Creative Writing Bootcamp: Start a Brand New Story | Myla Goldberg | Skillshare

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Creative Writing Bootcamp: Start a Brand New Story

teacher avatar Myla Goldberg, Novelist, mammal, concerned citizen

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Where Do Ideas Come From?


    • 3.

      Writing Your Least Favorite Person


    • 4.

      Creating an Empathy Venn Diagram


    • 5.

      Eavesdropping for Inspiration


    • 6.

      What Did That Feel Like?


    • 7.

      Creating a Conversation


    • 8.

      Building a Character


    • 9.

      Writing Real-Feeling People


    • 10.

      Being a Tree


    • 11.

      Creating a Setting


    • 12.

      Writing What You Don’t Know


    • 13.

      Final Thoughts


    • 14.

      Class Timer: Eight Minutes


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About This Class

Kick your writing into high gear with this fun, energetic class designed to answer the ever-present question for writers everywhere: What should I write about next?

Best-selling author Myla Goldberg (Feast Your Eyes, Bee Season) is here to help you find the idea that will become your next story (and the idea for the story after that, and the one after that, and... you get the idea). In this inventive class, you’re invited to write alongside Myla in real time as she guides you through five exercises specifically designed to transform you into an idea-generation machine. 

A seasoned teacher with a captivating and hilarious style, Myla has developed this process through years of experience, gleaned not only through her own writing but also the common struggles of writing students. With the help of an on-screen writing timer and prompts, you’ll move through quick, idea-generating exercises, including:

  • Using memory to write vivid settings
  • Writing villains with empathy
  • Creating real-world, engaging dialogue
  • Developing characters from scratch to whole person

After each exercise, you’ll come back together with Myla to reflect on how it went, how you felt while writing, and how to make the most of the exercise for your own craft.

Whether you’re a seasoned writer ready for a new approach or looking to try your hand at something new, Myla’s class will provide you with the tools you need to get words down on paper right away. When you’re done, you’ll have the writing you did throughout the class, ready and waiting for you to turn it into a fully-fledged story!

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Myla Goldberg

Novelist, mammal, concerned citizen


Myla Goldberg is the bestselling author of Feast Your Eyes, The False Friend, Wickett's Remedy, and Bee Season, which was adapted to film.  Her books have been named finalists for the National Book Critics’ Circle award, the Carnegie Medal, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the NYPL Young Lions award, and the Barnes & Noble Discover award.  She leads fiction workshops in New York City and online.  Some of her students suspect her of being part-Muppet, a theory she neither confirms nor denies.

