The Merits of Picture Prompts

photo credit Justin Luebke on Unsplash

part i

Earlier this spring, I had an epiphany.

And part of this epiphany involved me starting to write every morning.

Since I was new to writing so often, my muscles were weak.

I realized a few things very quickly: my first inclination when I’m stuck is to journal. That was easy enough to combat. It just meant that I took ten or fifteen minutes to journal first and get that out of the way so I had no excuse.

I also realized if I have to rely on myself to get the juices flowing, I’m going to be sitting there twiddling my thumbs for a while, and that wasn’t very productive, so.

Long have I been cultivating my Pinterest boards. (I wasn’t an immediate Pinterest convert. I tried it years ago, tried it for blogging and writing alike and just… wasn’t wild about it. I don’t know what happened, but I’m all about it now.) And I’ve got extensive boards. One of them is specifically for story prompts.

When I sit down, I journal. Then I find something that strikes me on my Pinterest board. I don’t spend a lot of time doing this, knowing how Pinterest can suck me in.

But once I do, I fill out a blank 3×5 index card–front and back.

part ii

What this process has allowed me to do is dip my toes in the creative well every morning before the craziness of my day starts.

It’s a bit like what US Navy Admiral William McRaven talks about when he says to make your bed every morning:

“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task.”

Admiral William McRaven, US Navy

When I fill out that 3×5 card, I’ve accomplished an important part of my day. Even if the writing was “bad,” it was done. That card was blank and now, because of my discipline and determination, it isn’t.

In this particular case, the goal is not quality. It’s quantity.

So by merely filling out the card–regardless of the nature of the content–I get to claim credit for completing that task.

It’s an extremely heady feeling that often puts my day on the right track. (The write track? Groan if you must, I enjoy a good pun lol)

And doing this also coincides with another thing Admiral McRaven said:

“If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.”

Admiral William McRaven, US Navy

As part of my MFA program, I have to write an entire novel. My novel right now is projected to top out at 100,000 words.

That’s a lot of words.

But if I want to be a professional author, I’m not going to write just 100,000 words for this thesis novel. I’m going to write those and then write them all over again because my thesis novel has to undergo two semesters of revisions before final submission.

And then I’m going to write another book after that. And another one after that.

It’s a scary number, but it’s a little less scary when you consider that I can stuff about a page’s worth of words on those 3×5 cards. That’s about 250 words. Let’s be generous and say 300 because I write small.

300 words x 365 days = 109,500 words a year

Basically, regardless of what’s going on with my big novel projects, if I keep with my daily writing, I’ll write a hefty-sized book a year.

Aside from that, doing a daily snippet gives you the chance to explore a new creative space every day. It isn’t a commitment. The only thing you’re committing is time and swinging the door open to inspiration. Show up, but don’t wait for inspiration and creativity. Start without them. Explore. Imagine.

With that thought in mind, I encourage you to explore the idea of writing a little something every morning. If for no other reason than a small boost of dopamine to get your day off right.

part iii

I’m going to start posting my daily writings. I’ve been holding onto them for a while (and also got out of the habit *eek*) and it’s time to put them out there.

They probably won’t do more than just exist for a while, and I’m okay with that. Part of writing is letting it go.

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I’m Going to do a #Challenge to Overcome my Fear

It’s that time. It’s time for change. All my weight has settled into one slump and my bones are shrieking for the mercy of movement–any movement. I’m ready (am I? the doubtful mind gremlin asks) to shake things up.

I’ve tried challenges in the past. On this here blog, I did a 30 Day Restart Challenge leading up to my June 2018 residency. I only got about halfway through that one. Whoops.

But I’m ready to commit more to my writing. I’ve been dragging my feet for years now and I’m done. It’s time to pick up these weary bones and park myself in front of Perseverance and Discipline and wait for the blood drops to form on my forehead, if that’s what it takes.

Having taken a step back and looking at myself, I’ve been ridiculous these past few years. What’s stopping me? Why am I not taking this glorious opportunity I’ve been given to make writing my life? To live and breathe it? What’s stopping me?

