Earlier this week I caught a feature on NPR about how five rules from improv can make you funnier AND more confident. As I listened, I realized at least two of the five ideas could be especially helpful to writers when drafting new work. They create an atmosphere of discovery.
As you probably know, the foremost, much-heralded, rule of improv is: “Yes, and…”
Were we in an improv group, whatever a troupe member suggested would be folded immediately into our ever-developing bit. We’d listen carefully to each other’s input and go with the flow, working as a group to grow and develop the sketch on the spot in real time.
Which is something like what I experienced with my grandson when he was three. We were sailing down a “river” (his bedroom floor) on a “boat” (blow up raft) at “night.”
Me: Look at the stars!
E: Look at the moon!
Me: I love the crescent moon.
(We pause and look at the ceiling.)
E: It’s a full moon.
I realize that last line is not a “Yes, and..” But he was listening and responding to my input and it cracked me up.
The NPR story suggests that saying “Yes, and…” to life means making the effort to listen and understand what people are saying so you can build on it, thus building empathy and connection.
In writing, especially in drafting, “Yes, and…” means going down the bunny holes as your brain suggests them; really paying attention and embracing whatever your imagination brings to the table. Where would your story go if you let it get wild? Revision is the time for shaping and cutting. Let drafting be a time of expansion, discovery. “Yes, and…”
MAKE ROOM FOR PLAY
The other improv rule from the NPR story that particularly applies to crafting a story is: Make room for play. In improv this means generating lots of pretend characters and scenarios and letting loose.
How can this impact your real life? The story cites research that shows play reduces stress and contributes to overall well-being. “Tap into your inner child!” it suggests. “When we play, we create our own world and the space to imagine how the world might look…and the hope is that this feeling of agency, power and autonomy can translate to other parts of our lives.”
This could be a description of the process and benefits of creating a story. We get to conjure up the whole shebang, to play around with the world and the characters we are creating right down to the detail of the moon.
As I think about it more, maybe it was a full moon.
• • • • • • • •
Thanks to my sister Kate Harvey McGee for the beautiful colors she painted the moons featured above — from our books Island Lullaby (crescent moon) and Little Wolf’s First Howling (full moon).
The NPR story about improv and life can be heard here.
Here’s Shakespeare on the subject: “O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”
And here’s Stephen King: “My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all.”
I’m not sure what my muse is like. I think perhaps it’s a scholarly girl with big glasses reading in an easy chair, glancing up once in awhile to send me a smile.
I wrote this post over seven years ago and thought it was worth updating and posting again. Although I’m not sure my muse is this bespectacled girl anymore. Maybe more like an amorphous cloud with flashes of lightning?
Whoever or whatever your muse is, chances are you struggle like all creative people to tap into its powers. Sometimes the words and images flow, sometimes it’s like that Disney ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” where the pirates keep trying unsuccessfully to lure a mutt to bring them the jailer’s keys.
In the meantime, science has renamed the muse our “subconscious” and discovered some interesting things about that “scruffy little mutt.” For one thing, our muse may not necessarily visit from above as a rare gift from the gods, but could be built into us.
Take a look at these two images for a second.
According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, odds are good that as you look your brain is beginning to construct a narrative, a story, a reason why these two images go together. And it isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could be joined into a story, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.
No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection. Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in as we work to make sense of what’s happening around us. If we see a chimpanzee running past us in the jungle, it could be important for our survival to figure out what it’s running from. If we see a panther running by next–that’s one story. If we see a clown car next–that’s a lot less scary story (depending, of course, on how you feel about clowns).
Our brains are putting together a causal link: this is happening because that happened and that happened because of that other thing. And isn’t that the essence of story–connecting one action and to another exploring actions and their consequences?
Another interesting thing about our brain is it often seems to know things before we do. I can remember writing stories where I’d put in what seemed an incidental detail—the white rose on the dresser—in the beginning of a story only to discover that this seemingly arbitrary detail was perfect for my ending. It’s an experience familiar to many writers.
It’s as if some part of our brain knows our story before we do.
And according to science your brain literally does know things before you consciously do. In a study where participants were asked to solve a puzzle, scientists could tell before the participants consciously knew it that they had solved the puzzle. How? They could see that the brain started to form alpha waves. Sometimes they could predict as much as eight seconds ahead of the time that the participant was going to have the answer.
There are two types of brain waves associated with subconscious creativity. Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity-that lies just below our conscious awareness – it is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness.
That deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves.The theta wave state is also known as the twilight state something which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep, although theta waves are abundant in experienced meditators.
It’s these relaxed brain wave states that give us access to our unconscious thoughts and images. And there are ways to encourage them. For one thing, those alpha and theta waves like what Emily Dickenson calls it “reverie.”
