How to Unstick a Stuck Story: Seeing My Writing Through a New Lens

If we had a Richter scale for the magnitude of a stuck story, I wonder if I could take my lesser moments of frustration more seriously. Maybe I could be more strategic about tackling them for what they actually are … stuck moments. Consider the possible scale. A 4.0 stuck moment causes disturbance and noise, but not too much damage. A 6.0 stuck moment is powerful, and may cause serious problems depending on the situation. Any stuck moment 7.0 and above creates visible shockwaves, destruction and often topples entire projects. Most of my stuck moments register around 4.0. They don’t destroy my momentum, but they still cause disturbance and noise.
 
Unstick a stuck story

A Stuck Story

I’m busy with a number of content development projects, so recently I haven’t spent a lot of time on my latest novel. I’ve accepted that ebb and flow in my creative process. However, I haven’t been taking 15-minute experimental moments to simply noodle around with my novel. I normally would play around that way in any demanding season. I’d find that exploration joyful. Even if it’s not the moment to do full-scale revision, I’m still a writer. And writers need stories to engage their imaginations–always. Except that I haven’t been doing those healthy, creative things. I’ve been in a 4.0 stuck moment.
 
The trouble had to do with the climax. Usually, when I start a story, I see the climax as an image or a movie in my mind. I brainstorm, plan and write toward that vision, leaving room for surprises along the way. In my current novel, I had an image, but it happened six chapters into the story. Thus, I was adrift when I passed that moment into the heart of the plot. Not to be discouraged, I wrote my way into the fog, and finished a draft.
 
The climax turned out to be a battle of wills. Physically, this moment was utterly anticlimactic. My finished draft left me disappointed and unimpressed. Now, I’ve written eleven novels at this point, so a little disappointment isn’t enough to register a 7.0 stuck moment. I figured it wasn’t a big deal. I’d come back when I had a better idea.
 

The Stuck Story Lingers

Except I didn’t have a better idea. Worse, I started feeling fuzzy around my edges. I knew something was lacking, but didn’t know what was wrong. The problem? I was a writer without a story. My imagination was bored.
 

A New Lens

This weekend, I went to see Wrinkle in Time for a second time. One thing I explore in Writerly Play is the value of using the Library. This means looking closely at art–books, paintings, music, performances, film, sculpture, you name it. In particular, I considering an artwork a second or third time is significant. The first time through, we’re caught up in the experience. We ought to be. However, follow-up experiences can be more intentional. We can think about the what, how, and why.
 
While watching the climax scene in A Wrinkle in Time, I understood what had been bothering me about my standoff scene in my novel. The obvious realization that “something had to happen,” may sound trivial, but the value of the discovery was in the specificity of the movie’s successful climax. First, watching a well-crafted, active climax involving a battle of wills made hope glimmer at the end of my tunnel. It could be done. Second, the colors, shapes, movement, pacing and dialogue gave me concrete elements to consider. How might each of those elements play out in my story?
 

Beyond Imitation

I used to be so afraid of imitation that I limited my creativity. I’ve started to see that examining the specifics of a beautiful artwork helps me to take my own work to another level. As I’ve become more confident in my own voice, I’ve learned how to gain insight from masterworks while remaining true to myself as an artist.
For me, the next step seems to be making a practical connection between 4.0 stuck moments and intentional exploration of lenses. Rather than walking away from stuck stories and hoping my subconscious will reengage, maybe I could seek out doorways into that exploration. Little stuck story moments may not be earth-shattering, but they are still uncomfortable, and life would be happier and more colorful if I could limit them. Lenses invite my imagination out to play. They aren’t about responsibly fixing problems, but rather about the process of discovery.
 

What Lenses Might You Try?

I’d love to hear your ideas. What lenses have helped (or might help!) you see your work in a new light? Please share in the comments or tag me on Facebook or Instagram. Let’s inspire one another … and banish those stuck stories!

