I’m back from Toronto and road-tripping and being weirded out by the fact that all American gas stations now apparently have fried chicken bars in them, and into the full swing of things, which for me means I’m sitting alone at my desk most days staring at a blank white screen and contemplating going to work at Starbucks where they pay you decent and regular and you're called a "partner" instead of an employee which I think is nice. Writing is daunting literally every single day- it never gets much easier to sit down and actually feel confident in what I’m writing that day, or even know what I’m writing that day, and that can start to drive me a bit insane. Luckily, I’m great at procrastinating, so that helps, but eventually I do actually have to get shit done.
*Side note- my keyboard is a bit wonky and I’ve created a makeshift solution by putting a few pages of a book under one side of it to balance it out, but the book is ever-so-slightly covering a few keys that I didn’t think I’d need, including the exclamation mark, and I WAS NOT AWARE HOW MUCH I USE THE EXCLAMATION MARK!! Do you guys just think I’m bouncing with energy and joy and caffeine all day when I write these things?! You must! Because apparently the exclamation is more common to me than bronzer to a Kardashian. I’ve tried to use it like twenty times already and had to move the book solution out of the way in order to do so, and I’m ashamed, ashamed and deeply saddened, to realize how much I rely on that tiny punctuation mark to get my point across. I’ll try to take it down a notch- I’m not, as it may seem, actually sitting here vibrating with energy. I just reheated half a cold cup of coffee in the microwave and I’m still wearing my spandex from my very cold workout this morning. Plus I have a new zit on my chin. But I digress…
Back to writing and the intimidation of not knowing what to write or where to start; this is where writing prompts, those ubiquitous writing degree teachers’ aids, come in. However, as I promised in my weekly writing prompt last week (you don’t subscribe yet? WHY NOT?! They’re FREE! You can sign up at the bottom of this post! No spam- just writing prompts to inspire you!)… (broke my exclamation mark promise there but I’ll get back on the wagon now), I only send you writing prompts and suggestions that I myself would actually use, and do use, and this was one of those weeks where I needed all the inspiration I could get.
See, I’m currently working on a new short film for a producer who is also going to be starring in it. This probably sounds like a ton of fun if you are picturing filming with movie stars in Hollywood and drinking martinis dressed in fur beside an old fashioned typewriter (… just my writing fantasy? Cool cool cool…), but in reality, writing for something like this means sticking to a very small budget (small in film terms means that $10,000 for a short is pauper territory once you factor in rentals, fees, wages, insurance, food, etc), which means coming up with a story that only uses 1-2 actors (including a character who fits the type of the producer/actor), one location, and little to no special effects. Trust me- harder than it looks. Ever since I learned that a writer gets paid a percentage based on the overall budget of a film, I’ve been throwing explosions into the script left, right, and centre to ramp those budgets up (just kidding.. sort of.. don’t tell my agent), but that won’t fly in a small, low budget short like this. SO- I needed a prompt, some inspiration, something to get the (small budget) ideas churning. Couple with this the fact that clients like to be presented with multiple ideas and usually don’t accept any of them, forcing you to scramble and come up with some half-assed idea on the fly which is inevitably the one they end up going with, and now you have to make it make sense. Fun stuff. Glam writer life, yo.
ANYWAY- I started my inspirational day by going for a walk with my parents’ two dogs, Gord and Nick. They are the loves of my life (*ahem* plus my husband, obviously…) but walking them is not as fun as it should be. Lots of pulling, and yelling, and corralling (and that’s just them- badum bum chhh!) BUT, I forgot how magical fall is in Calgary when it’s not immediately blizzarding by Sept. 2. It is SO gorgeous- the light was that cool, hard light that makes the shadows deep and long, and the trees were bright, glowing, and yellow (everyone always says fall trees are gold- NO. I WISH they were gold, honey, TRUST me- if they were, I’d just make camp in the forest and be fabulous all day err day, but they are not gold, as so many writers like to manifest. They are yellow, and yellow is nice, too, guys; we don’t all gotta go start pretending we’re walking through Fish Creek like it’s King Midas’ palace). So, on this gorgeous fall walk, I started by training my monkey mind to focus on story (I could, and perhaps should, do a whole post on monkey minds in creative brains one of these days), and first asked myself: what stories have I naturally observed this week? This is the part where I always wish I was super disciplined and carried a beautiful little notebook everywhere with me that I wrote down inspiring and interesting things as they happened to me each week. Sadly, no- I have little scraps here and there of story ideas that immediately disappear and then pop up years later inside the back cover of a book I’m re-reading and it says something like “walking today- Batman drama- cookies, funny” and I’m like WTF did I think this was going to turn into?? Instead, I have to just let my mind wander back over experiences I had that week or strange things I noticed.