You no longer need to feel guilty for staring off into space, doodling aimlessly or watching a fly crawl across the ceiling. Next time family or friends look at you accusingly as you sit there chewing on your pencil eraser with a dreamy look on your face, you can tell them it has been scientifically proven that you are working. Even Einstein agrees.
“Creativity is the residue of wasted time,” he said.
One last bit of science: it is still a bit speculative, but there’s a scientific theory that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant wave frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus.
Basically what that means is that your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heart beat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment.
So the creative muse likes rhythmic activities: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.
As Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
The way I first heard it described years ago was “bed, bath and bus.” Do something mindless, repetitive and meditative. In other words, allow yourself to muse and maybe that mutt will bring you the keys.
Intention and Attention. Two grabby words that author Elana Arnold used to start a recent SCBWI talk on grammar and syntax—two very non-grabby words, even for those of us who love words and writing.
But Arnold encouraged those listening to pay attention anyway, as she explained things like parataxis, hypotaxis and other ways to help make your writing what you intend.
“Just centering these words (intention and attention) lights up our brains and gets us to notice things we might not otherwise notice and might get us to try things we might not otherwise think to try,” Arnold said.
Arnold covered a lot of ground in her talk, but parataxis and hypotaxis were new to me. I use them all the time but never knew they had specific names.
So what are they?
Parataxis: a literary technique in writing or speaking that favors short simple sentences or phrases without conjunctions or use just coordinating conjunctions And what are those you might ask (as I did)? They are things like and, but, or, as, for, so, yet to connect two parallel words or clauses or sentences.
It’s the para part of parataxis—the root of which means side by side. It suggests that each element mentioned is equally important. Nothing subordinates or goes beneath anything else. The two statements go side by side. Okay, some examples.
Elana used her own picture book An Ordinary Day.
It was an ordinary day in the neighborhood.
There was Mrs. LaFleur, overwatering her roses.
There were Kia and Joseph, attempting to catch lizards
There was Magnificant the Crow letting everyone know that she saw what they were doing and that she did not approve.
Across the street, two houses sat unusually quiet.
At almost the same time, a car pulled up to each.
From one car came a woman. She had a stethoscope draped around her neck and she carried a little bag. From the other car came a man. Like the woman he wore a stethoscope around his neck and he carried a little bag.
The book follows this pattern of simple, mostly declarative sentences as it eventually makes the case that this actually an extraordinary day in the neighborhood involving two equal mysteries.
According to Arnold, parataxis gives your writing some effects to pay attention to:
– It can add mystery because you’re not giving the reader information as to which thing is more important so it allows the reader to figure it out themselves.
– It can help your writing feel simple and straightforward, which is often a great tool when you’re writing about something that is not simple and not straightforward.
– It’s a great way to trim fat. It create a choppy staccato rhythm. So you can use it to give a character a distinctive way of speaking in contrast to a character who uses hypotaxis—which we’ll get to in a minute.
Arnold says when she first wrote An Ordinary Day, she wasn’t thinking: Parataxis, I’m writing parataxis. But later, after her initial draft, she realized what she was doing and in rewrites handled this element more consciously creating an straightforward, but powerful children’s book about the two biggest mysteries in life: birth and death.
Okay, now for:
Hypotaxis: As all you smart people out there have already figured out, it’s kind of the opposite.
Hypotaxis is subordination of one clause to another within sentences or a passages. The technique uses subordinating conjunctions like: although, after, before, because, how, if, once, since, so that, until, unless, when.
Here’s a definition that I found on the MasterClass website: Hypotactic sentence construction uses subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns to connect a sentence’s main clause to its dependent elements. By explicitly defining a clear connection and order between the clauses through syntactic subordination, hypotactic sentences establish a hierarchy of importance, essentially ranking each clause in the sentence.
And here is an example of it’s use, also from MasterClass:
Among the innumerable practices by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a new composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre. This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability. Samuel Johnson
So what does Hypotaxis get you? It can help create a sense of interconnection and dependence. An if/then relationship that Arnold used in another soon-to-be-released picture book. The conjunction “because” used over and over in a “this is the house that Jack built” structure shows all the steps it took for a child to end up with wooden blocks he plays with.
Arnold was running out of time, so couldn’t go into this technique in depth, but I feel that it can buy you a more discerning voice. It can ask the reader to make fine distinctions and follow complex reasoning. It’s a good voice for figuring out how the world works and what one’s values are. And as you can see from the Samuel Johnson example, it’s a great tool for irony and cynicism.
But it’s also a valuable tool for simpler writing. Many a picture book as been moved along by conjunctions like then, when, because, if…
I like how Arnold ended her talk. She noted that when she’s evaluating her writing “my very favorite question is does this satisfy me?