An Invitation to Writerly Play

Pencil and Shavings

How did Writerly Play come to be?

 
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown up my hands and wailed, “I know I’m capable of more … but what’s the next step?” Sometimes it feels like genuine creativity glimmers on the horizon, just out of reach. For a long time, I scurried from project to project, wondering when I’d finally feel like a real artist, one who was grounded, thriving, and successful.
 

Fortunately, I didn’t let myself wallow in those questions.

 
Instead, I dug deeper. What did I mean by grounded, thriving and successful? What did being a real artist mean to me, and what was the gap between where I stood and where I hoped to be?
 
I reflected. I talked to a lot of peers and students. I even sent out a survey on the creative life. The results were astonishing. No matter how far along artists are in terms of professional success, the majority of us perceive a gap between where we are and where we intend to be. For me, this was a wake-up call. I might never reach a point where I felt like a real artist, at least if I kept defining that identity through external professional success. I needed a practice, a way of living the creative life on a regular basis. I needed a way for day-to-day wins to count, so that I could gain a sense of momentum.
 

I needed a way to clearly navigate the creative process.

 
That’s what Writerly Play is: a framework to help us personalize, map and problem solve the creative process. I call this blog Writerly Play because every post is part of my personal deep-dive exploration of what it means to live as an artist, and the beating heart at the center of that exploration is Writerly Play. What exactly is the Writerly Play framework, and how can it help you live as a grounded, thriving, successful artist? Come on over to my recently revised Nuts and Bolts of Writerly Play series, and explore the possibilities with me.
 
Here’s to you and your creativity,
Naomi
 

Excuses: The Snarly Enemies of Creative Momentum

Excuses: The Snarly Enemies of Creative Momentum

I’m not a fan of excuses.

And, not in a blow a whistle and shout, “Get to work!” kind of way. More in a roll-up-my-sleeves, experiment-until-you-figure-it-out kind of way.

Excuses are snarly enemies of momentum. They snap at our heels and grab for us with grubby little fingers, hoping to drag us into inertia quicksand. Once we’re sunk, wow is it difficult to scrabble our way free.

A large part of my job, working with educators, with students, with artists, with my team at Society of Young Inklings, is to glare excuses in the face and say, “Not on my watch.” So, it’s probably not surprising that I feel particularly grumpy when I wake to the sound of excuses throwing a dance party at the foot of my bed.

Here we are. It’s March 5, and my last blog post was on January 20. For the larger part of 2017, I posted once a month or so. Now, there are definitely reasons. For one, I’ve been posting more regularly over at Society of Young Inklings because we’re in the midst of a (very exciting) growth curve at our nonprofit for youth writers. Also, I’ve been hard at work backstage on larger creative projects that I can’t share just yet.

Still, to me, these reasons have the sharp scent of excuse to them.

Knowing that I mean to blog, and don’t, takes wind out of my sails every week. Over time, I prove to myself that I’m the sort of person who plans but doesn’t necessarily follow through. My confidence erodes. My optimism suffers. The excuses pole-vault from one area of my life to another and before I know it, my life’s rhythm is completely out of whack.

Today, I’d finally had enough. I decided to hop online and share a little of my thinking real-time. Maybe you’ve had situations like the one I’m in, where you realized that your expectations and your reality weren’t matching up. What did you do?

Here’s what I’m thinking.

  • I could take an official break from the blog. This would be a reasonable strategy, and would send the excuses packing. Unfortunately, it would also mean I couldn’t blog, which is a problem. In the past few weeks, I’ve actually been prepping for a more regular editorial calendar. I’m looking forward to blogging regularly … I’m just not quite ready yet.

 

  • I could set a launch date for my new approach and build toward it. While a date is also a deadline, I actually like the sound of this possibility. It gives me breathing room, and also a healthy dose of accountability.

 

  • I could force myself to start today and carry on, posting once a week, rain or shine. But, you deserve my very best. My posts ought to rattle fresh creativity loose for you, or at the least, send you back to your projects with renewed enthusiasm. If I bully myself into blogging when I’m not ready, I fear I might inspire you to bully yourself, too. No, thank you.

