Saying I don’t like writing exercises would be the polite way to phrase my opinion–in a confidential chat I’d be much more likely to say I hate doing them, and dislike coming up with them for presenting at workshops I lead myself even more.
But that would have been a week ago, before I attended a morning workshop with Dianne Warren at the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild Annual Conference and AGM.
Today, I’m newly inspired after penning four pages of a short story on notepad sheets of hotel letterhead. Yes, that’s right, penning. I never write in longhand anymore either.
So what happened?
First, let me tell you a little bit about Dianne and her writing. She’s one of a handful of Saskatchewan authors who has won the Governor General’s Award for writing–and been nominated for the Giller. While she was born in Ontario where her parents met after WWII, her family came “home” to Saskatchewan where she was inspired by places like Saskatchewan’s Great Sand Hills.
I’ve been to the sand hills. It’s a dry and dusty place, much like you’d expect a formation comprised mostly of sand and a few hearty species of native grasses, weeds, and flowers that have the stamina to last through summer’s heat and winter’s cold would be. It is, however, an inspiring place to those of us who appreciate the wind in our faces and a vista that’s as close to untouched as it gets these days.
After all, not a lot thrives in sand. I should know, as I grew up on a farm near Qu’Appelle, where you have to gun the 4×4 to get through some of the gates to make sure you don’t sink in the stuff. It feels good between your fingers and toes though, even if you’re not at the beach.
Anyway, Dianne’s G-G winning book, Cool Water, is set in this area where stories have intertwined for generations. They’re enduring stories–like the people who live them.
So, this year at the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild Conference and AGM, Dianne Warren gave the Caroline Heath Memorial Lecture on Friday evening and a fiction workshop on Saturday morning, titled Word in the Willows.
Even though I was at the conference because I was also a presenter, I was excited about attending the workshop. After all, it isn’t every day I get to hear writing tips from someone who has won Canada’s highest honour for writing, especially when that writing is something I can step into myself and place the characters as friends and neighbours.
The workshop began, as they often do, with Dianne reading from her own work. It wasn’t, however, a passage of carefully crafted work from her G-G book or her latest release, Liberty Street. Instead, it was a first draft, a draft that simply, as she said, was to get the story down.
To be honest, anybody could have written that first draft.
Then, she began to talk about how she writes her way into the story, getting to know the people. How she lets the prose run away with her when an opening presents itself, even if that opening eventually hits a dead end and doesn’t go anywhere. Even if–terrible thought–that piece has to be cut from the finished book like fabric fragments when you’re shortening a pair of jeans or altering a dress.
I don’t like dead ends when I travel or write. And I absolutely hate to cut any scenes.
In fact, I don’t write the same way Dianne does at all. But that’s okay. We all have a different process and one way or another we follow lots of leads until the story fully takes shape. My leads just happen in my head when I should be sleeping, instead of coming to life on a computer screen or sheet of paper. In fact, a story has to live in my head until it’s fully real before I can even begin to write.
For me, writing is like a journey, and I can’t write about it until I’ve gone through it, beginning to end.
I guess that’s why I hate writing prompts. After all, we have about ten minutes after getting the prompt to produce something to share. That means my journey can’t be much more than a quick trip to the post office. And what I really like when travelling–into a story or in the physical world–is a full immersion into some new, exciting experience.
That takes time and forethought and planning and …
Well, in my aha moment at Dianne’s workshop, I realized there really is a way to take those short journeys too. It takes believing that the stories are all really inside you and the prompt is just the vehicle that helps them navigate to your blank sheet of paper.
Interested in story prompts like Dianne used? Check these ones out: http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts
If you have some writing exercises and story prompts you like to use, please tell me about them in the Comments area below.