(Plus a bonus writing pump up!)
Remember that time when you were a kid, perhaps seven or eight, and you had a killer idea for a story? It may have been loosely based on The Six Million Dollar Man or Wonder Woman or The Facts of Life (unlikely), but it was such an awesome concept that you HAD to get it down. You rushed to find your favourite, least-chewed pencil and some good paper and began writing your epic. You were on fire! The words flowed like cracked fire hydrant and soon you had your epic: the amazing story of THIS THING THAT HAPPENED! followed by THIS OTHER THING THAT HAPPENED! to this really, really, really cool hero and his super duper funny friends. It was such an awesome great tale, so scary or funny or sad or brave.
Oddly enough, though, when it came time to read your masterpiece to mom or your friends it didn’t quite come across. You read louder, with more enthusiasm, and perhaps a few explanations but it was like trying to resuscitate a fish. With your mouth. Somehow, what had washed up on the page was not half as glorious as the rumble and flash between your ears. What was wrong? you wondered. Why was your awesome story so boring? More monsters perhaps?
If your experience was anything like mine, you probably swore off storytelling for a while, or at least kept your efforts hidden. I’m just not good at telling stories, I told myself. And I continued to believe that for a very long time, even though my English teachers gave me top marks. I still had fun daydreamy ideas floating through my head, but it was frustrating because I had no way to share them. (Robot monkeys from Jupiter, people!!) Eventually, though, I realized that being able to write well is not a gift you’re born with, like blue eyes or an ability to curl your tongue. Writing is more like juggling, a skill that can be learned, but only through practice.
One of the first bits of advice any writing student is likely to hear is: SHOW, don’t TELL. In other words, don’t tell me it was a rainy day. I can’t really see that. Instead, show me the boiling puddles, the buses splashing pedestrians, the squeaky wipers on frenzied full. Make me feel the cold water in my boots, the heavy wet jeans sticking to my legs, the difficulty walking, etc. Showing engages the senses and lets readers experience a story. It’s the difference between telling you that this cup of tea is hot and pouring it in your lap.
“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
– Mark Twain
On days when I’m feeling blunt, I need only look to my kids for reminders of what creativity looks like. Ask my daughter to tell you a story about a lonely shoe, for example, and she’ll say:
Once there was a lonely shoe named Bobby who lived in the forest where everyone else had evacuated from a fire years before and they never came back. Now Bobby lived under a tree in the ground and he spent his days hunting for blueberries because there were a lot of blueberry bushes in that forest. But one day he found a blueberry that kept rolling away from him. He picked it off the bush and it hopped out of his bag and rolled away. And then he found it and it hopped out of his hand and it rolled away. So Bobby followed it home and found his den. Bobby soon learned that the blueberry was not a blueberry but a type of Badumba fly, and it was nesting on the bush. And soon he found out that other flies lived there too, so he made friends with the flies and they all lived happily ever after. And he wasn’t a lonely shoe anymore.
I’m not making this up. I just asked her. So is she a creative genius? Of course she is, she’s my daughter. But more importantly she’s not weighed down by 1000 rules telling her, for example, that verbs should come early in a sentence, action should be linear, POVs consistent, you should show not tell and always remember that too great a narrative distance will make your characters seem contrived and two dimensional.
Kids don’t care about all that stuff. They just want sentences with zombies. And Bazumba flies. And long-suffering children who escape their wretched moms. Getting it “perfect” doesn’t occur to kids. They just wanna have fun. So I ask myself, when was the last time I set out to have fun, rather than create “art”?