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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: I get to go to a place that I invent and I get to walk around in another world and be a different person for awhile. Hey everybody, my name is Myla Goldberg and I am an author. I have wanted to be a writer for basically as long as I can remember. It was what I said I wanted to be when I grew up, when I was in first grade and it's what had been trying to do ever since. So I'm really glad it worked out. Today's class is something I call Creative Boot Camp and the point of it is to get you starting writing on a new story. We're going to be doing five exercises together today, that are going to stretch your brain in new directions, let you try new things, some of which you might like, some of which you might really not like. But all of which are going to get you thinking and doing creative things in a way you haven't done them before. The first one is an empathy exercise, to get you thinking about what it's like to be another person. Then from there, we're going to have a cumulative situation where you're going to start with something completely outside of yourself that you're going to gather or being a spy out in the world. We're going to use that to build up so that that actually turns into a conversation, turns into a character that might lead you into a story in a whole new world. You don't need anything except some to write and you need your imagination. It'd be great if you could leave this class with a toolkit of ways to apply your curiosity about the world to take you in new directions the next time you tried to write. If you're ready to go, I'm ready to go, we're going to have a lot of fun. So let's get going. 2. Where Do Ideas Come From?: One of the things that I get asked when I give readings is, where do you get your ideas? Inevitably, when someone asks that, someone else will start rolling their eyes and yeah, it's considered a typical cliche question, but there's a reason people ask it. It's an excellent question. Where do ideas come from? How do we do this? As a writer how do we get our ideas, how do we go from there, and that's why we're here to figure out today. Where do ideas come from? Where can you get your ideas and how can you blend the things that you have inside of you with things that you find outside of you to create your stories? So one answer I give people when they ask me where do you get your ideas is, I have what I consider this invisible satellite dish that's just rotating around my head on top of it all the time and every now and again, something pings on that dish and it can be a person I see walking down the street. It can be something I read in the newspaper. It can be a book I'm reading. But when that ping comes, I know to listen to it and I know that there's something there I want to investigate deeper. So one of the things we're going to do with these exercises together is you're going to cultivate your own little satellite dish and become sensitive to a ping. So that when you realize you're noticing something, to give it credit, to explore it, to interrogate it a little and see what might be behind it. One thing that's incredibly important to be an artist, but I also think just to be a person in the world who doesn't ossify and just become all curled up is to be an observant person. It's really easy in the course of our lives to just have our routines, to put up our blinders, to do what we do, and we lose track of the world around us and to foster creativity, to foster imagination, it's important to stay attuned to the world around you, to what's outside of you, to things maybe you haven't noticed before. Basically just try to always see the world like a very small child or like a tourist and when you can do that, you have fresh eyes again and through that observation you can have inspiration. We're going to be doing these exercises specifically because they're going to give you tools to cultivate ways to blend things that are inside of you with things that are outside of you to create those lenses that I was just talking about. You're going to do things that are going to draw upon your memories. You're going to be called upon to go in the outside world and make observations and then to combine those inner things, those memories, with those outer things, those observations, to create unique work. These exercises are specifically geared to give you a toolkit to first access the inner things, which is to say the memories, and then give you tools to be attuned to the external things, the observations that then you're going to fuse to make unique stories. The other thing we're going to be doing together is to give you tools to create voices and characters other than your own. You're going to start with you, but then you're going to springboard away from you so that you can create people who don't sound like you, who don't think like you and don't act like you. When you do these eight minute exercises, conveniently, there is a timer provided for you that's part of the class. So you can just click on that and use that one. If you want to use your watch, if you want to use your phone, that's fine too. There are some pretty groovy animated YouTube timers, so you could type in eight minute timer and you can use that. So whatever you want to use is great, but eight minutes, no more, no less, that's what you need. So we're ready to start our first exercise, and that first exercise is going to be about someone you do not like. 3. Writing Your Least Favorite Person: For this first exercise and all of these exercises, basically the thing you're going to need is a writing technology. So that could mean a paper and pencil, it could mean your computer, it could mean your phone. Although if you're writing on your phone, how do you do that? Anyway if you're comfortable doing that, however you want, and we're going to start off with, I need you to list five people in your life that you do not like. Now notice I said, in your life. This has to be someone that you had an actual relationship with, someone that you spent time with, but it can be from any phase of your life. So it can be someone from your current life, it can be someone from a couple of years ago, it can be someone from when you were a kid, and it can be their name if you remember their name, but even if you don't remember their name, and you just remember that kid in second grade who always threw the pencils at you, you can just write down that kid in second grade who threw the pencils at me. Also know that no one is going to see this list but you, so just be honest, do it and just do it now. First five people to spring into mind that you do not like. How are you doing with that list? If you got three, that's pretty good. If you've got one, you got to get into the hater in you. Everyone's got a hater and don't be shy, just go for it, see if you can get to four or five in the next 30 seconds. If you only end up with three, it's okay, no one one ever know but you, and it'll work, but go for five. Have you got your five people? Well even if you don't, we're going to keep going. So you've