This week, it included Wally, the elderly man with dementia who sat next to me and my grandpa at the old folks home while we ate lunch together this week. Wally kept insisting that my husband (who is a regular height of 6ft) “played on the basketball team” (definitely not) and then sang the old jazz tune “Five Foot Two” to him but changed the words to “Seven Foot Two”. It was clear that Wally was getting him confused with someone else, but soon Wally got everyone at the table singing the song, including my usually grumpy grandpa, a lovely woman dressed all in pink they called Princess Margaret, and a woman named Deborah who excused herself from the table to deal with “some important business with some people” and toddled off in a floral nightgown. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not my husband wasn’t a giant and never played basketball on Wally’s team- the story was real enough to Wally and it made him very happy when everyone chimed in to sing about it. I thought about how much I’d love to set a scene at that table, with those characters, about the surreal, nostalgic conversations that dementia patients carry on. That's a film I'd watch- quirky, funny, morose, nostalgic, with a touch of bizarre. Just how I like it.
Now I love this idea, and perhaps I’ll use it in the future, but it uses more than 1-2 characters, doesn’t have space for the profile of the actor/producer, and would not be set in one location if I wanted to travel back in time to each characters’ memories as I wanted to, so I set it aside for another time. Back to the drawing board for short film inspiration.
I’ve mentioned before I am lucky enough to work with a writing partner, but many people ask me how I can do it. "Isn’t it hard to have to compromise on ideas", and aren’t I "worried about sounding stupid and making up bad stories"? Yes, yes, and yes, are the answers, which is why finding a writing partner that works is as difficult as finding your soulmate. In fact, I often refer in conversation to my writing partner as just ‘my partner’, and my husband reminds me that people don’t know I’m talking about a business partner. It just sounds like I’ve got some side dude down in LA who’s game to play when I am. Or maybe we both works at Starbucks together. But in truth, the writing partner relationship is a really important one, mostly because you have to be willing to get really vulnerable, which is really scary and hard on your ego until you start to master the technique. It took my partner (WRITING partner, excuse me) and I a while to get into the rhythm of not being afraid to put lots of bad ideas or half ideas out there for the other person to wrestle with and comment on, but once we figured it out, my capacity for inspiration has sky-rocketed. And that’s what I want to focus on this week for a writing prompt, because as we were trying to come up with ideas for this small budget short film, we fell back into one of our tried and true methods for breaking through when we’re stuck. We call it Ten Bad Ideas; it’s simple, but it works.
Ten Bad Ideas literally consists of one us, usually the one who got the most frustrated first, saying with exasperation “okay, ten bad ideas…” and then listing off exactly that- ten really dumb ideas that are stupid, silly, cliché, obvious, weird, whatever- the key is that these are ideas that we wouldn’t say seriously out loud because they’re so bad. And then… we almost always solve our problem. For real. It sounds crazy, but I’m going to tell you how I think it works, though it might also be magical and maybe it’s like saying Abracadabra, I don’t know, but I’m sharing it with you today in hopes you can use the magic too. You don’t need to be working with a partner (writing…) to use this tool- it works just as well for solo inspiration as well.
