Only a Writer or Therapist Would Find the Junk Drawer Significant


“I knew you’d come back for me.”

Luckily for me, I’m both (or at least have been both in the recent past).

I was cleaning out our junk drawer the other day – because we’re getting ready to move, not because I was desperately looking for procrastination excuses – and near the end of my task I glanced down to find it just as it’s pictured here. It struck me as mildly poetic somehow, so I took a break and snapped a picture. Ordinary objects can be fertile ground for writing if you look with the right eye…

In our house, the junk drawer is the catch-all place, where for some reason we keep life’s everyday essentials (scissors and pens) buried alongside the crap we will never, ever use again under any circumstances (year-old soy sauce and manuals to phones I recycled years ago). It’s the one place in the house where hoarding is normal and accepted, even in the tidiest, most minimalist homes. And in my home, which is neither tidy nor minimalist, it’s a place where the crazy really shows. This picture is just the 10% that was left at the bottom.

The writer’s brain is a lot like a junk drawer. We stow things away — both purposefully and at whim — never really knowing if they will resurface, or if they do, if they’ll be useful. An idea that seems essential to our work one minute can become trite and irrelevant the next. Or we scribble something thoughtlessly, only to find it again months later with fresh eyes and find it’s exactly what we need at a crucial moment in a story. It’s a beautiful process of acquiring, storing, and finally (painfully) purging ideas until we have something inspiring or useful to share. It’s good to have a quantity of stuff to draw from, but only when we’re willing to take the time to filter through it will we have the opportunity to see things clearly.

So when was the last time you went through the clutter from your own junk drawer, literally or figuratively? What inspiration can you find at the bottom of your pile — or mine, for that matter? It could be an army guy next to a poignant Taco Bell sauce packet, a mystery key, or a bag of dice. Or maybe an idea that got shelved months ago because it wasn’t ready for the world. Inspiration for a brand new story, or simply texture for a work in progress. Either way, maybe it’s time to revisit something you’ve stashed away, so that you can either toss it aside forever or give it a new life in the light of day.

I’d love to read junk-drawer stories – please link in the comments if you write one!


Cyber Monday and Storytelling

Last week I wrote about gratitude in honor of the warmth of Thanksgiving. Now, with turkey eaten and football watched, we’re several days into the traditional season of consumerism. Many of us stayed up late Thursday or set the alarm for ungodly hours (not I this year, I’m happy to say), only to wait in line for deals, stocking up on gifts for others and ourselves.

Our stated object is to snag a deal on something specific: clothes, toys, electronics, maybe a TV the size of a small village. But the goal is usually something else. It’s not Tickle Me Furby or the 108-inch Plasma TV that makes us want to stand in line for hours, elbowing aside other shoppers and reverting to our primal roots. There’s some other, deeper goal at work: putting a smile on our kids’ or spouse’s face at the holidays, proving our love and thoughtfulness, enjoying the thrill of the hunt, filling the black void in our souls with material things… hey, no judgment here. Whatever that true internal goal is, that’s what really drives us to do the things we do.

Characters in good stories are the same way. They pursue one goal on the surface: solving the crime, getting the guy/girl, winning the epic battle between vampires and werewolves. That’s where the action is. But what the reader really relates to (whether he/she knows it or not) is the internal struggle for something: redemption, self-acceptance, a change in perspective, hope for the future. These internal goals aren’t always positive, just like our own secret motivations for doing things aren’t always saintly in real life. In fact, the internal struggle is often where the real nitty-gritty of our characters’ humanity appears.

A good writer has to understand both goals in order to develop the character’s struggle fully. We have to know why our character thinks she is standing in line outside Target in the middle of the night, wishing she’d remembered those hand-warmers; and why she is really there. It’s all part of what draws the reader in and makes the story worth reading, all the way through to the bitter (or triumphant) end.

Writer’s Challenge No. 7

It’s the Writer’s Challenge – Gratitude Edition! Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. Happy writing!

Writing Prompt: In November, it’s customary to count your blessings (and as often as not, to post about gratitude on your blog, Facebook page and/or Tweetstream). Lovely. But what happens if we take the idea of blessings to extremes? What would life be like if you – or your favorite character – had everything you’d ever wanted? Or if you suddenly had none of the things for which you are grateful? It’s an apocalyptic thought, and a fascinating concept. Write 800 words today about having it all, or losing everything.