 

  • Or, I could decide to close down the blog. But, I love writing from my heart to yours. So, for me, that’s really not an option.

 

I may have found a solution in the possible launch date, but I want to explore how to make it a viable one for the long run. Because the truth is, my bandwidth for producing meaningful content will ebb and flow. As an author, book deadlines come before blog intentions. As a founder and Executive Director, the stability and health of Society of Young Inklings are also top priority. And beyond work commitments, I have health, family, friends, to name a few. And life isn’t always predictable.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of excuse-extermination strategies. Most often, I return to the simple question starter: “How might I…”

Step One: Craft a question to focus my attention tightly on the problem. 

How might I be realistic, true to my priorities, realistic, and make an excuse-free commitment?

Step Two: Brainstorm options.

  • Commit to post infrequently, maybe once a month.
  • Repurpose old posts along with the new ones.
  • Create some short-form post formats. Every post doesn’t have to be epic. (Readers appreciate short, too!)

Step Three: Choose an approach and experiment.

I think I’ll commit to starting the blog again on April 3. I’ll post on Tuesdays and possibly add a bonus post on Thursdays. Some posts will be small. I’m not going to demand perfection. If I’m in a busy season, I’ll show up on Tuesday and tell you so. It might just be a sentence or two. But what I learned writing this post, (and here’s what I hope might be applicable to you, too) is that even mid-process, our thoughts can be useful. 

Are you battling excuses, too? Maybe it’s not a blog for you, but it’s a book, or a painting, or even an exercise routine. Would it help you to stop, ask yourself a focused “How might I …” question and brainstorm solutions?

It certainly gave me a fresh gust of wind in my sails.

Thank you. Knowing that you’re out there, living life, popping by the Writerly Play blog now and again for ideas and inspiration, means more to me than you likely know. Perspective, growth, clarity… I gain all of these and more by shaping my ideas on the page, and especially when I hear back from you. I love hearing what you see and notice and wonder. So, please. Always, always, feel free to reach out and share your experiences, too. Tag me on Facebook or Twitter, or comment below.

Tell me: What expectations do you have for yourself that you’re not sure work right now? How might you adjust those expectations to make life work better?

Or tell me: Have you met the excuse gremlins? What kind of havoc do they cause in your life?

Collecting Ideas: 10 Quotes to Fuel Your Creativity

The wide-awake way that children’s authors view the world that never fails to inspire me. Here’s a dose of wisdom to inspire, stretch and most importantly, motivate you to keep collecting ideas. Where are they? Tiptoeing around your world, whispering to you, inviting you to follow and explore.

Want more quotes from children's authors to inspire your idea-collection habit? http://www.naomikinsman.com/feed-creativity-collecting-ideas/

“But the sensibility of the writer, whether fiction or poetry, comes from paying attention. I tell my students that writing doesn’t begin when you sit down to write. It’s a way of being in the world, and the essence of it is paying attention.”

— Julia Alvarez

“I often have trouble falling asleep at night, so when I’m lying in bed I think up stories. That’s where I do a lot of my thinking. I also get a lot of ideas while I’m reading – sometimes reading someone else’s stories will make me think of one of my own.”

— Linda Sue Park

“Sometimes you have to stop trying to force it, walk away and let your subconscious show you the way. Fill up on life for a while.”

— J. K. Rowling

“Artists need to fill themselves to overflowing and give it all back.”

— E. B. Lewis

Want more quotes from children's authors to inspire your idea-collection habit? http://www.naomikinsman.com/feed-creativity-collecting-ideas/

“You can make up your own story when you look at a photo.”
— Brian Selznick

“The main thing to do is pay attention. Pay close attention to everything, notice what no one else notices. Then you’ll know what no one else knows, and that’s always useful.”