“If the answer is no, this is not yet satisfying to me, then, the question is, how can I move one notch closer to being satisfied by the syntax and then your whole job is to just get one tick closer to satisfying, and then the next time you go through it, just one tick more. ‘No’ is not a bad thing; that means that there’s room to play.”
ELANA K. ARNOLD is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets.
I am a big fan of Dolly Parton. And not just because of the video she made while getting her Covid shot to the tune of her song Jolene, lyrics reworked to “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine…” Under her fancified outer self beats a heart that’s true.
In 1995 she launched a formidable effort to raise literacy in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up: The Imagination Library. Since its inception, this book-gifting program has mailed monthly high-quality books to children from birth to age five, no matter their family’s income.
The program grew quickly and now serves children in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Ireland. As of January 2022, 174 million books had been gifted. Wow.
The books are chosen by committee and purchased in wholesale agreement with Penguin Random house. My sister Kate and I were lucky to have our book SQUEAK! included in the Imagination Library. And this year the Dollywood people created an English/Spanish edition of ISLAND LULLABY for distribution.
As you probably know, Dolly’s main gig is not literacy. She is a memorable performer and remarkable composer, known for having written Jolene and And I Will Always Love You on the same day. A ten-time Grammy winner, Dolly says, “I take myself more serious as a songwriter than anything else. I always say I’ve written about 3,000 songs and three good ones, but I just love the joy of writing.”
Now Dolly writes books, too. Monday, March 7, she and author James Patterson co-released Run, Rose, Run, a novel about navigating the music industry in Nashville. The previous Friday she had released her latest studio album with the same title.
I think it was on an American Idol show where she was the guest coach that I heard her advise a contestant, “Figure out who you are and do it on purpose.” That has sure worked for Dolly.
In my collection of illustrations and art featuring books and reading, there are a lot that involve animals. The overwhelming choice of animal is cats, followed closely by birds. I get why those two animals show up again and again. Birds for dreams and flights of fancy and cats for cozy—and both suggest interiority.
But I’ve been surprised to find I have a handful of illustrations featuring rabbits, too. I can’t really think of why. Rabbits do have a bit of literary heritage. There’s Alice in Wonderland, of course, and Peter Rabbit. Maybe the fact that they live in burrows suggests the subconscious and interiority, (but I haven’t run across many illustrations of books, reading and snakes). What mostly seems to come across is a feeling of incongruity.
Like these two intellectuals.
Or this self-satisfied fellow.
This guy has burrowed in. The way I like to.
These readers are just sweet.
There’s a load of incongruities in this one:
In this one, I like how cleverly the artist has blended the two realities. Let’s not even get into how there’s actually no reality here at all.
Here a lot of animals get a chance at reading, but the rabbit definitely stands out. As with some of the other illustrations, the joke seems to be how intellectual the bunny is. So maybe rabbits reading is all about not being a dumb bunny.
Here we are in a new year. I wonder if you, like me, are using this quiet Covid time to generate new writing projects?
The EMOTION door is one way into a new story. Many of my favorite picture books are powered by emotion – i.e. Where the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, The Rabbit Listened. A whole reason to read is to feel the emotion of the story. Why not cross the border to childhood and mine your own emotional geography for stories from your deepest sense of who you are, your particular take on the world?
For instance, the Zelda and Ivy series comes from my experience as the middle of five children. I earned my black belt in sibling rivalry. Those childhood incidents have provided material for six books about the fox sisters. Mostly I go for stuff that makes me laugh, but those long ago happenings evoke all five of the major emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and peevishness.
It’s a matter of feeling your way back to where the good stuff is waiting and reconnecting with experiences that provoked big emotions; experiences you found funny or scary or exasperating or intriguing or hurtful as hell.
Here are three exercises I have found useful:
1. Emotional event inventory: Look at the first ten years of your life in two or three year chunks. What significant events occurred in each chunk? Note events that hold emotion: times of great loss, disappointments, times of wonder, deep satisfactions, things that made you laugh. List objects, people, places you loved or hated or found scary or funny. Even if you are not an illustrator, it is helpful to draw this stuff, or at least describe it carefully in words, so you retrieve a mental picture – picture books are a visual medium. Then add the audio. Put the event on scene – write it in first person present tense, using dialogue and narration. Don’t be encumbered by the facts. Lie, embellish and shape your story into the best story it can be.
2. Gather evidence from family archives: Revisit home movies and photos, diaries and any other artifacts from your childhood that bring up emotion.
