If You Want To Be Creative…

If you want to be creative… be a 5th grader!

Tuesday night I conducted short writing workshops at Davis Reads Family Literacy Night. More students than ever attended the event (super exciting to get stuck in traffic for a literary event)!

I handed out paper and pens as the students entered the room, and we got to work quick. Fifteen minutes is a short time to talk about developing characters while doing a bit of writing and sharing. I presented different scenarios based on the age of the majority of my students. Elementary students got a bring your pet to school day mishap, while the teens worked with a public shaming situation. We hit on three main points: description (the easiest part), motivation (what the character wants), enemies (who or what is stopping the character from getting what he/she/it wants?)

Many students shared interesting ideas, characteristics, and unique responses to the situations, but the true out-of-the-box thinking came from 5th graders. Ten and eleven-year-olds possess solid skills, but they haven’t reached that point of self-consciousness that hits with puberty. That gives them such creative freedom! And, oh, they love to share and share and share.

The craziest idea of the night involved a hippo! The story worked! 

Older teens don’t share much. The ones who show up for family literacy nights really, really want to write. They listen attentively, write furiously, but they don’t dare allow anyone to judge their work publicly, especially a room full of strangers. Teens stay after to privately ask important and deep questions.

I’ve noticed that the teens who do share in public often stick close to the established YA cannon when creating their work. A sameness often seeps into the work of students once they hit the age of twelve.

Many years ago I judged the PTA Reflections contest at a neighborhood elementary school. Wow! The fifth graders wrote amazing stories and poems–clever, personal, fresh. The 6th graders, on the other hand, wrote almost as one mind. Safe subjects, safe interpretations. I’ve observed this same split while teaching in the classroom. I have to push 6th graders to dare to be different, not to worry about what others will think.

That brings me to my own creative life. How many times do I secretly fret about what others will think about my writing? Do I dare write about              ? What will people say? Will my neighbors stop talking to me if it gets published? What will people say to my husband at work? What if people think that I’m like my characters?

I, too, could use a good dose of my inner 5th grader!

I’m Not Sorry I Got You in Trouble.

Yesterday I got a 6th grader busted for edgy, maybe a bit above PG-13, writing. But I don’t feel bad.

This month I’m teaching character development workshops to 4th, 5th (ah, such lovely people), and 6th graders at a charter school. I met this smart, err, smart-aleck, kid during recess detention. He’s thrilled to be getting a D- in math. When he cheered his low grade, his fellow detention-mates laughed and hooted. Being smart isn’t cool in the hormonal mess that comprises springtime 6th grade.

I struggled to get this kid invested in the writing exercise. He popped out of his seat, distracted those around him, and wrote banal descriptions of the magazine photo “character” I’d given him. But then he asked me if his character could be in a coma.

“Comas are boring,” I said. “People in comas can’t do much, can they?”
“What about a fake coma?”
“Fake comas are good.”

Later he asked me if his character could have a drug problem that led to a bit of violence. “Sure,” I said.

I live with a 6th grader, and they’re not as innocent as we wish they were. I also know that writing gives us the chance to safely explore themes, figure out experiences, or experiment–and who am I to decide what another person needs to write about? I also appreciated the fact that the PG-13 elements in his writing had natural consequences. It wasn’t gratuitous.

I also knew that his classmates would titter with the glee of the forbidden when he shared his writing. So I made him read last.

I hadn’t been informed about the love affair between the fake coma patient and his nurse. Yet the scene kind of reminded me of A Farewell To Arms. And the nurse got pregnant from the “baby-making” on the hospital bed. Again, natural consequences.

The kid got SO busted by his teacher. But this kid gets scolded ALL DAY LONG.

He doesn’t often have the chance to experience how the power of his imagination, his intelligence, his WRITING can affect others. Ooh, the class went wild for his salacious and dramatic story.

That’s my job as a visiting author–to show kids that their words have real power. He got busted this time. But maybe he’ll also be inspired to become the next Stephen King.

I snuck out of the classroom with a big smile on my face. Mission accomplished!

Other Kinds of Creativity

I’m just home from a jaunt through the Northwest. I brought books, notebooks, and my laptop, but I didn’t do any writing work. I simply appreciated other people’s creativity.

With sand:

Latte foam:

Salty soccer chants:

And lyrics. (Our marriage entered its last year as a teenager, so we took it to a My Morning Jacket concert.)

Watching others exercise their creativity always inspires me. So now I’m home with my notebook, adding characters like this cat who does fundraising for an animal shelter at Pike Place Market in Seattle.

