By Darlene Cah
My team at work is really into self-awareness and self-discovery. We watch webinars, discuss our work habits, and take in depth personality tests. I must admit I love this stuff! Our most recent team analysis session had us discovering our “social styles” at work. Between the test results and the opinions of our peers, our personalities would fall into either one or a combination of the following categories: Analytical, Driver, Amiable or Expressive.
The Analyticals thrive on and live by statistics, results, facts, figures. The Drivers are forward thinkers, doers, assertive, ambitious types who get things done no matter what. The Amiables want everyone to just get along. They’re all about group hugs, deep feelings and smoothing things over when the pressure is on. The Expressives are the creative types. They’re the risk-takers who plunge head-first into an assignment, and may have deleted (accidentally, of course) that research and marketing brief with all those boring, and stifling project mandatories.
At the end of the hour-long meeting, we discovered everyone on our team fell into either the Analytical or Driver category with two displaying Amiable traits. Everyone, that is, except me. The 100% wacked-out, full-fledged Expressive.
My emails are stories. They want bullet points. I remembered this revelatory work experience after reading Brad’s post: Allow Drafting to Evolve Your Stories: Using What Is to Help You See What It Could Be, and Jenny’s post: Writing is Pre-Writing. Both approach their writing in an organized, methodical manner, proving that one can be creative and logical at the same time. And I couldn’t be more opposite! I applaud them! I envy them! I aim to be more like them, disciplined and targeted! Plan? Outline? Heck, I can’t even write a cohesive grocery list!
So how on earth do I ever write anything? I improvise. I do a lot of staring at a blank Word doc. A lot of feeling and experiencing the place, the weather, the mood. Many times, I’ll start with an image. Poet Cathy Smith Bowers talks about “the abiding image,” that visual that sticks in your head, the one that’s so vivid it haunts you. I may have a character or two, relationship or a situation they’re in. All of this, and I haven’t even written a word yet!
From there, when I do start typing, I let the story emerge. The first rule of improv is to say, “Yes, and…” then raise the stakes. That’s a perfect guideline for improvising a story. Say “Yes” when a character unexpectedly slips that salt shaker into her pocket then let a kid see her. Improv theater teacher, Michael Gellman had a major influence on developing my storytelling style. Explore and discover, he said. Trust that the story is there. Wait it out. Don’t try to make something happen. Trust. Patience. Risk. I love that concept. The story is there waiting for you to discover it.
In From Where we Dream, Robert Olen Butler writes, “Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.”
The most important “Yes, and…” you need is to yourself. Allow yourself to go to unexpected places, perhaps write in a different style or genre. Allow your unconscious the freedom to wander. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable, unsure, but stick with it, anyway. Allow yourself to make mistakes and relish them! Those mistakes can lead to unorthodox characters or wonderfully unconventional stories. Allow yourself to be in the moment and out of control. Terrified? Good! More improv advice: Always enter a scene with an emotion. So be frightened and give that emotion to your character. Use what’s happening, the feelings, the sounds, the scents in your life right now, write a scene and take off.
So, true to my “Expressive” personality, I’ve given you absolutely no concrete direction, no structure you can rely on, no rock solid advice on how to write or develop a short story. Excellent! Now go open a new document. Stare at it until an image or a glimmer of a story appears in your mind, start typing without letting your brain get in the way, and surprise yourself.