— Jeanne DuPrau

“We cannot stay home all our lives, we must present ourselves to the world and we must look upon it as an adventure.”

— Beatrix Potter

“Maybe we are all cabinets of wonders.”

— Brian Selznick

I know, I know, I said ten quotes on collecting ideas … but I couldn’t help myself. I added a few extra.

“Take a step, breathe in the world, give it out again in story, poem, song, art.”

— Jane Yolen

“The city is like poetry; it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.”

— E. B. White

Collecting ideas is one of the cornerstone habits in the Writerly Play Attic. Curious to know more? Writerly Play a story-based lens to help you individualize, map and problem-solve the creative process.

If you’ve ever found yourself stuck and unsure what to do next, or if you crave a more trustworthy process for bringing your ideas to life but don’t want to feel trapped by a one-size-fits-all solution, I hear you. I hand-crafted Writerly Play because I needed it, and my students needed it, and my peers needed it. You don’t have to stumble around in the fog when you’re bringing a new, beautiful creation to life.

Want to give it a try? The first step is figuring out your creativity style.

And hey, do you have any favorite quotes on collecting ideas? Maybe yours are from children’s authors, or from someone else entirely. Please share! Share in the comment section below, or share and tag me on Facebook or Twitter. I’m always collecting new inspiration. I hope you are, too!

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Three Simple Strategies for Capturing More Ideas

You have thousands, probably millions of ideas, I know you do. The trick is capturing them and keeping them somewhere convenient.

Why do we lose ideas?

Consider the key hook by the front door. Until we install it, our keys drift all over the house, refusing to be found when it’s time to dash out on an errand.

A key hook is such a simple, inexpensive solution to an everyday problem, a problem that wastes tons of time and plunges us into a ferociously terrible funk. Unfortunately, this simple life-hack eludes many of us multiple times in our lives.

The solutions for lost ideas are similarly easy to implement. I’ve collected three for you in this post, but my hope is that you’ll create even more of your own, based on how your life works and where your ideas tend to show up.

Popcorn Catch-All

Ideas are likely popping into your mind all day. Choose a simple, trustworthy place to keep them. Where you choose to keep them isn’t nearly as important as the key point: You have to choose a spot and stick to it. Try somewhere on your phone such as in an Evernote notebook, Google Keep, Day One, or in a small notebook you carry with you. The more you use it, the more valuable your catch-all becomes. When you need an idea, you’ll have a growing list of them.

Story of the Day

Every day, tons of things happen. First, there are tiny interactions with family, colleagues and friends. Then, there are mini-experiences such as an excellent cup of coffee, a particularly beautiful sunrise or the surprise scent of jasmine when you’re out on a run. Finally, there are the major moments that surprise, frustrate or excite you. Capture these life moments–the small and the large–by writing down one story per day. You can write a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole page. You can use a photo to tell most of the story. No matter how you format it, be intentional about noticing what happens to you and keeping track. Over time, you’ll have a collection of moments that helped you learn and grow, and that you can use in many different ways.

Post-Conversation Brain Dump

Whether it’s a meeting, a coaching session, a mastermind group brainstorm or manuscript feedback from a friend, that conversation gave you at least one idea. Make the most of your interactions by taking a minute or two afterward to write down a few thoughts. Use a template to speed up the thinking process. And don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. You might not remember every single question you want to follow up on, but if you capture even a portion of your insights, that’s a portion more than you’d have if you’d let the day speed past without jotting them down.

It’s not about the hook.

Maybe when I mentioned a key hook, you thought, “I don’t use a hook, I use a bowl.” (Or something else entirely.) Whether you use a bowl or a hook or a pegboard doesn’t matter. The point is noticing that you have a little problem that can be solved in a simple way.

No matter how you choose to capture your ideas, make sure that you DO capture them. Create a little system for yourself, and notice how it pays off. Do you already have a pretty fabulous idea system? I’d love to hear about it! Tell us in the comments below, or tag me and share your ideas on Facebook or Twitter.

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