On ending a 21-day challenge and maybe calling it a 21-day fix

I’m really glad I stumbled on this 21-day creativity challenge when I did, because life has been very weird for longer than anticipated. For me, it’s not so much a lack of inspiration as there is P L E N T Y to pull from if one only observes the world for a moment. For me, the trouble is sticking to a writing schedule, to get those plentiful ideas down on paper. The awesome thing about attempting this 21-day creativity challenge is that it has forced me to carve out time each and every day to be creative. It has forced me to create and stick to a schedule where I am writing (or developing inspiration for writing) everyday, and that in and of itself, has been i n v a l u a b l e.

So let’s review my third – and final 😦 – week of my 21-day creativity challenge.

Day 15: Perform a mundane task.

The idea behind this “challenge” reminds me of the “Eureka theory.” The “Eureka theory” proposes that formerly impossible becomes solvable when one “thinks outside the box,” which happens when the mind is allowed to wander from the problem and, in some instances, think about something else entirely. This (apparently) comes from ancient Greece when Archimedes was asked by a local king to prove the king’s crown was pure gold. Archimedes had no idea how to do that, and puzzled over the problem. The solution suddenly came to him when he was doing something entirely different and unrelated; taking a bath. When at the public bath, Archimedes “noted that water was displaced when his body sank into the bath, and particularly that the volume of water displaced equaled the volume of his body immersed in the water” (Wikipedia). Thus, Archimedes discovered how to find the volume of an irregular object, which solved his problem concerning the king’s crown, and legend has it that Archimedes was so excited that he jumped from the bath, yelled “Eureka (meaning “I have found it!”)!” and ran naked all the way home.

This method has definitely worked for me many, many times. When I let my mind wander and do its own thing, nine times out of ten it brings me to where I need to be. I even recommend this to my students; if they’re stuck, leave whatever it is behind and go do something they love for half-an-hour. The mind is more relaxed, more open to possibility, and the solution often appears.

I tell the students to do something they love instead of a mundane task because it offers more of a buy-in, or an incentive. For the older (and sometimes wiser), mundane works because there’s always something that needs to be done but can simultaneously prove fruitful for the creative life. Just the other day, I was folding what appeared to be a never ending pile of laundry and BAM! The plot hole I’d been puzzling over resolved itself! If only dealing with fitted sheets were so easy.

Day 16: Knit or crochet.

When I saw this challenge, every muscle in my body tensed. For years – literally years – I’ve been teasing a colleague who knits and crochets. It’s gentle teasing and truly comes from a place of love, but really? Seriously?

I had to stop judging and climb down off my high horse and give it a whirl. After all, I realized this “challenge” wasn’t so far off from doing something mundane. Knitting or crocheting could be like painting or coloring; the repetitive muscle movements and hyperfocus on the tactile challenge could indeed open up a world of possibilities. BUT – I also knew I couldn’t do this without my poor colleague I’d teased mercilessly. So I’m going to set up a time with her where she can show me the ropes (of yarn! … get it?) and I’ll post the finished product here.

Day 17: Make a list.

OMG, ALL I DO IS MAKE LISTS! In my daily planner, in my journal, on Post-it notes stuck all over my desk and monitor, there are lists and lists and lists! Again, the idea here is that considering a wealth of possibilities to whatever creative endeavor is challenging you, you open up your mind and find the right one.

Day 18: Have a conversation.

OMG, ALL I DO IS CONVERSATE! But really, direct quotes from conversations I have had with friends in real life end up in my writing A L L T H E T I M E. According to the late, great Professor Dumbledore, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” For example, I can remember all the details of when my second grade teacher told me years and years later that she remembered my handwriting and what a wonderful writer I was. And with equal clarity, I can remember when someone pointed out all the flawed editing in my first novel. I recorded the exchanges and have filed them away because 1) writing through real-life situations is an effective coping mechanism for me and 2) inspiration could be hiding within.

My hero Stephen King wrote:

Writers remember everything… especially the hurts. … A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.”

So having conversations, good and bad, and remembering them is important to helping stimulate creativity.

Day 19: Keep an idea file.

Done and done; been doing this for years. In my Google Drive, there are two folders: Novels and Short Stories. Inside each of those folders is another folder, simply labeled “Ideas.” And the best thing about those folders is that I’m constantly adding to them.

Day 20: Try a topic generator.

