My friend-since-fourth-grade Lauren at just look for love in it shared this with me today. It's a series of writings from a woman named Rachel Berger: for 100 consecutive days she picked a paint chip out of a bag and responded with a write-up inspired by the color. The paint chips are not just called "blue, orange, green, yellow," but have more evocative names like, "pine grove, billowy clouds, warm embrace, lemon tart, and pageant song." Even as I type those names I can think of little vignettes from my own life that I might like to write down. Lauren suggested to me what a great writing activity this was, and I just might take her advice and try to do it myself, simply using the same paint chip titles as Rachel.
Of course the almost-English-teacher in me got to thinking about what a writing exercise like this can accomplish in terms of ultimately leading to a larger, more cohesive piece of writing. Writing exercises are an important part of every classroom because they give us a way to do the thing that's hardest: start writing! My favorite college writing professor used to give us a writing exercise per week--usually she never required more than a page of writing, but often we'd go over in word count because her prompt gave us a way into thoughts or plot lines that we'd already been considering. Two of my favorites that I still use, and that might help some of my fellow writers:
* Write a story about a deluded character. (This one is great because you immediately have license to write about someone crazy.)
* Write a story with an ambiguous ending. (Like I discussed a few days ago, endings are the worst, and this prompt gives you a vague but helpful guideline on how to end things--thus easing the fear of beginning a story because you know you'll have to end it somehow.)
For me, the paint chip project works because it encourages us to use our memory, and memories always lead to something where writing is concerned. Memory is the single most important thing to a writer, and I don't just mean in the sense that we tend to write about our own childhoods or experiences. While that's true, a lot of writers write about things they've never experienced, they put their characters in places they've never been and make those characters suffer through events that the writer can only imagine. But what allows them to take such liberties and describe with ease things they don't know about first hand, is their understanding of their own past--the ability to use emotions from your own life to illustrate the lives of your characters. I don't know what it's like to live in a small town or lay electric wiring or swim the Atlantic ocean, but I know what it is to be close to people, what it is to be engrossed in a tedious task, and what it is to endure. The fact that our emotions are universal while our experiences may not be, is what allows the reader and writer to meet, despite possibly disparate experiences.
I think the ultimate challenge is having the courage to claim your own stories so that you can begin to write them down truthfully. Things that have happened in your family, things you weren't even alive for but have heard about through the years, it's all yours for the mining--it makes up the larger picture of who you are. Think of it as stuff that if you were ever the subject of a biography, the writer/researcher would dig up about you and include while trying to guess at your state of mind when you designed the first aerodynamic house or founded the first underwater city or drank yourself silly when really you had great potential for genius. Of course it's all just guesswork, even when you're sitting there writing about it yourself, but writing is guessing, and good writing is guessing right. The beauty of it is the abundance of right answers.