Fear is very likely the top answer. Well, okay. That’s all well and good but I’m going to refer myself to one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite writing gurus:

Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting–and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are a part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still–your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

My favorite part of that entire passage is “You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote.”

Here’s to not giving fear a vote.

So, what will this challenge look like? After watching Cynthia Koo’s How to Start (And Finish!) Your Very Own 365 Day Project, here’s what I’ve decided.

Starting February 1, 2019, I will write everyday for a year.

I hesitated saying a year. Why not just start with 30 days or 100 days?

But then I thought about it: what’s a year in the career of a writer? And if I can’t write every day for a year, that doesn’t exactly bode well for my aforementioned career.

Also, I feel like I’ve fallen so out of touch with my writing these past few years since I started college, so I want to get to know my writing again.

So with that, here it is: with this challenge, I want to

  • overcome my creative fears
  • become more disciplined
  • up my productivity
  • rediscover my process

Thus begins my #WatchJeanWrite365 Challenge

Less is Way Too Much: A Lesson on Specificity in Plotting

When my American Literature professor assigned us our final paper, her advice was to make our argument as specific as possible. For an 8-page paper.  I thought this woman was completely out of touch of the undergraduate reality because there was no way a narrow argument would fill up that many pages.

Not that what I thought mattered because this paper had to be written come hell or high water, and as the deadline loomed, the water was rising up around my shoulders.  So, okay. Let’s try the out of touch professor’s advice. For grins and giggles.  Picture me then, a college student delirious with panic because this 8-page paper had to magically appear by the next morning. 

In a fit of indignant pique, I made the following argument (in the spirit of being as specific as it was possible for me to be in my panic-fueled state):

Despite the criticisms that this novel is disorganized and meaningless, the analysis of the episode of the mutiny onboard the Grampus leads to an interpretation that suggests that the seeming madness of the story can actually be understood as a repressed fear of slave rebellions in the American South, and this interpretation leads to a unification of the piece as a whole.

(I was writing about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe, if you were wondering.  It’s an extremely weird and chaotic book that I had to argue was actually a work of genius.)

Okay, now what? The 8-page quota loomed ever larger, like a demon growing stronger the more it feeds on my panic.

What happened still amazes me to this day.

The thesis is essentially three claims, each of which I had to set up and defend: 1) criticisms of disorganization and lack of meaning, 2) the interpretation of the mutiny, 3) how the interpretation fits the novel as a whole.

Having actually read the book (God help me), I started to realize how long it would take to set up and defend these points. Suddenly 8 pages had shrunk to maybe not being enough?

Who’d have thought specificity would strengthen my argument? Not I, that’s for damn sure.  After five hours in the library, my 7-page long paper was concise and well-structured. And I got that paper back with a beautiful red “A” on it.

part ii.

Okay, confession: I sprawl. I’m a sprawler. I lounge languorously from page 1 until I run out of steam and collapse, exhausted, around halfway through the manuscript because my arms just can’t juggle that many subplots and extraneous “character building” scenes anymore.

I wasn’t pleased with my external plot of my current manuscript because of this reason. It lacked cohesiveness. I was throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it was done and it all ended up at my feet in a soupy, gloopy mess.

Enter specificity in the form of a mentor from my MFA program.

Explaining my problem to him, he nodded, his mouth scrunched, disappearing into his beard as he thought a moment. Then, “Why don’t you do [insert very simplistic but brilliant idea for external plot here]?” he says, very nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just possibly fixed a problem I’ve been having with this book for years.

WHY DON’T I JUST, SIR? WHY DON’T I JUST.

In the space of, oh, two seconds, I had a single cohesive line of thought that I could hook into my internal plot and instead of my characters wandering around like lost little lambs whose shepherd was directionally challenged, they were charging like Braveheart warriors in a straight line right towards an end goal that actually made sense.

Specificity, my friends. Specificity is where it’s at.