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Timed Writing

Story Starter Grab Bag

If you’re stuck on a story, or just want to mix things up, try making a Story Starter Grab Bag.

You can be a Plotter or a Pantser (or something in between)– be as structured or as loose as you’d like, but set yourself a timer of 3 minutes for each of the following lists, and write down as many things as you can think of:

Characters

Places

What happens

Themes/What the story is about

Postive moments

Negative moments

Images you can picture vividly

Now cut up the lists and mix the slips up in a pile (you can make a separate pile for each list, or mix all of them together).
Then set a timer for 10, 20, or 30 minutes, draw three slips, and write. You’ll discover connections you hadn’t noticed, and see your story from new perspectives– and you just might solve some plot problems or writer’s block.

 

Austin Kleon writes about “A Bag of Words” in his blog post (referencing Linda Barry and Ray Bradbury). When I lead the Grand Marais Writers’ Guild each month, we always start with a free-association word list based on an image, choose from the list, and use those words in a couple writing exercises. I liked the idea of a Bag rather than a list– it reminds me of the party game, Popcorn, that’s sort of a cross between Charades and Twenty Questions. And I like the randomness of drawing slips of paper, like drawing cards from a fortune teller: I like trusting my subconscious or some other unseeable force to point me in the right direction (and you can’t be blocked about what words to choose when you don’t get to choose them).

For longer writing projects, like novels, things can get stuck in a rut: write chronologically, figure out the problem in Act 2 before moving on to Act 3, is this a single novel or a trilogy?, etc. Using slips and words/phrases brings us back to seeing the story; when you can see it, you just have to write down what’s in front of you.

What is Magic?

photo by John David Dela-Peri

What is Magic?

It is fierceness and generosity. It is one hundred children sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym. It is six children in the corner of the library.

For me, Magic is Story. Or, Story is the vehicle I know how to navigate.

Magic is a feeling, an energy. There is mystery to it: I don’t know what will show up. Right now, I don’t know what I will say, though I feel many pressing, urgent things.

 

Magic is the sound of gold coins in a bowl, paying the fine for stealing a whiff of bread.

Magic is the cloak of the storyteller who clothes the naked truth so that the villagers can stand the sight of him and hear the wisdom he has to share.

Magic is a woven basket, the white necklace of the loon, the way pussy willows look like cat paws.

 

Magic is the connection, the unseeable, the divine. It is what makes us not feel we are alone. It is a lineage, an inheritance, an ancestry. It is the future, it is visions, it is dreams.

Where does it come from? Or, do we come from it? Are we the props, the puppets, the shadows on the wall as Magic tells itself a story about life?

 

I have always wanted to know what is Beyond. Where do children come from? Who are we before we exist and have mortal memories? Where is the doorway to Narnia? What must I learn to be able to speak the language of animals? How does cardamom raise the spirits of my long-dead relatives and transport me across oceans and centuries? How do plants grow?

 

Curiosity must be Magic’s lover, then. He would be a good one; attentive, delighted, asking questions that expand, unfold, reveal. I think this is my job, and I hope it is everyone’s job: to be the companion and lover to Magic. To ask the questions. To squint and sniff and listen for the answers, the clues, the hints, to go on that wild goose chase and in the process discover that not only can we fly but we are also swans.

That, yes, there are castles in the air, the stars can talk (and they do care about us), and all troubles and seemingly wasted journeys are, in fact, taking us home. Home to ourselves. Home to the Magic. Home to the beginning of everything, changed, sloughed smooth, worn by time, deepened, opened, made whole by being broken open.

 

This is my wish: to go where Magic calls me. To make my marks along the way so that others may take comfort, trust the compasses within their heart, and carry on.

I will see you there, on the journey, through the door, on the other side, back where it all begins again.

The Pocket Watch

Photo by Niklas Rhöse on Unsplash

Hailey had a magic pocket watch. The thing was, she didn’t know it was magic. She only knew it was old, and it felt nice in her hands.

“Grandpa, can I get this?”

He was looking through a stack of records.

He looked up, eyes blurry through his thick glasses. “Hmm?”

“This watch. Can I get it?” She held it out.

He came over to her, tucked the album he held under his arm, adjusted his glasses, and looked.

He had wavy white hair (not bald like so many other grandpas, which made Hailey feel proud, even though she knew it was unfair)— and he moved slowly through the world. She had asked her mom about that once.

“Is it because he’s old? Is that why he’s forgetful?”

Her mom had laughed. “No, your grandpa is just always somewhere else, and it takes him a while to get back.”

Hailey had been puzzled.

“He’s some other place in his mind— he’s a great thinker, your grandpa, and he travels far away without going anywhere at all.”

“Oh! Like Narnia,” Hailey had said. And after that she always liked to watch him come back to this world. It reminded her of a video she saw on the Discovery Channel once about a whale coming up from deep water.

Grandpa gave the little knob on top of the pocket watch a turn and held it up to his ear, cocking his head to one side.

“Does it work?” Hailey asked. She knew it wouldn’t’ matter— he’d let her get it anyway, not like if she was out with Nana and Papa, her other grandparents. They were practical. They had been farmers all their lives, and Hailey figured you couldn’t go traveling to Narnia if you had to plant corn and milk cows. She knew Grandpa would be able to tell the pocket watch was special.

“Hmm,” he mumbled. (He always mumbled— unless he was reciting Shakespeare or Longfellow or one of the other poets he liked so much— then he was “a great orator,” as Mom said.)

“Something’s loose inside— hear that rattle?” He held it out to her. In the stillness of the dusty old shop, she could hear some small piece sliding against the casing. She nodded.

“But you can fix it,” she said. It wasn’t really a question. Grandpa was an engineer. He had worked on building rocket engines for NASA long ago. Mom agreed that Grandpa’s Narnia was probably full of gears and gadgets and inventions.

He shrugged and handed it back to her, which was Grandpa-speak for “yes.”

Hailey held it close and turned the dials, feeling the now-smooth filigreed case, enjoying the click of the hidden gears as she adjusted the time.

Half an hour later, Grandpa said, “Now, then,” and Hailey knew that meant he was done looking. He gave the man at the register some cash and they left the store, treasures in hand.


First draft, timed writing, Stories for Dreamers