hopefully got at least more than one, and what I want you to do is look at that list and whichever one of those names is just like flashlight. You're like, "Oh yeah, them." That's your person. So circle that name and we are ready to move onto the next part. So if you've got paper, a blank piece of paper. If you're working on a screen, new fresh screen, and here's the situation. You are walking into a coffee shop and you're walking to the counter, you're going to get your thing, and you noticed sitting in the corner of the coffee shop, maybe eating a bagel, eating a muffin, reading a book, drinking a coffee, is that person the one that you just circled, the one that you do not like. So we're going to spend about eight minutes right now writing from your perspective, I'm, as you walk into the coffee shop, get your stuff, and you see that person. So what are you doing, what are you thinking, what are you seeing as you're walking into the shop and seeing that person in the corner. You've got eight minutes, go for it. So you did that first part, excellent. You spent eight minutes writing about the experience of walking into that coffee shop, seeing that person in the corner. Now fresh piece of paper, newly blank screen. You are now that person. That person in the corner you don't like, you are now them. You are being that person and you see yourself walk into the coffee shop, doing the whole ordering thing, getting the coffee. I now want you to spend eight minutes again, first-person which is to say I'm, writing from the perspective of the person you do not like seeing you walk into the coffee shop. So that person's thoughts, that person's feelings, that person's actions as they see you, you've got eight minutes, don't think about it, just start writing and go. You did it. You wrote from your perspective, you wrote from someone else's perspective, let's talk about what just happened. 4. Creating an Empathy Venn Diagram: How did that feel? Generally speaking, as you do these exercises, probably some of that stuff that we do is going to be easy, some of it is going to be hard, and some of it is going to be surprising. If that's what's happening, it means you're doing something right. Often with the exercise we just did, people will find it more easy to talk about what it was like to be in their own head, walking into that cafe, but then switching into being the person that you dislike can sometimes be really difficult and really uncomfortable. But the other thing that can happen is, all the sudden you're in someone else's head, and you're like, "Oh, I wonder if this person even had feelings about me at all. Maybe I had these big feelings about this person, I hated this person, and may never even knew I existed." Or maybe you're inside the person's head and you're like, "Oh wait, I was a jerk to them. I remember when I did that thing." Sometimes making that switch is going to make you think in a different way, and that's what this is all about. A key thing about writing is creating characters that have different viewpoints, and that can be a really hard first step to make. But that's where the creative jump comes in. Writing is all about empathy, it's all about going in someone else's head and seeing the world through their eyes and seeing things the way that they would think about it, and that can be really really hard. One thing that I try to do, I try to do this in life as well as in writing, is I tell myself when I'm creating a character who's maybe making decisions that I think are crappy, what if this person is actually doing the very best they can right now? What if this represents their best work? When you frame a person's actions with that question, it changes everything because you're like, "Oh my God, what could have possibly happened to them that this is the best that they can do?" It gets you thinking about their past, it gets you thinking about things that might have happened to them, and it changes how you view everything that they're doing. So when you're writing a bad guy in your work, when you're writing an antagonist, it can be really easy just to make them bad, they're wearing the black hat, they're going doing bad things. Ultimately though, that's boring. You need to have characters with many different facets to them. Characters with strengths and characters with weaknesses. When you ask yourself that key question, what if that person's doing the very best they can right now? That often facilitates that switch to let you think about who you'd think of as an antagonist, or a villain, or a bad guy in a very different way. If getting into the head of someone who you didn't like was hard, don't worry about it. This is actually a skill that can be learned. There's a key distinction here. I'm using the word empathy a lot. I noticed that I'm not using the word sympathy, and there's a difference because sympathy is when you like a character. You want to hang out with them, you want to be their friend. Empathy is where you understand where they're coming from. If you think about some of your most favorite characters from the books that you've read, the ones that have really stuck in your head, often they're people that if you think about it, you don't really want to spend time with them. There's a lot going on with them. But you do understand them, you get where they're coming from, and that's what makes them compelling. They're making choices that maybe you would never make in a million years. But it's so fascinating to watch them making those choices because you actually maybe get why they're making those choices. That's why we're doing this exercise, and I think asking yourself that question, what if they're doing the best they can? What if they think they're doing good right now? Is going to help you get to a place where you can make a character that's doing that stuff. Another way to think about cultivating empathy is something I call the empathy Venn diagram, for which we will need some paper. Here we go. We've got our nice big sheet of paper. Venn diagram, that is a thing where you've got two circles that overlap. In the case of this, we're going to do it where one of these circles is you, and then the other circle is the character that you're trying to get into the head of. Let's make it a character that might be challenging, a character that could be seen as a typical bad guy, villain character, so let's say bank robber. At first glance, it might be challenging to think, "Well, what would I possibly have in common with a bank robber?" This is where we revert to those questions we were just talking about. Think about a bank robber, and instead of thinking about, "Oh, a heinous person committing a heinous act," think, "What if this is the best that they can do?" What if robbing a bank in this moment really is the best that this person can do? Not only that, what if they actually think they are doing good by robbing the bank at this moment? Start thinking about that, and that might give you access to a pen cap, or it might give you access to things that you might have in common with this bank robber. Maybe step back even from the act of the bank robber