3. Research Your Own Life: Visit the old neighborhoods, talk to the kids you grew up with. Comb old newspapers and magazines from the places and times in which you were a child. This probably comes from my journalism background, but often research will present stories and backstories. Scratch around. It’s waiting to be discovered. You can tell something belongs in a story if it raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, as friend and fellow Seattle writer Brenda Guiberson taught me years ago. Pay attention. Some stuff is charged for some people. Who knows why? It¹s that emotional charge that will carry your story and connect to readers.
Of course, ideas are found in the present, too. In fact, think it is the synergy of experiences and observations across a lifetime that gives a story juice. Crafting a story is a way to make sense of it all: to savor and honor some memories, and to provide closure and put to rest others.
In 2017 (when we still gathered in big sweaty, breathing, coughing groups and didn’t find anything extraordinary about it) I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert speak. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, her then recent book, Big Magic, was about nurturing creativity.
She had/has a fascinating belief that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she put in in Big Magic:
“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”
She also believes that ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else. But you still need to “interview” your ideas to make sure it’s right for you and you’re right for it.
At the time, I blogged about the questions I’d like to ask my auditioning ideas, and it seems to be a good time to repost–so many of my writer and artist friends are feeling re-charged.
Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. And I sometimes have a hard a hard time figuring out which ideas are worth the effort and which aren’t. When I first started writing, there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.
The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” It’s more intuitive than formalized. But after hearing Gilbert talk, I put together a list of interview questions for my idea applicants:
Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?
What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?
Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?
Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)
And I had some questions for myself as the boss:
Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?
Is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?
If a picture book idea comes to my door, I like to ask:
Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?
If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?
If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?
If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and child-friendly?
Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?
I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?
Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you interest me, energize me? Do I want to do you?
When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.
I’ve thought of a poem. I carry it carefully, nervously, in my head, like a saucer of milk; in case I should spill some lines before I put them down.
So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.
Philomel associate publisher Jill Santopolo was home on maternity leave when she saw President Joe Biden’s inauguration on TV. She heard him say he hoped “the next chapter in the American story” might sound like one verse in “a song that means a lot to me.” Then he recited:
The work and prayers of centuries / Have brought us to this day.
What shall be our legacy?/What will our children say?
Let me know in my heart that when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.
Biden was quoting the lyrics of Gene Scheer’s American Anthem, a 20-year old song that was sung by opera star Denyce Graves at the memorial service in the Capitol rotunda for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and by Norah Jones in Ken Burns’ 2007 PBS documentary on World War II, The War, among others.
The words resonated with Santopolo. She reflected on her husband’s and her own families’s life trajectories after immigrating to the United States. Then, as she said to Publisher’s Weekly, she decided, “It was a book that I felt I had to do. Especially with a baby at home. There’s a lot we need to work on in this country, but there’s also some wonderful things too. I think that this book celebrates that.”
It was January 20th. Despite a new baby and the pandemic, she wanted the book to launch before the Fourth of July, our nation’s 245th birthday. She envisioned a different illustrator for every spread, so that even in its very make-up the book would reflect the quilt of diversity that is our country. Editor Talia Benamy and art director Ellice Lee swung into action.
My sister Kate and I were honored to be invited to join in. We gave some thought to our family’s American stories, too, including George Chorpenning who founded the first mail service from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, (pre-Pony Express), and our newspaper editor father who taught us about First Amendment rights and flew a big American flag over his office on Main Street Sonora.
What could we say in a single illustration to convey the big feeling of love for America that we shared? How could we ‘give our best’ to America through this project? Our assigned part of the text was: “Know each quiet act of dignity / is that which fortifies / the soul of a nation / that never dies.”
As we considered our text, we thought about where in our lives we experience quiet acts of dignity. Kate immediately thought of the Community Garden, a place where a wide diversity of gardeners come to share the humble work of planting, growing and harvesting. It is a place where gardening knowledge, seedlings and compost are all generously shared — as well as the fruits (and vegetables) of everyone’s labors. There is a quiet dignity in those interactions that respects what each person brings to the garden, as well as a sense of community responsibility.
We are both avid gardeners and that setting seemed right. We poured through scrap to find a lively cast of characters to populate it. Per our usual process, I painted the black lines in gouache resist, scanned and doozied them up in Photoshop. Kate supplied the sumptuous color. And voila! We turned in our illustration by early March and the book was published on schedule as Santopolo planned, in time for the Fourth of July.
It was a revelation to open our first copies of American Anthem, starting with the dedications. Author Scheer and each illustrator contributed one. Some favorites: “To the dream chasers. – Rafael Lopez,” and “For all who call this country home. – Jacquieline Alcantara.” Kate and I dedicated our work “To the growers and grocers, gardeners and gleaners.”
My favorite illustration is by Rafael Lopez. I love the idea of a child drawing his country, imagining it into being. And I hope this book will help children – including Jill Santopolo’s new baby – imagine their futures in America.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.