(estimated time: 60-75 minutes)
The entry point to writing is not always through language. You can find your way to a story through other avenues. Like drawing.
If you’re anything like me, your mind is a buzzing gnat-cloud of reminders and nagging worries and wounded feelings and shopping lists. These gnats make it hard to concentrate. Even if I try to ignore them, a part of my brain keeps track of the gnats, worried I’m going to forget about one of them. Or, worse, I succeed in ignoring them and actually forget something important (Oh, shit! I was supposed to take Eli to the library at 5:00!).
So if you can’t deal with the gnats and you can’t ignore them, what can you do? Offload them. Move them from your mind onto paper. They can wait there for you until you’re done with writing.
Before we get to the creative portion of today’s exercise, I want you to offload your gnats. Set a countdown timer for five minutes and jot down anything that is nagging at you. What is on your mind? What is bothering you? What is getting in the way of concentrating today? What are you worried about forgetting?
After you’re done, keep that piece of paper nearby. If another gnat buzzes into your mind during your creative session, add it to the sheet.
Today I’m going to have you access some stories through a drawing. Specifically, a map of your old neighborhood. (For the purposes of this exercise, you get to define what “old neighborhood” means for you.)
Step 1: Set your countdown timer for 10 minutes and sketch out your map. Don’t worry if it’s “good” or “bad.” It doesn’t matter for an exercise like this. No one is going to see it, anyway. Label landmarks and include as much detail as you can remember.
Step 2: Take a little break, then set your countdown timer for 10 minutes. Annotate the map. Put an X anywhere there was an Incident of Any Significance (For the purposes of this exercise, you get to define what “significance” means for you). Include as many Xs as you can remember.
Next to each X, jot down a very short description of the incident. For example, I might put an X on the big hill next to my childhood home. For a description, I might write: Lost finger. The description only needs to make sense to you at this point.
Step 3: You know how, when you read certain stories, you feel like you’re there? That’s the effect of a fully-imagined scene. The story contains enough concrete details and sense impressions for your mind to build the set and inhabit it with characters. That’s what you’re going to do now: Build the set for a story.
Pick one of the Xs. Set your countdown timer for 18 minutes, and write with the prompts below. Write fast and loose. You’re not drafting the story of The Incident—don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to do that on another day—you’re just excavating the material. You’re just jotting down notes. You’re building the set.
The prompts (adapted from Syllabus by Lynda Barry):
Where are you?
What time of day or night does it seem to be?
What season does it seem to be?
Describe the light.
What’s the temperature like?
What does the air smell like?
What are you doing?
Is anyone else there with you?
What are they doing?
Why are you there?
What sounds can you hear?
What are some things you can see?
If you turned your head to the right, what would be there?
If you turned your head to the left, what would be there?
What’s behind you?
What’s below and around your feet?
What’s above your head?
There is something you haven’t noticed yet—what is it? It can be very small.
What was it like to use drawing as an entry point to writing?
What did you learn about writing, or about yourself as a writer today?
Think back to the first day you started this regimen. What has changed?
Put an X through day 5 and jot down the time you took with this writing session.