itself, the bank robbery, and think, "This bank robber is a human being, what does this human being maybe have in common with me? They probably have a family, they probably have friends. What's something about this bank robber, maybe outside their life of bank robberies that they might have in common with me? " Because you're making it up, you can just invent it. Maybe if you like cats, you can say that your bank robber likes cats. Basically, what you're doing here, is you're creating this great little area of overlap, where you and the bank robber have some things in common. This is what I call empathy with training wheels. When you are inhabiting an area of overlap with your character, it's something that you share, and when you think of that thing you share, it gives you access to also be that person. There's so much that's universal that underlies the human experience, so many emotions that all of us have in common. We all have loved, we've all felt jealousy, we have all felt sadness, and things like that. If you want to think of the universals and those universals where they might overlap with your universals, that's a way to start thinking about this bank robber in empathetic terms. But as I just said, empathy with training wheels, but you're still inhabiting an area that you share. The next step is really exciting one, and that's when you go from the area of overlap to somewhere totally outside your frame of reference. You are now inhabiting in a space in the circle with no overlap from you. But because you started here and you thought about the things that you had in common, you might have realized, "Oh gosh, in my story, why is this bank robbery happening? Why is this the best they can do?" Well, this bank robber has a family. Maybe they have a sick family member, and they are robbing this bank to get the money to help their sick family member. So all the sudden, you have someone who's committing an act that you cannot imagine committing, but you understand why they are doing it. That is the empathy. You don't sympathize with them, you would never in a million years picture yourself holding that gun and rubbing that bank, but you understand why they are there doing that at that moment, and so that's how this whole Venn diagram thing works. This is a tool that you can use anytime, anywhere, whenever you've got a character who is not you. It can be used for a villain, but it can also just be used for any character at all when you're just trying to get a handle. Make the little circles, start with what you might have in common, and use that to expand beyond that area of overlap. Next exercise, get ready to be a spy because you are going to do some eavesdropping. 5. Eavesdropping for Inspiration: This next exercise comes from the idea that it's really hard to write in a voice that's not your own voice. We all have a native first-person voice. When I say first-person voice I mean, I am. So you write I am, I'm doing these things and it sounds so great. But then let's say you try to write from another character's perspective and you're doing first-person, I am, and a lot of times it's like, "Hello, I am being someone else now," but you're totally not. It's like you the sock puppet on, you're like being funny voices, no. The whole point of this exercise is to begin to give you tools to cultivate sort of an audio library in your head so that when you need to call upon different voices, you can do it. That my friend, is where eavesdropping comes in. What I want you to do is, if you can, go out into the world and start listening in on people. You can go to a grocery store, you can go to a cafe, you can ride a bus, you can just take a walk down your block, stand outside a school, stand outside a library. What I want you to do is listen to people and actually write down what they are saying word for word. Now, some of you, I'm telling you this you're like, "I eavesdrop all the time, this is not a problem." I'm one of those people. I have this native eavesdropping muscle in my mind that's always running, and it is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing, because I do have an audio library in my head of all these voices that I've always heard, but thing is I cannot turn it off. Me and my husband will go to a restaurant and it's all nice, and we're out in the world. But then next table is some guy talking about the football game, I'm like, "Dude, please, can you just be quiet? I want to eat my dinner." Of course, I cannot do that, so I don't do that. I try to make it a good thing because I tried to remember their voice. But yeah, it'd be nice to be able to turn it off, I can't, maybe you can, more power to you. But so for me eavesdropping is just something I've always done. However, there might be others of you who the idea of eavesdropping, you're like, "Are you kidding? That is so rude. I'm not going to do that. Oh, my gosh. People will notice what I'm doing. They're going to think I'm a stalker. No, I'm not going to do this." So here's the good news about the times we live in. No one's going to notice. Especially, if you have a cell phone and you go to the place you want to eavesdrop, and you type into your phone what you're hearing people saying, they're going to think you're texting, if they even notice you at all. What I recommend is, if you just have your phone, you can go anywhere you want and do it. In an ideal world, I would like you to listen in on five different conversations and write down three overheard lines of dialogue from each. Now, in a less than ideal world, really if you can just listen on two different conversations and copy down three lines from each, you're in good shape. If for some reason you can't leave your house, do not fret. We can make this work, you've got a couple options. If you live in a house with people, you can eavesdrop on them. Or if you just had access to a radio or a television, or YouTube, or any kind of video, go watch that and just write down things that you hear people saying in that, and that can also count as your conversation. However, do it for at least two different programs or two different situations because you definitely need two discrete very different things that you are listening in on. Here's the other good thing about when you go out to eavesdrop. You actually don't have to find two people who are having a conversation. Because once again, thanks to cell phones, people say the craziest things into their phones when they are in public places. They are talking about all sorts of wild stuff. You can just find someone who's talking into their phone and you will be good to go. All right. You have your assignment, so go out there, do your eavesdropping. Don't worry, I will still be here when you get back. 6. What Did That Feel Like?: You're back. How was it? Different people have very different experiences when they go out and eavesdrop. Some people think it's going to be really easy because they think they eavesdrop on people all the time. Then when they get out there and have to write down word-for-word, they realize that, "No", they were getting the gist of what people were saying, but to actually go out