Before practice or performance, dancers stretch their muscles, head to toe. Not only does stretching feel amazing, it prevents injury, and allows the performers to push the limits of their physical capabilities. See here for some favorite photos of dancers pushing their limits)
Visual artists complete quick warm-up sketches or gesture drawings to loosen up the hand, and to practice before drawing more complex and detailed work.
Singers perform vocal gymnastics in preparation for a performance. Lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-POP. (That used to be my favorite.)
And we writers? We open up a scene and dive in.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve found in the past week that a warm-up really helps my process. These warm-ups are nothing elaborate, nor are they award-winning writing. They are simply meant to get the internal editor out of the way and get the words flowing when I finally do sit down with my work-in-progress.
The rules? I write one side of a page in my notebook with a freely flowing pen, top to bottom. I don’t time myself, because I don’t want to get pulled out of my process wondering if I have 5 seconds left or 15. I just write from top to bottom as quickly as I can. If I get stuck, I write something stupid until another thought comes to me.
Here are some of the topics I’ve written as warm-up:
A description of a city I’ve visited
What I’ve neglected
I must be nuts to do this
All boundaries will disappear
What am I obsessed by?
The details of life
A description of my morning
Many of these topics have come from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is more like a visit with a writing coach than plodding through a craft book. With a quick google search, you can find dozens of other writing prompts, as well as writing prompt generators.
I write three of these pages then turn to my manuscript. It doesn’t take long, and by the time I’m done, I’m easily able to transfer my attention to my manuscript. Because of the practice, my words just fly out, without any hemming and hawing, and that makes me a happy writer.
Try it and see what you think, and be sure to let me know if it works for you.
Last week, I helped a woman who is moving from a very large house (probably over 3000 square feet) to a three-bedroom apartment.
We sorted the contents of her garage into piles of garbage, piles of recycling, piles of donations, and piles of things to keep. Some things were easy to sort: the bags of trash that had been sitting for weeks; the broken picture frame; the dented metal garbage can; the bags of clothes that no longer fit.
Some things were not so easy: the dollhouse that needed a few touch-ups but still had many hours of good Barbie time left in it; the unused $600 ski rack; the deflated soccer ball.
It was not my stuff, so it was easy for me to be objective. I had no emotional attachment to any of it, no history, no story, no memories lacquering the surfaces of these objects.
They were just things.
If I were to sort the contents of my own garage, I might not have such an easy time. We humans have a touch of the squirrel in us, a touch of the magpie. A response of “Oh! Pretty!” A desire to own and consume. We place an emotional value on things. With a nod to Tim O’Brien, some of us carry peaches in heavy syrup when we’re slashing our way through a war zone.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
In contrast, others carry very little at all, preferring to live a Thoreau-like deliberate existence. A guy named Dave created the 100-Thing Challenge, the goal of which is to “live a life of simplicity, characterized by joyfulness and thoughtfulness.”
He explains that so many of us feel “stuck in stuff” and the way to get unstuck is to reduce (getting rid of stuff), refuse (to get more stuff), and rejigger (your priorities).
The artist Simon Evans created a personal inventory cataloguing everything he owns. Sometimes, we need a proper inventory to see what’s what.
I fear I would brilliantly fail the 100-Thing Challenge. I suspect I have more than 100 things just in the drawers of my desk, and if I were to create a visual personal inventory, it definitely wouldn’t fit on one poster.
You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
We writers collect words. We drape our stories with them, roll ourselves up in them, and swing them around until our worlds are filled with them. We say, “Oh! Pretty!” and hang onto them. We are unable to see that many of these words, while perfectly serviceable, do not fit our need.
As I approach revising my current manuscript, I’m trying to become a revisionary. I’m trying to see what’s there, to see what’s necessary and what’s not. It’s hard to be objective about the verbal stuff hanging out in my manuscript file-garage.
When I get to the end—when I get to what’s left behind—I’m hoping I’ll be left with what really matters. I’m hoping I’ll be left with an economy of words that are deliberate and that sing. That’s becoming revisionary.
You say you want a story? A true-life story, an end-of-the-road type story?
—Yeah, yeah, that kind.
A what’s-important story?
—You got a story or not?
Alright, alright, keep your shirt on. I’m thinking, ok? Ok.
Ok. I’ve got it. Here’s your story. So my grandfather used to fly planes during WWII.
Yeah, you know those things in the sky?
He was a test pilot. And one day, he was supposed to test fly this one plane, only for some reason his emergency pack wasn’t complete. See, they were supposed to carry a bar of emergency chocolate, and his pack had no chocolate. Yeah, I know, right? They had emergency chocolate! Smart brass, eh?
So my grandfather’s missing his chocolate.
No, I don’t know what happened to it—maybe he ate it one night when the mess hall had fiber fish for dinner. Maybe it melted in the Georgia sun. Maybe the rats got it, or the cockroaches carried it away. Who knows? That part’s not important to the story. For whatever reason, his pack had no chocolate.
So what did Grampy do? Well, he had two choices. One, fly the plane anyway, and risk getting written up for testing a plane without a complete pack.
—Not so good.
No, not so good. Or, he could simply get a replacement bar of emergency chocolate.
—I’d go for the chocolate, myself.
That’s exactly what he did. So the replacement bar of chocolate is across the base, and Grampy runs for it. The guys are waiting for him, checking their watches, checking the schedule. Come on, Sam, they say under their breath. Hurry up!
But there’s no Sam.
The minutes tick by. No Sam.
They prep the planes for flight. No Sam.
Five full minutes pass, and the other test pilots are sweating, there in the hot Georgia sun. “Go get Remus!” one of them says, disgusted that Sam’s not back yet.
Remus obliges. He’s got a full pack, complete with regulation chocolate. Sam will have to wait for the next group of planes. Remus will take Sam’s plane.
So Remus goes up.
And his plane goes down.
And Grampy not only had his emergency bar of chocolate, he had his life.