Topics/ideas aren’t really my issue, but these are fun to play with anyway. And the point of this 21-day “challenge” is to try new things and think outside the box.

Having trouble starting a deep, interesting conversation sure to be filled with nuggets of creative gold? Try this random conversation starter generator.

Having trouble thinking of something to write about? Try this topic generator specifically for blogs.

Or try this fun one!

Day 21: Light a vanilla cinnamon candle.

In life, it really is the little things. Sitting at my desk in my front room with the window open on a nice day, watching the sheer curtains ripple from the gentle breeze blowing through with a vanilla cinnamon candle flickering is a perfect way to start my writing day. Specifically, the vanilla cinnamon candle is good because in the aromatherapy realm, those two scents really seem to boost creativity.

So how did your 21 days go? Comment and let me know!

On week #2 of my 21-day creativity challenge.

I won’t repeat myself unnecessarily, so all I’ll do to open up this post is reiterate how difficult it can be to be creative during a pandemic. Life is not as it was, and information about returning to the way things were changes every day, and the amount of information is overwhelming and varied. The only real consensus is that there is no real consensus, and all of those circumstances can make it quite difficult to keep to a writing schedule and all of those circumstances can make it near impossible to start and stick to a *new* creative schedule. But at times like these, the best we can do is try. So please, join me on my second week of Grammarly’s 21-Day Creativity Challenge (featured here).

Day 8: Carry an idea notebook.

One of my favorite aspects of this challenge is that most of the tips are tips I already implement daily, let alone weekly. One of those tips is to carry an idea notebook. I’ve actually been teased for always having a journal and a pen in my purse or bag. Here’s photographic evidence of my idea journal:

Mostly, I write down things my friends say and dreams I remember. Occasionally, I’ll be especially inspired and able to write a scene, or a couple of scenes, or even a whole chapter! I write down the homily during mass too, and daily schedules, and let it all flow together. My writing life should and will forever be entwined with my general life.

Day 9: Freewrite.

A former co-worker RAVED about freewriting. We would have our students participate in that activity to help deepen their understanding of a concept, or help them begin to develop analysis. There’s excellent and extensive information about freewriting at this link. And other teachers, writing for Psychology Today, agree with our premise as its benefits go beyond the realm of creativity, as explained here.

So how does one freewrite? Luckily, The Book Designer walks you through it:

Here are some freewriting guidelines, although in the spirit of freewriting freedom, feel free to not follow any that don’t feel right.

1. Use a prompt.
2. Set a timer.
3. Keep your pen moving.
4. Write quickly.
5. Use the first word.
6. Write crap.
7. Go for it.

Find more information here.

Day 10: Join a social writing site.

I began to explore this last week when the tip was to join a group of creatives. Physically doing this is not a current option, but joining an online group through a social writing site is entirely plausible. According to Grammarly, the goal is to do more than just connect, however. Grammarly says, “If your muse gets lonely, online social sites for writers, such as Wattpad or Amazon Kindle’s Write On, may help. (Just be aware that getting noticed and earning feedback on these sites can require a significant time commitment.)” The goal should always be inspiration first, but there is the opportunity for developing a readership. I haven’t truly tackled this step yet, but I will and I will report back.

Day 11: Go somewhere busy.

This particular tip was difficult to try during this pandemic, so to talk about this tip, I have to rely on past experience. The benefits are almost endless. You can overhear real dialogue to make your own more authentic.I remember sitting at a crowded bar and watching two guys across the way rehash the fight one of them had with his girlfriend. I made note not only of the dialogue, but of the way they moved. Going to crowded places can also inspire settings which can develop plot.

Day 12: Go someplace quiet.

This tip, conversely, was extremely easy to accomplish. It seems like everywhere is someplace quiet. I’ve done my best writing alone in my room. What works best for me is gathering and generating ideas in busy places and then developing them into prose in quiet places. Quiet places help with concentration and can be relaxing and soothing. Also, the perfect blend of someplace busy and someplace quiet is one of my favorite places to write: a bookstore or coffee shop.

Day 13: Do something brave.

This one confused me when I first read it. Grammarly explains, “Shy? Join an improv group. Clumsy? Take a beginner’s dance class. Do something that pushes your limits and then use your experiences for inspiration.” Again, this becomes an issue when most places are closed and new experiences are severely limited. However, I did something brave as best as I could; I traveled to Florida during this quarantine to see my sister and her beautiful, precious family. I was worried about checkpoints at state lines, about rest areas and service stations being closed, and taking the trip in these scary times.