and write down word-for-word what people were saying can be really challenging. Either because you realize you're in noisy environments and it's hard to hear what people are saying or you realize your hearing is not as good as you thought it was and you're having trouble for that reason. So that can be one big challenge. A big surprise for people sometimes when they eavesdrop is they realize that people don't really talk the way they thought people talked. Very rarely do people talk in lovely, complete sentences, people stammer a lot. People insert lots of uhs and likes, and things like that. People often will talk around what they're saying rather than getting to the point. There's a really big difference you'll notice between what you might have just heard in the natural world and what you often will see in a book. Often or with emerging writing, you'll have conversations where people get right to the point and they just say eloquently and beautifully and say what they mean and then move on. Well, if you just went out in the world, you probably discover that that's actually not so much what is going on when people talk. So that's a great takeaway for you as you leave these exercises behind and you find yourself writing dialogue. Remember your discoveries when you're out the world, listening to people about the different ways that people talk and play with that. The other thing I recommend is say your work out loud after you've written the dialogue. It might look excellent on paper, but then if you read it out loud, you're reading, "Yes, my dear. Let us go to the theater today". You might like, "Oh, wait, no that didn't actually sound like a person at all". So when you're playing with your dialogue, if you read it out loud, re-speak it in the air in your mouth, improvise it and keep saying it and re-saying it till it starts to sound more like real speech and then write down your discovery from what you said, write down that on the paper, and that's another great way to reshape dialogue. So that's a thing you can take away with you. We're ready to go with our next thing. So you have gone out to the world and you've gathered your conversation. Maybe you feel a little dirty for eavesdropping, but go take a shower, it'll be all right. Or if you're at home, you have now listened in, perhaps on your housemates or you've used radio or a TV or a video to get your conversational bits, however you did it we are good to go. So I want you to look over your list and as you are reading, remember how when I said, list five people you don't like and I said the one that's going [inaudible] that's the one you want. Same deal for these overheard bits. Look over your list of overheard bits, and circle the two that are going [inaudible]. The only thing is they have to be from different conversations. So as long as they're from separate conversations, you're good to go. So read over, encircle and then we'll be ready to move on to what you're going to do with those things. 7. Creating a Conversation: So you've picked your two lines. If you are working with pen and paper, write those two lines at the top of the piece of paper. If you're working with a screen, have a blank screen except for those two lines at the top of the screen. What I want you to do is to take eight minutes to write a conversation. Now, let's get specific about how I want you to write this conversation, for which I will use a visual aid. When I say conversation, I literally mean just the words that are being said. So I mean, just like A, B, A, like that. You're not going to use other tools of narrative like, she said as her hair was wafting in the wind. Literally just the words that these people are saying. You're going to spend eight minutes and in the course of writing this conversation, try to incorporate those two favorite overheard lines of dialogue. So that might mean that you want to lead off with one of those lines. Start writing and see if you can steer the conversation toward that other line. Maybe it means you want to start within your own invented piece of conversation and see if you can steer the conversation on the way toward those two lines. However you want to do it, it doesn't matter. Just take eight minutes. The goal is to incorporate one or two of these lines. If you don't end up incorporating one or both, it's okay, no one will know, and the really the point here is just to get you writing a conversation. So you've got eight minutes to write just the words of a conversation that incorporate these lines. Ready, set, go. 8. Building a Character: All right. So you just spent eight minutes writing a dialogue. Perhaps in the course of that dialogue, you were able to incorporate both those lines of overheard conversation. Perhaps you are just able to incorporate one. Perhaps you weren't able to use any of them, but it doesn't matter because what is important is you now have a dialogue between two people, and those are two people that didn't exist until just now. As you were writing that conversation, I'm guessing that one of those people started to become more clear to you. You are having two people talking, but maybe one person's words were just like doing that wah-wah thing that I keep talking about. So I now want you to focus on that particular character, the one who was saying those lines. I am now going to ask you some questions about that character that I want you to write the answers to. So that means blank piece of paper or blank screen, I'm going to ask you questions. You don't have to write down the questions. You just have to write down the answers and just write down the answers like notes that you're taking to yourself. You're not making, say, formal literally exercise. You're just writing the answers to these questions, for which I have a list. So you've got your blank screen, your blank piece of paper. You've got the character that stuck most in your mind from that conversation. So I want you to answer these questions. The first question is, what does that person look like? I want you to describe their hair, their facial features, their body, what they're wearing, or if you're a visual artist, draw them. Or even if you're not a visual artist, and you want to try drawing, I think that's an excellent idea. Try drawing them and see what happens. But also write them, describe them with words, if you're not a visual artist. How old are they? What do they do professionally for a living? What did they do for fun? Next, I want you to make a thorough inventory of what's inside their wallet or their purse. Or if there is someone that doesn't have either of those things, I want you to describe what's inside their pockets or what's inside their backpack. Who is the most important person in their life and why is that person important? What are they afraid of and what do they want? So you're going to have eight minutes to do that. So if you've looked at those questions, you can press your timer, you can do your own little timer situation on your phone or your watch or your computer, or do a video timer, whatever you want to do it. So go. 9. Writing Real-Feeling People: So you just took eight minutes to answer