When you’re brainstorming, either by yourself or with someone else, our tendency is to try to sound smarter and smarter as we come up with more ideas. This isn’t a bad thing- it’s sort of how brainstorming was built- start with a small idea and work up to the best. But sometimes that can actually be hindering your process, because good ideas don’t always just grow out of the air like that, and the pressure you put on yourself and the other person to sound increasingly brilliant can stop you from being as creative as you need to be. By listing Ten Bad Ideas, you let the air out of the inflating balloon of brainstorming (can I patent that phrase? Also, how do you make the little TM symbol on your computer? I’ll add that to my list of “things I should know as a writer but don’t yet but should figure out one day and also don’t tell anyone you don’t know that in the meantime) and, with it, the ego goes too. Essentially, you’re starting from scratch, where expectations are low and you have the freedom to goof around still, aka, be creative. That’s reason one it seems to work.
Secondly, and this is especially if you are working with a partner, either in writing or even at work on a project, we can end up being mentally blocked by keeping a bunch of ideas to ourselves simply because we’re worried they sound stupid. By simply prefacing your ideas with “Ten Bad Ideas”, you’re essentially saying “okay, you’re not allowed to judge me because I know some of these might be dumb, but I’m sacrificing my dignity to jumpstart the conversation so bear with me while I exorcise these demons”. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card, and it frees you up to get the bad ideas out of your system so they stop blocking the good ideas hiding underneath. Plus, no judgement. In fact, you might even get some kudos for admitting out loud that you already know which ideas are off the table. Get two birds stoned at once.
Thirdly, the thing with Ten Bad Ideas, and this is the most useful tool of all, is that they’re not usually all that bad. Sure, the first one might be a total stinker, but everyone else was probably thinking it too so you just unblocked them and you’re welcome. But after that, the other ideas are probably pieces that are going to help jog someone else’s creativity, or will be the missing piece from an idea your partner was working on, or will actually, now that you’re saying it out loud, turn out to be a pretty good idea. We’ve found many of our solutions in Ten Bad Ideas (I just accidentally wrote TED bad ideas, and now I’m thinking about my friend Ted and how he should totally TM that… however one goes about doing such a thing…), and kept our reputations in check throughout the process.
Normally, when I send out weekly writing prompts, they are short and relatively to-the-point, because I want you to be able to read them, digest them, and then write about them, all in the span of about 15-20 minutes. The goal is exercising our writing brain just to keep it limber, not necessarily to write our magnum opus, and so usually that means the quicker the better. But sometimes, when we are particularly stuck- when we don’t know what to write about or how to put a story together, we need a little more than a 10 minute prompt, and that’s why I expanded this week’s prompt into a whole writing post. Ten Bad Ideas can work as a writing prompt simply by sitting down and listening ten stupid things to write about. I’ll do it right now without thinking:
2. Guns and Roses
3. Those little rosebud icing things on the tops of cakes
4. My first birthday party I can remember
6. People who carry tiny dogs in purses
8. Old scraps of paper
9. That news headline about the bear stuck in a Calgary suburb
10. Someone who meets the bear while pushing a stroller
THERE! Now I promise I actually wrote that list in about 1.5 minutes, and I didn’t think too hard about it or edit it. You can see there’s some free association in there, and several ideas are related, and several of them are bad ideas to write about. I think writing about Guns and Roses would be dumb… unless it was about someone who only tattooed guns and roses on someone. Is that dumb?? Maybe… I’ll have to ask my partner (writing) what he thinks. But I forgot about that news headline about the bear until just now, and now I think a short film about a woman with a stroller who runs into a bear would be awesome. Maybe a bit beyond my budget for this project but definitely worth considering in the future when the budget includes wildlife and animal trainers and anxiety medication for everyone on set.
My goal with everything I do on this writing blog, in my writing prompts, and in my writing workshops, is to inspire you to get writing. That’s step one. Step two is to get you writing in your own voice, and step three is to get you writing confidently in your own voice. But taking it one step of a time, Ten Bad Ideas can help with step one. If you try it this week, and I hope you do, I would LOVE to get your lists sent back to me. All you have to do is either reply in the comments on this page, or send me a private message through my contact page HERE, but it would be awesome to see how you use Ten Bad Ideas to get started. In the meantime, I’ll be here, figuring out how many explosions I can fit into my next project.
As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"