Day 14: Attend a creative event.

This is not possible currently, but I cannot stress enough how much attending writing conferences has helped me. I know I talked about this in last week’s post, but I’ll happily repeat myself if it convinces even just one person to put him or herself out there and attend a conference. The benefits vary depending on the conference, but no matter the conference, there are always undeniable benefits. I got into more details in the following posts:

Tune in next week for my third and final week of the 21-Day Creativity Challenge!

On a 21-day Creativity Challenge!

Last week, I happily posted about how I had a breakthrough while writing. I was pleasantly surprised by that burst of creative inspiration as it seemingly came from absolutely nowhere, seeing as how we’re STILL in the midst of a pandemic, which means we’re still social distancing and quarantining. As random as it appeared, I was afraid that after that initial spark, there’d be n o t h i n g. For once in my writing life, I decided to be proactive and challenge myself to be creative no matter the circumstance! I did some research and stumbled upon a Grammarly post about 21 Ways to Inspire Creativity When You’re Out of Ideas.

I saw the number 21 and figured it was a sign from the universe; if you do something consistently for 21 days, it becomes a habit. The 21 ways could easily become 21 days as long as I vowed to try a way a day (oh, how I love rhyme!). For the next three blog posts, including this one, I’ll be writing all about my 21-day creativity challenge! I’ll share what worked, what didn’t work, and what I learned!

Day 1: Listen to music.

I listen to music C O N S T A N T L Y. Hell, I even listen to music when I sleep! Naturally, I listen to music when I write. On my Instagram, I post a #tuesdaytune , which is a song that’s been especially inspiring that week. For a song to inspire me, it has to inspire great emotion, which for me, usually comes from the lyrics. If lyrics are especially poignant, I’ll stop in the middle of my writing and jot them down. I’ve been doing this since college:

This is one of my notebooks from college.
I spy lyrics from My Chemical Romance, Boxcar Racer, and Snow Patrol.
I spy lyrics from MGMT, Bayside, and Billy Joel.

For day one, I set myself up in my bedroom. I’d recently watched “Twilight,” inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s announcement she’s finally going to release Midnight Sun, Call me a snob, but I really didn’t care for the books. The writing was too juvenile to really pique my interest, but I will gladly admit I LOVED the movies. It’s always a treat to watch Robert Pattinson do anything, and those movies were delightfully hollow. I didn’t have to think or analyze, I could just imagine laying in a meadow with an immortal Robert Pattinson who was so in love with me, he’d get us both caught up in adventures riddled with poor character development and gaping plot holes.

But I digress. I wrote about 750 words in one hour, even with pausing to copy lyrics I loved. I think that’s sufficient evidence to prove listening to music really does inspire creativity.

Day 2: Journal every day.

Again, this is another way to inspire creativity that I’ve been using for years. I’ve been journaling every day since middle school. Here’s photographic evidence:

That middle shelf is all the journals I’ve filled over the years.
This is the journal I’m currently using.
And here’s proof I’m using it for this 21-day challenge!

Day 3: Join a group of creatives.

Considering the current global state, this one proved especially difficult. There are TONS of online writing groups, but that’s actually a challenge for a later date. Though I can’t join a new group, I can absolutely attest to the power of joining a group of creatives. I’ve been blessed to attend three writer’s conferences in just as many years: the Algonkian Writer’s Conference, the Writer’s Hotel, and the Frank McCourt Summer School for Creative Writing. In each setting, I was awed and inspired by the creativity and tenacity of other writers. I still keep in touch with the groups I was in from each conference and I still seek their advice. I am honored to still be a part of their writing lives.

Day 4: Take a walk.

This is another activity I do regularly. I don’t always take my journal as I tend to focus on the walk for its exercise benefits, but when I adopt a more leisurely pace and allow myself the opportunity to stop and write, I’m never disappointed. If the inherent beauty of nature doesn’t inspire me (and I’m fortunate enough to live near the water), then being out and about among others definitely will. Even during this pandemic, I’ve found opportunities to “people watch,” to steal glimpses into the lives of others and formulate a plot with my imagination. I’ve copied overheard conversations into my journal to help me make my created dialogue more authentic and because, sometimes, people say wonderfully interesting things that I want to remember forever.

Day 5: Turn off (or cover) your monitor.