a bunch of questions about a character who didn't exist about half an hour, an hour before. So let's now take some time to talk about all the cool stuff that just happened. You just started with nothing at all. You started with words uttered by a stranger, and you now have a character that, if not fully formed, is solid and your imagination is beginning to form in your mind. So let's talk about how that happened, what the alchemy is that allowed that to come into being. So the first step of creating a character, as you remember, was going out into the world of an eavesdropping. We'd already talked about how that might have been harder than you thought it would be. Part of that comes from the fact that to get through our daily lives, we end up building barriers that just allow us to get stuff done. You have your routine, you have the route that you take to work, you have the thing you have for breakfast. You have the songs that you listen to on your earbuds when you put them in and you travel on the bus or the subway, or you taking or you drive in a car. That's really good for functional daily life stuff, but that's pretty much the total enemy of creativity and inspiration. Because, as I was talking about before, it's a combination of the internal and the external that creates those ideas, that makes that lens through which you can view the world in a unique way, and if you're only drawing on your internal stuff, you only have half a lens there. So by making you go out into the world and actually listen word for word to what people were saying, I was encouraging you to do active observation. That's a lot of what inspiration is about. It's about opening yourself up to the world, changing up your routines, being open to see things that you haven't seen before and being able to look at them in a new way. When we talk about inspiration, there's this idea that it happens spontaneously and there's just muse. The muse. So I would love it if I could just say that there's this muse and she settles down upon my shoulder and whispers these lovely ideas and I'll be. Well, that happens sometimes but hardly ever. Most of the time, inspiration is a proactive process. It's a proactive act. You have to go out and seek it out. You have to search it down. So by changing up those routines, and it doesn't have to happen all the time because we wouldn't get any work done and there's a reason we have routines. We need to conserve our energies, we need to conserve our focus. But maybe once a day, or once every other day, or once a week, you take a different route to work, or you don't put in your earbuds, or you go get coffee from a different coffee shop. Do something a little different and treat it like going on a trip. Treat it like being in a tourist in a new city and look around and just have your ears open, have your eyes open and be aware of what is going on. While you're doing that, that invisible satellite dish is going to be rotating and things are going to come in and they're going to ping whether it's something you overhear that structures a little weird or a person that you see that intrigues you, and that's where this inspiration can start. As for the exercises you just did, there's a couple of things you can do with them. If writing that dialogue got you really excited, work with that. So that means you can add additional elements of narrative, which means you can turn it into a more conventional scene. You can add, he said, she said, you can talk about blocking, gestures, facial expression, you can talk about reflections, you can talk about now maybe what the person is thinking as they're saying those words and just really run with it. Maybe writing that dialogue, you weren't so into the moment that that dialogue was happening in, but it gave you ideas for things that might have happened just before that dialogue was taking place, or maybe it gave you an idea of what is going to happen after that dialogue is done. So maybe go back and start working with those moments. You can work with them in a variety of ways. If you discovered that just writing out the words of what people saying really got you into your story and into your world, just take that approach. Take a previous moment and just have people talking to make that moment begin to come alive. Or you can approach it in a more conventional way and start writing it with all the definite elements of narrative, narration, observation, reflection, dialogue. So that's something you can start thinking about with the dialogue part of what you just did. If the dialogue was like, but you really were getting into building that character, cool. Focus on that character. Maybe you now want to write a scene that has that character doing something in a different place at a different time with other people, or maybe you want to construct a whole different thing around that character and then you can focus your energies on that. I should also say that when an exercise doesn't work for you, it's not your fault. You haven't done anything wrong. I am trying to give you a variety of different exercises that are going to push your brain in different directions. They're going to work better for some people than other people. Some are going to be, some are going to be, but the cool thing is everything you do when you are writing makes you a better writer. That sounds cheesy, but I actually believe it. Every word you write makes you a better writer. It's a muscle that you are exercising. So even if you're doing these exercises and not all of them are coming out the way that you'd like, that really doesn't matter. Because what matters is that you're pushing yourself, you're putting in the time to write and to grow these muscles. So you created a dialogue, you created a character, we're now on to our next exercise which will involve trees. 10. Being a Tree: We started this class with a memory exercise, and now we're going to do another one. This time, I need you to have a piece of paper and a pencil, or a fresh screen, a blank screen. I want you to write five trees that you have known over the course of your life. Now when I say that, I don't mean, "Oh yes, the red oak with the [inaudible] branches." I mean, maybe that's the one you remember. But it's not about the kind of tree it was technically, it's about a tree that is somehow strong in your memory. You can write say, "The tree outside my grandmother's window," or "The tree I always sat underneath at lunchtime in second grade." Those are the trees I'm talking about. So write a list of five trees that are strong in your memory that you remember from the course of your life. You're going to have a minute or so to do it. So get writing and let's see what you can come up with. So you've got your five trees. Once again just like before, the one that's going [inaudible] when you wrote it, that's your tree. So circle that tree. Now, we're going to move on to the next step. For this next step, you're going to need a piece of paper. That's right. If you're on a computer, I guess you could technically do this digitally. If you're good with drawing on your computer and you've got a stylus and something