U2: Creative Longevity

Last Thursday my husband and I went to the U2 concert in Salt Lake City, his eighth, my fifth. Many of our memories together involve U2–like the time we bought the Joshua Tree album, a bag of Doritos, and headed out on our first road trip together through the Mohave desert’s Joshua trees (so cool!) on the way to my dad’s house. A few years later we had so much fun seeing a U2 show in Tacoma, Washington that we drove to Vancouver, BC the next night to catch it again. Many years later, we caravanned to Denver with young kids-in-tow to see the band.

I’ll leave it to my husband and his music-loving friends to debate the quality of U2’s recent albums, I’m simply impressed by the band’s creative longevity. How has U2 managed to connect with so many fans for so many years? Among the 50,000 of us who watched Thursday’s concert were elementary school kids perched on their dads’ shoulders, teens swaying with friends, and many of us sporting gray hair.

I think the answer is authenticity. Whether it’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Bullet The Blue Sky,” or “Walk On,” Bono writes about issues that matter to him. And he backs up his words with political action.

As writers we receive a lot of mixed messages: don’t follow trends…here are the trends. But I think we should learn a lesson from U2: write what matters to you, means something to you, and you’ll connect with others.

And it doesn’t hurt if you look good in leather pants!

Developing A New Idea

My WIP is off with its first readers, so I’ve allowed myself a few lazy days of lounging. But now it’s time to think about developing my next idea.

My new idea came to me through random chance encounters…

Teen in bookstore cafe + a joke made during a dinner party = my cool new idea.

(I chose this idea because the challenge of pulling it off kind of scares me.)

But it’s just an idea–an unformed blob. How do I give it shape? The idea sparked on June 13th last summer, so since then I’ve been collecting more information.

An essay in Men’s Journal gave me a hint of voice, attitude… so I asked my hairdresser if I could keep the magazine. I’ve found a few more clippings–photos of the kinds of characters I plan to create, stuff that might interest my characters…

I’ve been gathering a stack of research books too. Some deal with my main topic, but others only relate to the themes a little bit. I plan to read a wide variety of stuff that will allow my mind to make unusual connections that will–hopefully–deepen my original spark of an idea. And add lots and lots of layers.

I won’t be ready to write for several weeks, but I’ll start playing with my characters’ voices during my writing exercises. Let them talk without the pressure of creating WIP word count.

I’m also asking myself lots of “What If” questions about plot–jotting them down in the notebook I’ve set aside just for this story. Once I finish the bulk of my research I’ll sit down with a thick yellow pad and list possible scenes, plot points, figure out each character’s motivation, etc. For me, plot works like a puzzle.

Now I just have to find all the pieces…

Don’t Clean Your Room…

Messiness aids creativity! Instinctively, I’ve always known this. Just ask my mother. But I was thrilled to read in the December issue of U.S News & World Report ( “Unleash Your Creative Genius” ) that “A spotless playroom stifles creativity, because kids may not feel they can engage in messy experiments or art.”

I feel the same way about my desk.

When I hit a tricky spot while writing, it helps to play with the toys on my desk, pet whomever is sitting on my desk, or read the little inspirational notes scattered around. Fussing with my clutter helps me think.

Now I do sometimes wish my house weren’t so messy. I was fascinated by the Zero Waste Home featured in the January issue of Sunset Magazine. Everything looked so orderly, albeit a bit white. But I have to admit that I was slightly horrified by the photo of the boys playing with one measly box of legos. That’s it? Our playroom looks like more like this (on a good day):

But with the toy and dress-up clothes mishmash my daughter comes up with creations like this:

So while my grandmother would be horrified to see her shoe used as spacecraft, I say viva the clutter! A little messiness makes for a lot of creativity!

You have my permission not to clean your room.

Clowning Around

Yesterday I checked my favorite fifth grader out of school for an “appointment”. . .

with The Elephant Parade. I realize that 5th grade is important & I really do value education (as well as my own writing time), but sometimes you just have to. . .

clown around. Starting with my daughter’s fifth birthday, we’ve gone to watch the elephants ramble in downtown Salt Lake City the day before the circus starts. Tomorrow she’ll be eleven. We’ve delighted in watching elephants eat watermelons, clowns turn cartwheels, and yesterday we saw

Circus Llamas! After the ten minute parade we have Thai food for lunch–since, you know, they’re Asian elephants. And then it’s back to writing and school.

Recently, I met someone who never missed a moment of school from Kindergarten through High School–and they do give awards for that kind of thing. But I believe in taking time for yourself, nurturing your body when you’re sick, and sneaking off for bits of adventure here and there. Unique experiences

stretch creativity!

No I’m not going to write a paranormal YA novel about circus llamas. But I did figure out how to revise chapter twenty-five while discussing the merits of various Katy Perry songs on the way home from the parade. I wouldn’t have had that conversation sitting alone with my laptop. Breaks are good–they allow your subconscious to figure things out without the noise of your internal editor stressing about stuff.