According to Grammarly, the point of this way to inspire creativity is to prevent focusing on what’s already been written:

Interesting things happen when you can’t edit—you have to move ahead rather than worry about what’s behind you. Sure, you’ll make tons of typos, but you can fix those. Later.

Written by Karen Hertzberg for Grammarly.

I thought it was an interesting concept. I’ve been using a typewriter now and again, and it’s a similar concept. The typewriter I use is old school; manual. And I didn’t buy any correcting ribbon. But, to do the thing properly, I will now try to write a part of my short story without looking at the monitor. Here we go:

The office was loud and overcrowded, as it usually was. Bernadette couldn’t work in that kind of environment and actually did her best work in the late afternoon when everyone else started to fdrift home. On nice days, she’d take her laptop up to the roof and work in the rays of the setting sun and letting the sounds of the evening commute serve as relaxing white noise. It was a good thing that Greg, her boss/editor, kept a similar schedule. It would end up being just the two of them in the office and he always seemed more prone to greenlighting her story ideas. The mini-fridge kept fully stocked with beer under his desk may have helped greatly, but Bernadette also liked to believe her talent and charm played an equally important role.

I’m impressed I didn’t make more mistakes. I mean, this is still rough – very rough – but thank you, Mavis Beacon (haha).

I like the idea behind this challenge, but in the end, it’d probably be more frustrating than inspiring. I’d keep this in the “Break in Case of Emergency” file, when I’m completely stuck and desperate for any kind of inspiration.

Day 6: Reward yourself for writing with a kitten.

If you go to this website, it allows you to choose between a kitten, puppy or bunny to pop up on the screen after so many words (you’re allowed to select that as well). I left the defaults chosen, so for every 100 words, a fresh kitten popped up. I recorded the experience for your viewing pleasure:

Adorable! But a message does pop up suggesting that users copy and paste the writing because the website could lose it. It’s not very practical, so I rank it with covering the monitor: only use in desperation.

Day 7: Mind Map.

I am NOT artistic at all. You don’t really need to be for a Mind Map, though. The idea is to creatively think about your big ideas and present them in a way so you can see your ideas in ways you never did before. To make sure I was doing it right, I looked up tutorials on YouTube (since the class linked from the Grammarly blog cost $47) and found this helpful (and quick!) clip.

I totally traced the big rig in the center. I’m really not artistic.

I really liked Mind Mapping, and I definitely will do it again in the future. It forced me to think about my short story idea in a different way, and the coloring aspect was soothing. It combined the best parts of being creative.

So tune in next week for another week of creative challenges! Let me know if you tried any of these in the comments! Let’s start our own group of creatives ❤ 🙂

On breaking through while staying in.

The pandemic continues. And so does the quarantine, the social distancing, and this overwhelming desire to return to normal. NJ public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year, but state parks are open, though I think they’re limited to operating at ha;f their capacity and can be immediately shut down if people are not maintaining a social distance. I had a panic attack yesterday because I think it f i n a l l y hit me that I don’t recognize this world I’m now living in, and that is a terrifying realization.

So I escape; I escape into reading and into writing. Right now, I’m reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I realize this is long overdue; the novel was originally published in 1940 and became a sensation. It was McCullers first novel, and she was only twenty-three years old, so I thought it was high time I finally read it. I remember reading an excerpt or two in middle school and writing down the title so I could read the whole thing later. It’s much later now, and I’m wondering why this title isn’t as referenced as often as others from the time period, especially when Amazon.com reports the novel is “Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition.” And according to Wikipedia (a dubious source at best), “The Modern Library ranked the novel seventeenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included it in ‘TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005’. In 2004 the novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.” So I guess it’s time for me to see what all the fuss is about.

As for my writing, I am S T I L L revising my manuscript for my second novel, Moody Blue. But I am THRILLED to report I’ve had something of a breakthrough! Without going into too much detail, I’ve been grappling with components of my plot that were too extreme. I couldn’t close those plot holes or justify character decisions in regards to them. But I think I’ve thought my way through and the writing’s been coming easier now. I remember when I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, I saw every single scene like a movie in my head. I always knew exactly where the plot and characters were headed. Moody Blue is a different animal altogether; I could only ever see parts. There were scenes I definitely wanted to include, but I never saw just how each piece fit. Happily, I really believe I’m on to something now.

So please, share with me: what are you reading during this quarantine? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to? Are there any projects you’ve started or accomplished? Let’s talk creativity 🙂