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.

The Growing Roar of Approaching Deadlines: Weekly Update

Okay so maybe I haven’t been the most productive I could be.  I don’t have reasons to offer; just excuses.  Well, not even those.  Between you and me, when too much stress piles on, I just shut down.

But when I’m staring that deadline in the face, it’s a defibrillator to the face.

My deadline isn’t so close that I can count the freckles across its pert little nose, but I can hear it coming a mile away like an approaching freight train carrying the weight of my career.*

I have exactly two weeks left.

My existence right now comprises mostly of me alternating between internally screaming and taking yoga breaths.

Since last checking in, I’ve written exactly two more pages.  (IN A WEEK.  TWO PAGES IN SEVEN DAYS WHAT EVEN?–okay, yoga breaths.  Deep breaths.)

Last night, however, I did write the first four (pretty damn decent) pages of the 10-page story I have to submit by November 2 for my next residency (in January, where we’ll sit around in groups and critique these stories.)  It’s about a girl who was drowned in the ocean and became a mermaid and the girl who helps her try to find her murderer.

Tomorrow, the goal is at least three more pages.  Also tomorrow, a dear friend from work is going to help me tackle my plot so I can write the greatest labor ever put on the shoulders of a writer my synopsis.

So here’s my plan for the next week.

Say it with me: manageable tasks.

I’m going to tackle the two 700-word assignments so they are out of the way, not gunking up the works.  With those two out of the way, the only things I have to worry about are the next twenty-five pages of my story and the two to five pages that say what’s going to happen in my story.  That’s it.

And make the conscious decision to write every day, at least a page.

This isn’t about doing battle.  This is about choosing to put another stepping stone in the path to the career I want to have.  No one is forcing me to do anything.

This next week, I’m going to change my vocabulary to replace “I have to” with “I choose to.”  Because I made the choice to get an MFA.  It was an informed choice; it has a clear end goal.  These assignments are a part of that, and I should take advantage of this opportunity to grow while I have it.

In reading news

I finished The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch.  SCARED. THE. CRAP. OUTTA. ME.  I physically cringed several times throughout the book.  If you’re a sci-fi fan who loves time travel and doesn’t mind graphic violence and gore, definitely check this book out.  To me, it was the book version of that long flat note they play in the background of ghost shows.

In other news

I’m trying to learn this Disney medley on the piano.  Just goes to show how long it’s been since I’ve challenged myself on the piano and fallen into the comfortable groove of the styles of just a few (*cough*one*cough*) artists.  It’s taking me forever to get this down.  Which is fine.  There’s no deadline here.  So far, I’m semi-comfortable playing the first section (Go the Distance from Hercules) and today I worked on the next one (Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid).  The part I’m really looking forward to is Zero to Hero from Hercules, about halfway through the song.

How’s your week going?

* alright so it isn’t THAT big a deal, but that doesn’t seem to matter to my stress levels, which are determined to churn out anxiety at the highest rate of production as possible

Currently playing: Beautiful by Bazzi

Currently reading: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

The Practicality and Morality of Being a Magpie

I advise you to keep your writer’s notebook handy when you’re reading, because you want it right there when inspiration strikes, and if you’re a writer and a reader, odds are you’re most likely to be the receiver of the inspiration fairy when you’re reading.

Some people are probably feeling some low level panic right now. “But I don’t want to steal someone’s ideas! I don’t wanna be a copy cat!”

Okay, I hear you.  I used to worry about the exact same thing.  I’d worry about “stealing” ideas or of being “too influenced” by a particular author or book.

My short response, dear hearts, is this: don’t worry about it.

There are two aspects to this pressing concern: the practical side and the intellectual/moral side.

On the practical side, ideas change so much from conception to final product that the original idea will most likely be unrecognizable.  I, for one, find it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to recognizably replicate the book that inspired you.

On the moral side, I find it admirable that you place emphasis on originality and responsibility for your own ideas.  As writers, we’re bred to seek after the previously unexplored.  We’re expected to unearth the buried.

On the practical side, this expectation of Absolute Originality is unreasonable, because even in Biblical times, there wasn’t anything new under the sun.  And, paradoxically, anything you generate will be original anyway (at the very least in execution) because it came from you and not anyone else.

On the moral side, I think the emphasis ought to be placed on authenticity.  Instead of the aesthetic details of your world or your characters or your magical system, consider them vessels for your personal meaning.  Because without something Deeper, the aesthetic will be empty and essentially meaningless.

On the practical side, you are a human being, which means you are graced with the remarkable ability to discern minuscule details from one another.  So consider this difference:

  • I like this idea of two mismatched eyes, one totally black, the other normal, and how it signifies they have blood magic that can transport them between worlds.
  • I like this idea of wands.  I’ll do something with wands.

I’ll bet–and I’m confident that I’ll win this bet–that you are able to discern the degree to which these two thought processes are different.  The first example is very specific to the world and plot of the story from which it came (A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab).  The second example, however, is a general concept that could apply to any number of stories, including my current WiP.

I would personally consider the first example worrisome and yes, edging too close to the idea of “copying.”  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the second example, though, because it leaves the limitless question of, “What about wands?” hanging in the air, leaving you to answer it however you please.

On the moral side, you probably want to continue to grow as a writer and a creator.  So I urge you to ask yourself this question when you come across something shiny that catches your eye:  “What more can I do with this?  What else is there to explore with this idea?”

On the practical side, writing down the spinoff inspired by the story you’re reading in no way commits you to doing anything with that idea.  You’re a writer.  Like magpies and ravens, we collect shiny things to add to our hoards.  It’s a Thing.

I’ll leave you with this.

I’ve found that the more confident I became in my own writing and storytelling abilities, the less I coveted the ideas I found in published works.  This tells me that the problem does not lie in the copying itself, but of the lack of confidence that causes it.  Instead of worrying about being a copy cat, consider instead your confidence in yourself.  The more confident you become in yourself, the less demand you will feel to claim someone else’s work as your own.