like that, then all right. But chances are, you're going to need a big piece of paper, like the one I'm getting right now. Because I want you to make a map that contains that tree that you just circled at the top of your page. Now at this moment, some of might go, "What? Draw? I don't draw. What are you talking about? This is a writing class. No." Well, don't panic. Take a breath. I don't draw either. But it doesn't matter. We're going to draw regardless of our drawing ability. But if you are a visual artist, this is your moment to shine. Yes, map with tree. This could mean a couple of different things. We'll start with tree. If this is mostly associated with an outside memory, then the map you're going to draw is going to be like a bird's eye-view looking down on that landscape. Maybe this tree was at a school. So then maybe you draw your school here, then maybe this is your playground here, then this is a street like that, and then this is a street like that, and then start labeling these things. When I say label, I don't necessarily mean, first street. Maybe that's it. But if you think more of the street as the street I had to go on to get to school, you can say it like a, "Street to get to school." Basically, you want to label this map in the way that these objects are in your memory. The way that they're true to your memory of them rather than any kind of official term for them. Tree that I ate lunch at. Now, you don't need to label everything, obviously. But if labels help you, that's one way to do it, or you can just start drawing stuff. So you got your school, you've got your playground, maybe you've got little slide here, that does not look like a slide at all. You have like that merry-go-round thing that always made me feel horrible and dizzy. That's one way to do your map. Then the other thing that might work for you is if your tree is mostly associated with an inside memory, maybe it's the tree outside your bedroom of your childhood home. Then what we're talking about is you've got your tree, but then really pay attention to the inside of the house, so maybe that's the window. Then draw a schematic of the house. My bedroom and then here's your door, sister's bedroom. Get specific, even put in the bedroom where your bed was, and put where the dresser was, where the closet was. So you're exploring in this schematic map-making way to kind of excavate this memory. It might be that your map is going to be a combination of interiors and exteriors because this tree has associations for you that are both being inside and being outside. Maybe you do your floor plan of the building next to your tree, but then you'd also do the other trees over here, and then Peter's house. So you get the idea. Take eight minutes, use that handy-dandy timer to do a map. Spend the whole eight minutes. So that might mean you end up getting more detailed than you thought you would. Again, don't be afraid if it looks like crap. No one's going to see it but you. Have fun with this, take eight minutes, and I'll see you on the other side. 11. Creating a Setting: So you've made a map, the next step is going to be a little wonky, so trust me here, bear with me, you have two choices. Over the course of our class together, you have explored two different characters. One was that first-person you didn't like, and the second was the character that you invented from that dialogue exercise. I want you to put one of those people in this map. First you're thinking, "No, I'm not going to put one of those people in this map, they don't belong in this map. This map is a map of my grandmother's house, or this map is a map of where I used to go sledding with my friend and they were never there." To which I say, exactly. The whole point right here is to mix things up. You want to put the unfamiliar with the familiar which is going to allow you to stretch things in new directions. So with your marking apparatus, I want you to pick a place on your map and with a big O or X, mark the spot where one of those characters is going to go. Once again, you can choose either the person you don't like or you can choose the character that you invented from your dialogue. Don't overthink it, just look at your map, wildly make an X somewhere, and then we'll move on. You got it? I think you got it. Okay, cool. Now what's going to happen is fresh piece of paper or a blank screen, and I'm going to ask you some questions that you're going to answer from the perspective of the person that you just placed in your map. You don't need to write down the question itself, you just have to jot down quick answers to the questions, almost just like you're making notes to yourself, like you're jotting notes in preparation, and that's what we're going to do. For this, I once again have a list, and you will have a list too because they're going to appear handy-dandy as I read them. You are ready? Here we go. Once again, just like before, I'm going to say them, you don't need to write down the questions themselves, you just need to jot the answers to these questions in a very informal way. You're just making notes to yourself and you'll have a little bit of time, so we're going to get started. So again you're answering from the perspective of the person you just placed in this map. What time of day or night is it? What season does it seem to be? Where are you? Where is this taking place? What's the temperature like? What does the air smell like? Where's the light coming from? From the ceiling light, from stars, from the Sun, from a lamp? How old are you? Is anyone else with you, and if so, who? What are you doing? What are some of the sounds you hear? What are some things you see when you look around? What's directly in front of you? What do you see when you look to your right? What do you see when you look to your left? What's behind you? What's below and around your feet? What's above your head? Why are you here? So hopefully answering those questions allowed you to get your bearings a little bit as this character in this space, in this moment, so now we're going to do another eight-minute exercise, which means blank piece of paper or a blank screen, get your timer ready, and once you press the timer, I want you to start with the words, "I am," and then just write from the perspective of that person on your map what they're seeing, what they're feeling, what they're thinking, what they're doing in the moment. Don't think too much about it, just start writing and go. 12. Writing What You Don’t Know: So when you drew a map based on having thought of a tree and then put that person in it, you are doing that thing we've been talking about along, which is combining the external with the internal to create a new lens. The internal arose from the tree, the memory of this landscape, which is from inside of you. The external arose from the character that you'd invented or explored in an imaginative context and somewhere else, and so you force them to cohabitate. The reason this is a really, really interesting and important thing to try to do is, it is what functions basically as the springboard to create fiction from personal experience. The way