Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]


Creative Challenges

Every now and then I like to set myself a creative challenge. I should disclose that these challenges are seldom well-thought out, but tend to be based on a suggestion picked up from elsewhere or a random thought which seems like a really good idea. From this somewhat vague beginning I’m off on a journey which may last mere moments or months, depending on the situation.

Recently I attended a workshop on taking photos with a smart phone. It is easy to take for granted the ease and speed at which such photos can be taken then mentally discarded or left to take up space in the cloud – quite a contrast to what was involved in taking and printing a photo previously. Now instant gratification of the impulse to record a moment is within our grasp, but I was interested to learn a bit more about framing a shot and to work on quality rather than quantity.

The course was informative and interactive, and also provided insight into some of the many tools available these days to tweak shots and highlight aspects of a photo. It created a heightened sense of awareness too – on a brisk walk into Blackheath at lunchtime I felt as though there were photo opportunities everywhere. And what better way to embed these skills than to take some photos. Perhaps every day for the month of May. This was decided on 30 April, the day that I completed the course.

Early on in May I was blessed with some stunning sunsets and one morning, whilst thinking about some issue at work, I passed a beautifully painted doorway that I’d not noticed before. Even in a distracted state it seems my mind was scouting about for photo opportunities. But what occurred to me on reflection was that this collection of moments is as much about what isn’t captured as it is about what can be contained in the briefest wink of time.

There were the stunning palettes of sunsets that changed incrementally with silent grandeur when I took the time to be still and admire them. And the graceful dance of autumn leaves eddying this way and that, a meandering waltz towards the earth. The bare branches reaching skywards, as if with outstretched arms waiting for a cloak of spring leaves and blossoms. Or the clarity of the night sky, and the gradual progress of the moon.

It isn’t always possible to capture a moment that seems to hum portentously, nor should it be. Often it is enough to simply experience it, for the moment to leave the lightest of impressions on our minds, something to be called upon and reimagined as required. A perpetual reminder to be present when you can, to be ready for the delights and surprises that await your attention.

[Photo: frost on leaves spotted during a morning walk]


Writing Prompt: Pessimist and Optimist

I love a good writing prompt. They have a way of taking you somewhere entirely unexpected, or viewing something familiar with a different perspective. At a recent writing group session, one of the prompts evoked insight into the creative tension that I feel all too often. It is set out as pessimist and optimist.

Prompt: I reached for a glass (or cup) and let my inner pessimist and optimist fight it out.

Pessimist:  There’s no point in trying. You might as well give up while you’re ahead.

Optimist:  But what if this is the start of something great, something that we’ve been striving towards all these years? I know we can do it. It only needs a bit of effort.

Pessimist:  Effort? That seems like hard work to me. Is this just going to be yet another of those fanciful notions that you have which requires time that we don’t have or skills that we lack and don’t have the capacity to develop?

Optimist:  I don’t know why I even ask for your input. You are such a glass half-empty kind of thinker. 

Pessimist:  And talking of glasses, how about you pour a bit more alcohol into this one? It might change my viewpoint.

Optimist:  That’s the way. Here you go, you drink up while I remind you of some of the excellent things we’ve managed to achieve when we pull together, rather than apart.

Pessimist:  Steady on. Don’t get too carried away. It’s going to take more than a glass or two to forget all the failed attempts you’ve got us started on.

Optimist:  But there wasn’t anything like this opportunity. And I can think of loads of times when my ideas and energy have resulted in great changes. 

Pessimist:  All I can think of is the littering mess of failures and half-baked schemes. And who’s got the energy to try anyway? All this talking is making me sleepy. (Snores).

Optimist:  (Quietly) So that’s a yes, then? No reply means yes. That’s my rule. Looks like we’re going to learn to crochet after all.

The above is alarmingly close to my decision-making process on a regular basis, with enthusiasm trying to outlast practical limitations. And whilst I can knit, crocheting remains beyond my powers of coordination.

