Fueling the (Creative) Fire: Prompted Brainstorming
When your work involves being creative, it's hard to come up with new ideas day after day, hour after hour. To maintain a creative life, you need to feed your creativity.
But sometimes, no matter how hard we try to keep it fed, it starts to run low, and we get stuck. That's when we need a little help to keep that creative fire burning - especially during NaNoWriMo!
I use three million and ten different tricks to help myself out of stuck-in-the-mud situations.
Okay, that might not be the exact number.
But as I've mentioned before, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve. In fact, I stuff them into every pocket, hat, and bag I own! The one I'm about to share may seem strange at first. You might wonder how the results will work with your particular project.
Let it sit and simmer for a while. Go ahead and keep it on the back burner because I promise that at some point when you're stuck (which happens to the best of us) it'll be ready and waiting for you to turn up the heat.
What's my little trick?
It's called "On This Day..." and its inception came from my experiences teaching writing to young people. After hearing many complaints that all sounded a lot like, "I don't have anything to write about!" I made it a habit to start each session with a journal entry.
Like most of us, young people can benefit from a prompt to help focus their wide-ranging thoughts. After bumping into the website on one of my random yet eventually useful link-clicking adventures, I began using "On This Day" prompts.
The best part? There's little planning involved.
I navigate to the site, find an event that happened on this day in history, and tell students to use it to begin writing creatively in their journals. Sometimes I offer a list of events and let them choose one.
Since I love writing practice, I enjoy joining in during journal time as much as possible. I've found that sometimes a historical event fills in a blank spot in a story, essay, and even freelance projects on which I've found myself stuck.
This is because it's not the event itself that works, but rather the idea it sparks that makes it such a useful technique.
Where do you look?
There are several choices, but I frequently end up at History.com's This Day in History. Still, there are other options. Here is a brief and incomplete list of possible sources to investigate:
This Day in History (from History.com) - categorical (e.g., Art, Hollywood, War); contains links to more information
This Day in History (from InfoPlease.com) - chronological (short list)
Today in History (from HistoryNet.com) - chronological (short list); includes a "born on this date" list
On This Day (from the NY Times) - choose a date; includes more recent history than many other sites
This Day in History (from the International World History Project) - chronological; no hyperlinks except for selected topics; includes lesser-known historical events
Once you have the list, how does it work?
I think it's easiest to explain by way of example, so here's an example from last month. The tenth of October, to be exact, as that is the most recent day I used this exercise.
Many things have happened on 10/10 throughout human history. I like to look at a long list of possible events because as I scan the list, something usually catches my eye and my brain is off and running.
The event that jumped off the page during this exercise is that on this day, October 10, 1935, Porgy and Bess, "the first great American opera," premiered on Broadway.
I love this opera. I used to sing songs from this opera in the middle-school concert choir. How did I forget that that was the day it premiered?
Okay, I probably never knew what day it premiered, but nonetheless... reading about it triggered a host of thoughts and creative avenues for me. This is amazing because, on the surface, it's not at all related to my current writing project.
As I followed the thoughts, I brainstormed.
Most of the ideas I initially write down don't get used whenever I brainstorm. But I don't worry about that. I simply write down - without judgment or too much thought - everything that comes to mind for 5-10 minutes.
Here's an excerpt of what I wrote on my brainstorm list that day:
In middle school, I learned "Summertime" [song from P&B] for concert choir - I then got really into the opera and insisted on seeing it in person; led to a trip to the city where we got lost and mayhem ensued. What if MC [main character] does similar... gets into some show, goes to the city, gets lost... what happens when she's lost?
What if MC wants to play Bess in a local production but she isn't black? Or maybe it's not P&B but some other show and she doesn't fit the director's ideal "look" for the part... What happens? How does she react? Does she do anything to get the part? How do others react?
What if MC is trying to write an American opera and uses P&B as the basis/inspiration - what could this be about? What is relevant today from P&B? What has changed? How can I change the opera to be new? How does impact MC's life?
You get the idea.
The point isn't to write a piece based on the brainstorm list but rather to let the exercise get your creative muscles flexing and fuel your creative fire.
Don't worry, just try it!
I think everyone can benefit from trying this technique at least once. And this month (National Novel Writing Month) is the perfect time to give it a go!
It may not find its way into your story or art the first time, but the brainstorming process that results from looking at "On This Day" forces your brain into creative mode. And in creative mode is always a good place be.
Did you try it? Let me know how it went!