I like to think about it is there's two different kinds of fiction. There's personal fiction and there's autobiographical fiction. For me, autobiographical fiction means writing basically what actually happened to you, and either changing a few names or changing hair color or something like that, or maybe not changing any of it and just calling it autobiographical novel, and you write it and there you go. That's allowed, and there's some people who are really good at it and they're celebrated for it and more power to them. But I'm not a big fan, and here's why I'm not a big fan, I think, well, there's a couple of reasons. The first one, just from a purely writing for the long run perspective is, it's super limiting. There's only so much personal material you've got inside you and once you've used that up or maybe alienated all your friends because you've talked about them in these stories, you've got nowhere else to go, you're done. It's a short-term solution, I think, to someone who wants to write. What personal fiction does is, it distills personal experiences and memories, but then expands upon them in a fictive or imaginative way that allows you to touch upon the stuff that is real, but in a way that doesn't have boundaries, and then isn't going to have any endpoint to it. It's also a cool thing because it protects you and those you love. I'm a really private person; I need after we hung out for awhile, we'll go get a beer and I'll tell you about my mom. But if we're just meeting, I don't want to tell you about my mom. So fiction, by making it personal rather than autobiographical, I can explore the things that I'm interested in, the things that I'm afraid of, the things that I'm curious about. But I can do it in a way that allows me to have my life and allows the people around me to have their life without being on the page in front of everybody. That's why I think personal fiction is ultimately the way to go. This is what you did by beginning to have your extra on your internal, by putting the unfamiliar thing in the familiar. There's another cliche of writing, which is write what you know. I think that's a very dangerous statement. The reason I think it's dangerous is it can be really, really limiting. If you interpret that statement just word for word, write what you know, you're going to feel you can't write about anything but the things that you have done in your life, the relationships that you've had, the friendships you've had, and for me that's the opposite of being a writer. As I've been talking about to you, it is about empathy, it's about expanding your imagination and your observations, following your imagination wherever it might lead, which means going to unfamiliar places. It means trying to get inside heads that are not yours. How does that relate to write what you know? How can you do both of those things? Well, it's what I was just explaining; by making fiction personal. When you have a personal memory of what it felt to be afraid, when you have a personal memory of what it felt like to be loved, to have a loss, to be left behind, you can put that feeling, the intensity of that feeling that you remember, into this other character, into this other situation, and begin exploring it, and that is how the fiction stays personal and how it stays resonant. You might be thinking right now, well, Myla, everything you just said sounds very, very nice, but it doesn't change the fact that that writing exercise felt horrible and it didn't work for me at all. If that's you, here's my suggestion; try putting someone else inside that map, not you, but someone maybe who is closer related to that environment, maybe a friend or relative, someone who was part of that community, but explore that environment through their perspective rather than your own. Or if that exercise did work for you really well, great, keep going with that I am and keep writing it forward and see what happens. 13. Final Thoughts: Congratulations. You did it. You just did probably some fairly uncomfortable weird things. You created characters that didn't exist before. You have used eavesdropping to create entire dialogues. Most importantly, conceptually, you are beginning to blend your internal and your external and to use different techniques and ways to do that to create those VIO lenses. The good news is, you can just keep doing this. The exercises that we just did together, you can do again and again in different ways. Getting new things that you overhear, do a different map drawing, I mean doing all sorts of stuff like that. Then the other thing that you can think about is you are now part of a community. If you wrote something that you're excited about, you should post it to the project gallery. Because there's going to be other stuff up there too, and you can read what other people wrote and you can comment and see comments about your stuff. The discussion board is going to be a great place to talk about what it felt like to do some of those exercises. Talk about what was hard, talk about what was easy, talk about what was surprising, compare notes with other people. Maybe this is giving you ideas for exercises of your own that you can also share and learn what other people are thinking about too. Now, do you remember those 18 questions that I asked you? What time it is it? What's in front of you? What's below you? Well, they actually are stolen. So I'm coming out with it, it's a confession. I stole those questions from a really brilliant, wonderful, delightful artist, cartoonist, writer, teacher named Lynda Barry. She originated those questions as a way to crystallize what makes scenes come alive. The next time you're reading a book, and you're really into it, see if you can step away and say, "Oh. I'm really into this moment in the book." Get out those questions which you can do, because they're going to be part of the resources that you can actually download and print out. You can have this hard copy of these questions for yourself. When you get to a part in the book that you're really enjoying, take a step back, get out those questions. I promise you that at least some of those questions are being answered in that moment where things are really coming alive. So these questions are going to be a constant resource for you. Whenever you are having trouble with a scene, maybe you've been working on a chapter or a story and something just isn't working, answer those questions for yourself. You're not answering them in a way that's necessarily going to be part of the story you're writing. Turns out that a lot of story writing has to do with writing outside of the story. Your writing is a discovery process to learn what needs to be inside that story. So whenever you're feeling stuck, refer to those questions. Start answering them for that character in that moment, in that place, and often that's going to provide you a way to inhabit it more deeply and push that scene further. So thank you. You trusted me with your brain as we did these exercises together. I had a lot of fun. So I hope you did too, and I hope this is just the beginning for you as a writer. 14. Class Timer: Eight Minutes: