Discover by Doing

Medusa“I don’t really know how things will turn out until I start making them. They don’t always look like I thought they would, so sometimes I’m surprised.”

My eight-year-old granddaughter Sarah was talking about the clothespin doll she was wrapping in a scrap of cloth when she told me this, but she could have been talking about writing. She is also a budding writer, though most of her story-making remains in her head at this point.

I covered her doll making process in my previous post and explained how observing her expanded my creativity. Here are a few tips I gleaned that apply to any creative endeavor, especially writing.

Remain open to possibility. The doll pictured above became an Evil Queen, eventually  named Medusa. Sarah didn’t know who the doll would be when she began. Its identity emerged from the choice of spikey silver hair and black fabric and grew with the addition of lace and lamé.

Stories often work that way for me. Sometimes fanciful stories emerge from freewriting and their significance and meaning for my personal or life story become apparent only later. Other times I may know the bones and drift of a life story, but  my reflections often refract in new directions, adding unexpected elements. Based on my observations of Sarah, I’m ready for lots more freewriting!

Bounce back from mistakes. Sarah discarded several scraps that didn’t look “right”, didn’t quite fit, or didn’t please her. “Sometimes I have to try lots of things before I find what works.” Doesn’t this sound just like the editing process for writers?

Take a break when you need it. These dolls joined several she brought from home to become characters in a sequel she began writing to a book she dearly loves. I saw in silent awe as she made notes on a clipboard to set up the story , then began acting it out. “I’ll work on it more later,” she decided when she hit a snag.

Accept dead ends. “Or maybe I’ll just start over.” Sarah does finish projects, but she has no qualms about abandoning the ones that don’t please her, at least if they aren’t assigned projects for school. Aside from homework and chores, her equivalent of adult work tasks, everything she does is play. What a liberating way to view self-assigned writing projects.

Use organization tools. Sarah didn’t need tools to plan her dolls, but she is using them for writing projects. Her school begins teaching story organization tools in kindergarten, and I wish I’d had time to learn more about them. Her abbreviated notes looked like an outline of sorts, a cryptic sketch of plot. It reminds me of story idea lists, outlines, mind maps, and other planning tools covered in previous posts.

Play with your work. In my opinion, this is the key. Sarah asked various forms of the question, “I wonder what if …” constantly. “What if she had a silver cape? …” “What if” is said to be the most powerful tool a writer can use. It pushes us into the Land of Make Believe, perhaps better understood as the Land of Unlimited Possibility.

You can use “what if?” to explore writing techniques, and you can also use it as a way of examining alternate views of past experiences: “What if she really meant … ?” or “What if something else was going on that affected that situation?”

Realize that imperfections add character. This is a touchy tip, a tw0-edged sword. Sarah’s dolls are quirky and rough cut, exuding the power of primitive art. They are perfect for her purpose, capturing the heart of her vision, but they are imprecise, with blobs of glue peeking beyond hairlines, ragged edges, and more. Would they work as they are in the marketplace? Hard to say. Perhaps our biggest challenge as writers is retaining the freshness of a draft while editing out major flaws. Over-editing can sanitize the life out of a story or interject additional sparkle. Keeping the right balance between Heart and Craft is an ongoing challenge.

Another side to this tip is that imperfections in the people you write about (yourself included) add character to the people and the story.

My time with Sarah as we made these dolls and I watched her begin developing a story was a powerful reminder that life can be an ongoing writing workshop. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Write now: take a play break with your writing and indulge in fifteen or more minutes of freewriting. Explore the results and look for material you can polish into a memorable story.


SuziCate said...

Excellent, see how much we can learn from kids! This definitely applies to writing. I've put down the novel I'm writing several times. I am fresh with ideas each time I pick it up which has developed both the characters and the story line. Only the first line remains intact! I think my character is stronger and the story more well defined now. Who know how long this process will go on...the point is if I'd gone with my original intention my plot would have been dull and my main character weak. We learn and grow as long as we remain open to possibility. We have to be willing to let our "darlings" go! Yes, it has nearly killed me to push delete each time, but so far no regrets!

Sherrey Meyer said...

Excellent post, Sharon! I've been participating in Jeff Goins' Write 500 Words challenge for January. I've never done much free writing and I'm finding it very liberating. I'm fascinated by watching children process their thoughts and creativity. They are uninhibited, while we delve into a project demanding perfection and a set time to be finished. Silly adults!

sherpeace said...

Way cool! Love it!

sherpeace said...

"Yes, it has nearly killed me to push delete each time, but so far no regrets!"

I saved my original and copied and pasted what I felt the story needed, then added and subtracted from there. I could never "kill my darlings" completely. Besides I feel a prequel and a sequel coming on!

Sharon said...

Thank for reinforcing the message about change and flexibility, Suzi. Taking time to let things age has improved my work more times than I can count.

Sharon said...

Great point about saving new versions Sher.

Sharon said...

I don't often lapse into scripture, but do take wisdom where I find it. Somewhere in there God enjoins believers to "become as a little child," and that's generally taken to mean simple and open. I like to think it also means playful! We'll skip the "unquestioning" aspect.

Shirley Hershey Showalter said...

Sharon, you have learned so much from your granddaughter Sarah. I suspect, however, that she has learned a lot from you, also, and that even the way she creates these dolls owes a lot to the setting, encouragement, questions, and observations you have provided.

Sharon said...

Of course you are right Shirley. This river runs both ways. I did make the original dolls that got her attention, and yes, I did have the materials at hand. But Sarah is unusual in that she didn't wait for any instruction. She just picked things up and started working -- her way!

Nobody is surprised to hear that grandchildren learn from us. That story will bore anyone but close family members who pretend to listen. But grandaprents learning from the youngsters is different in most every respect.

Lesson for writers: find the story with the juice! And keep your vision wide so that juice doesn't flow past unnoticed.

Shirley Hershey Showalter said...

Touché. :-)