Oh, and for the record, yesterday was not the most crucial day of 5th grade (phew!). I’m guessing my daughter won’t remember much about the stuff she learns in school this week, but I’m betting she’ll remember clowning around at the elephant parade with her silly mother long after she’s celebrated her 90th birthday.

Happy Birthday, Smoph!

Making Connections

Last month a group of my writer friends declared that February would be Write Your Butt Off Month (WYBOM). Each of us set personal goals and touched based several times a week, offering support when someone hit a rough patch or celebration when someone had a great day.

I worked hard on a revision for my agent, even squeezing in a couple of post-skiing hours on the weekends. After one last read-through on Friday, I sent the manuscript off (wahoo!!!). And then I noticed my desk–scary–and decided I’d better find out what lurked in those teetering piles. Mid-sort I found the copy of Standing at Water’s Edge I’d bought after chatting with a fine artist who stopped by one of my book signings.

I left the rest of my desk messy, brewed a cup of tea, and settled in to read. I love finding a book that fits a particular moment in my life. The book is written by Anne Paris, PhD, a therapist who studies creativity and works with artists of all kinds. She emphasizes the importance of having meaningful connections with other people while doing creative work.
While art is created alone, we need to find supporters, mentors, and others sharing a similar experience. Like WYBOM! Not only did we cheer and nudge each other along in February, we meet for dinner throughout the year to talk writing, set goals, and simply connect with others who hear characters talking in their heads.
I truly appreciate the supportive writing and reading community in Utah. Last night was a good example. The book bloggers–and it turns out there are a lot of them here–host biannual dinner gatherings and invite authors to come too. I went for the first time last night.
About fifty people showed up–veteran authors, popular bloggers, newer bloggers, debut authors, award-winning authors, bestsellers, agented writers waiting to score that first contract, even a bookseller opening a new Indie store. We all ate too many desserts, talked books, writing, silly stuff–and I realized that Anne Paris is SO right. Human connection is essential, and while it’s nice to get to know someone online, there’s nothing like hearing someone’s laughter in person.
Much thanks to Natasha at Maw Books Blog at for organizing the event!

Feeding Creativity

I love going to concerts with my husband, even though I can rarely name a band’s song titles & I’m often saying, “Oh, I didn’t know they sang this.”


First, the people watching is tremendous–my imagination could never have conjured up the kid holding a tube of cherry Chapstick in his gage hole. I also enjoy all the outfits–and how differently people dress at concerts in Salt Lake City versus Seattle, LA, or New York (my husband seriously lives for concerts).

When the lights dim and the band hits the stage, I absolutely feast on the creative energy. I lose myself in the music and my mind makes surprising connections–with my writing. A few years ago, I was struggling with the structure of a novel, but the outline came to me during a Prince concert. I saw the whole novel while Prince went crazy with a long improvised song.

So last night I went to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show (with Yacht opening). I felt extremely rebellious because the venue’s security staff confiscated my special book signing pens at the door, fearing I would write on the walls. Never before had I experienced a stronger urge to write bathroom stall poetry. If they were going to treat me like a toddler, I was going to act like one! Talk about getting in touch with my inner teenager…

Fortunately for In The Venue’s bathroom stalls–I had a rogue pen in my bag–Karen O puts on such an energetic show that I didn’t want to miss a minute. Here’s a bootleg clip (I was in total rebel mode) for your enjoyment. Of course, I have no idea what this song is called…


Exercising, but not that kind

This time of year everyone is talking about exercise, you know, getting your body “bikini ready” whatever that means. Skimpy swimwear aside, exercise is important to keep your body healthy. But what about creative exercises? (And I’m not talking about weird yoga poses.)

I like to exercise my writing. It’s a good way to stretch my skills, warm-up before attacking a blank page, come up with new ideas, and keep perfectionism at bay. No one ever sees my writing exercises, but I have turned some of them into sold magazine stories, novel scenes, or used them to develop characters.

Right now these are my favorite exercise books.

I have had so much fun with my Wreck This Journal. The tasks are sometimes crazy! But it’s been a sanity saver as I wait to hear from my editor or agent or just plain worry about stuff over which I have no control. Last night I listed all kinds of “sticky” situations before dripping honey all over the page as requested. So liberating! Even my non-artsy daughter has begged for her own copy–not wanting to miss out on the fun. Here are a couple of other pages:

The other book I’ve really enjoyed is called The Write-Brain Workbook.


The exercises are short, but unique, plus there’s a bonus refection exercise that asks you to think about your writing life in a unique way. Here’s a sample:

Even if you don’t consider yourself a “writer,” try doing some creative exercises–in a no pressure, just for fun kind of way. We all need to exercise our creativity in some way, right?

How do you show your creative side?