What is your internal monologue like with new creative challenges? Optimistic, or otherwise?

[Photo: one of the bars at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]


We fall into old habits*

I like routines. I find comfort in habits and having things in their place. By creating structure I find I have more freedom and mindspace to think about other things.

Routines do need a bit of room for give and take as things inevitably happen. I’ve written before about morning pages, which are an enduring legacy for me from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Since January 2014 I have been writing three pages daily in A5 journals, emptying out my head, ranting when I need to, testing out ideas, plot points and thinking through work related challenges. I was surprised that I kept to it, even though I have kept a journal intermittently for years. There is now a growing collection of these journals, swollen with the ink of many pens, marching their way along the desk in my study.

The routine of writing these three pages, preferably in the morning, has saved my sanity at times. There are other days when sleep is too tempting, or I have an early start, or there is some other hurdle to sitting down and getting the words out. But if I do miss this morning session, I tend to feel less ready to deal with the day ahead. There are some days when, before sitting down, I can’t think of a single thing that would be worth writing. And yet, with the weight of a pen in my fingers, the flow begins. If I miss the morning, I usually write when I get home, knowing that I’ll feel better for spending 20 minutes doing it, and vowing that I’ll get up earlier to honour this time tomorrow.

I know that keeping this routine matters to me when I miss breakfast or coffee to get the words out before I face the work day. If I do a self-scan at some point in the day, I will recognise a restlessness if I’ve missed a part of my morning routine including daily pages, meditation or walking my dog. These activities provide structure, but all of them also give me time to think, to dawdle a bit if I need to, to look up and see something other than the challenges of work or chores or the endless to-do list that keeps spitting out tasks like a dot matrix printer in my mind.

Sometimes routine is turning up at the desk even though the well feels a little dry. Pick up a pen or poise fingers over the keyboard and see what comes out. It might be slow and sluggish at first, but by creating the framework for creativity the chance of having something to show for the admission price of turning up is greatly enhanced.

How important is a routine in your creative life?

* The opening line from ‘Laugh in their Faces‘ by The Whitlams.

[Photo: winter landscape near Cooerwull in Lithgow]

The Confidence Bank

There are people who seem to brim with confidence. Lack of experience or knowledge is no barrier to giving something a go, self-belief seemingly overcoming any other limitation. Oh, how I envy them.

It is a relief that in the last decade or so, I have been making regular deposits in my confidence bank. This idea was mentioned in passing by one of my managers at the time. I had changed roles at work, moving into a managerial position. Consistent with my personality, there was some self-flagellation going on in my head as I didn’t think I was performing as well as I could be. My expectations are usually higher than anything imposed upon me externally. The circumstances around the comment elude me now, but after some small success, my manager had said that this win was a deposit to the confidence bank.

This may have been a passing comment but it resonated with me, and it started me thinking differently about the successes in life, both large and small. These successes are not limited to my working life; they can be wins or good moments in relationships, family situations or creative endeavours. It is perhaps similar to a gratitude journal in that if you take the time to notice, appreciate and recognise your wins, they can stand you in good stead when the road is a little rocky, or if you need to do something outside of your experience.

Recently I was asked to do some public speaking. It was a short speech in front of about 150 people. I can hold my own in the talking stakes but getting up on a stage with a microphone in front of me and a sea of faces? When I was asked, I said yes with minimal hesitation. How hard could it be? As the event drew closer the little niggles of doubt wiggled into my subconscious. What if I fluffed the lines? Said something wrong? Tripped over my tongue or my feet, embarrassed myself somehow?

Then I called upon the confidence bank. I am a capable, competent person. I’m naturally an introvert but I have a job which involves dealing with people from all walks of life. I’ve been told that I’m easy to listen to. I thought about how I have put myself on show in other ways – through writing and other acts of creativity. I could do the speech. And I did. Another deposit for the confidence bank.

How do you overcome self-doubt?

[Photo: Bank building at Strathalbyn, South Australia]