: hearing them, discussing them, trying out new …

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Writing outside the box at Writers’ Night Out

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Recently, I participated in the Writers’ Night Out, an event orchestrated by people and for people who enjoy words in a multiplicity of ways: hearing them, discussing them, trying out new ones, reading them out loud, hearing others read them out loud, putting them down on paper, and rearranging them to become poetry, essays, short stories, letters, books, articles, and even opinion columns. We gathered on a bitterly cold night to share delicious homemade appetizers (thank you, Johnnie!), an imaginative array of pizza choices and beverages, which were followed by decadently rich cupcakes.

When we walked in, we were given a card and told to find a table that had a rhyming word on it, and so we found our first writing partners. Everyone tossed their cards in the middle, and while enjoying appetizers, we were asked to write for five minutes on a topic of our choice using all the words on the table.

Lacey Squire, Vince O’Connor, and a visiting Hamline professor Terry Horstman, each spoke about aspects of writing along with a bit about their personal relationship with the written word. Terry, who hosts the Brewery Writing Series in St. Paul, brought a storytelling game called Storymatic® which has 510 cards used as prompts divided between descriptions of characters and actions. Writing prompts are words or phrases used to trigger our imaginations, to tease or nudge or jolt us or out of our usual mode of thinking and writing. The cards can be used in a variety of ways for oral or written storytelling, working alone or in a group, and mixing it up in as many ways as you can imagine. We wrote for one five-minute period using words from two character cards and two action cards we had each chosen, and then we passed a couple of our cards to the person on our right and continued the stories. In another exercise, everybody at the table wrote using the same cards, generating divergent stories.

People may find themselves writing more loosely than they usually do, freed of the constraints of having to be logical or reasonable, but in order to do that, they have to silence their inner critics and let the words and ideas flow unhampered. Surrounded by conspirators in the imagination game, no one is going to be judged for silliness, non sequiturs, or outrageous conclusions. Quite the opposite. Mild-mannered Minnesotans grin with glee and scribble about gay cowboys singing in cemeteries or frozen Finns who lock themselves in the sauna and refuse to come out until spring.

The empty white page seldom causes writers’ block because we have agreed to be under the direction of the benevolent dictators, and we write at their command for the designated time period. We write without editing and little punctuation, to keep the ink flowing. Sometimes we can trick our fingers into writing things that our mind wasn’t aware it was wanting to say. It is unlikely that any pieces of polished writing come out of these exercises, but they may result in some juicy starters for continued work and can also light the way to more innovate writing.  Although I think most writers would say that they feel compelled to write, that they express themselves better and more easily in writing, and that it may help them process whatever is going on in their lives, I’m quite certain that the majority would also agree that it can be agonizing facing an initial blank page, searching for just the right word without sounding pretentious, or trying to weave disparate threads together for a brilliant conclusion, followed by editing out the superfluous, even your favorite parts that you’re convinced are truly inspired.
Natalie Goldberg, well-known author of Writing Down the Bones, uses prompts and timed writings regularly, not just in workshops she teaches, but also in her own writing. She might give herself an hour, for example, to work on the next piece for her book, decide where she wants her character(s) to be when she finishes, and choose some words at random from her personal word box to include. How do you introduce sardines into a trip across North Dakota?

It occurred to me that the process could be very useful in other aspects of our lives. Of course, I’m not the first one to think of that. Billions of dollars are spent on workshops and self-help books and online seminars by willing participants who want to learn how to do their lives differently, better, with more direction, creativity, and success. But, if we take this Storymatic® technique and apply it, we might save ourselves a lot of money and time... and even have more fun doing it.

For example, instead of whining and procrastinating about having to clean the house, what if you invited a friend over, each drew a character and an action card, and tackled the task at hand in character? You might want a set of cards with your friends’ names on them to make the asking more random and another set with services you’re willing to barter. Dinner for two? Mop the floors? Take care of the kids or dogs for a night?

Or, what if, when you’re facing a chore you’re dreading, like doing your taxes, you take a break to pick two cards that might say, “Sing the Star-Bangled Banner” “robustly” or “read the weather forecast” “like a rapper.” Derailing your usual mode may just make you laugh or decide you’ll do your taxes differently, perhaps work on them for 45 minutes and take a break to call a friend. Then another 45 minutes, another friend. Figure out your deductions to get your favorite take-out meal. Is there someone in your life who pushes your buttons? Try choosing an attitude card or an action card that might help shift the energy. Warning: this could take a few draws.

George Lakoff, who wrote “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, predicted Donald Trump’s election win within one percent. He repeatedly has said that people vote their values, not their self-interest. He explains that “ideas don’t float in the air, they live in your neuro-circuitry” and activating the neural circuits imbeds the ideas deeper, as I have written about before. He tried to warn the Hillary Clinton campaign that focusing on rationality, facts, and policies wouldn’t stand up against the Republicans’ targeting voters’ subconscious worldview, but they wouldn’t listen, wrapped in their own worldview and imbedded ideas.

I’ve read other political pundits warning progressives not to do things in the same old way, expecting different results. What action cards can we draw to change up the dialogue and jumpstart a different outcome? Bring your ideas and resolutions to a caucus near you on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m.

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