Business of Writing Challenge: What are you grateful for when it comes to writing for a living? Is it your natural talent, your tenacity, your friends who are always willing to share? Maybe you’re naturally organized and disciplined, or you have a knack for coming up with ideas that are truly original. I believe we are tasked with using our talents to make the world a better place (the Jewish concept is Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World). Take a moment to inventory and say “thank you” for your greatest assets, and to brainstorm about how you can continue strengthening them in the future.

Writer’s Challenge No. 6 – NaNoWriMo Kickoff Edition

As if NaNoWriMo isn’t challenging enough in itself, here’s the writer’s challenge of the week to help get you moving into those word counts. And if you’re not participating, it’s okay. You still have my permission to be inspired.

As always, feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below.

Fiction Prompt: Fight the intimidation of the blank page by writing what you anticipate will be one of the most climactic scenes in your novel first. You don’t have to lead up to it or know what will follow, just write the intense scene as it comes to you. Don’t edit or question at this point; allow yourself to get swept up in the emotion and write. When you’re done, read your scene. What do you love about it? What could be better? How can you set the stage for this moment, beginning at page one?  

Non-fiction/essay:  If you were going to write 50,000 words about your life, where would you start? What events would be in your own personal outline? Would you be the center of your own story, or would it start in another generation or with a different perspective? What would you want readers to learn from a glimpse into your life?

Writer’s Personal Challenge: Whether you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo or not, think about what short bursts of pressure and intense short-term goals do for you. Do you function well under immediate pressure or are you more wired for regular discipline and steady routines? How can you organize your writing practice to make the most of what motivates you?

Writer’s Challenge #5 – FEAR

With Halloween around the corner (and my house infested with creepy, itchy little fleas – UGH!), I wanted to spend some time talking about fear, and how writers can use fear in their work. For writers of horror, suspense and thrillers, the use of fear is not only overt, it’s an essential part of the story. But what if you write contemporary romances, or satirical fantasy? Fear plays a minimal role, right?

I’d like to challenge you to re-think that perspective. Knowing what your characters (and readers) fear most is absolutely critical in writing good fiction of any sort. Fear is the shadow side of drive; you can’t have one without the other. Most of us could say what drives our main characters to do what they do – perhaps the pursuit of love, prestige, money, or power. But what keeps your characters awake at night? What are they desperately trying to avoid?

Maybe your fashion-focused heroine is afraid of becoming irrelevant; perhaps the brooding hero can’t stomach the idea of being vulnerable, or disappointing his father, or you know, spiders. While we may or may not share those fears explicitly with the reader, they guide our characters’ actions and thoughts just as strongly as their movement toward the goal of the story. Sometimes, more. Ignore fears and insecurities, and your characters can fall flat.

In my work as a therapist, I have often invited anxious clients to play out their worst fears by imagining the worst case scenario in vivid, horrifying detail. Too often, we are ruled by what we cannot see and dare not name, but when we cast our fears in concrete details, we begin to be able to evaluate them more rationally. This can be helpful as a writer, too, knowing what you’re afraid of and becoming the master over it. You can take your characters on that same journey as the story progresses — whether they succeed or fail in overcoming their fears is up to you!

Fiction Prompt: Pick a character you know and love (yours or someone else’s) and write their worst nightmare, in excruciating detail, right up until the point when he or she wakes up in a cold sweat. How does it impact the character’s behavior upon waking?

Non-fiction: What scares you the most as a writer? What is the most painful result you can imagine from your work? Describe it in detail. Then ask yourself how much that particular fear limits your writing or guides what you do. Is it worth it? How can you take ownership of that fear?


Writer’s Challenge #4 – Significance of October 12

Happy October 12th, and welcome to the weekly writer’s challenge! It’s like Flash Fiction, but broader and without those messy time constraints. Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. Happy writing!

Writing Prompt: This week I’m combining the prompts into one. Check out the wiki list of things that have happened on this day in history (love this, by the way – it’s a rich writing prompt you could use any time). Pick one of those events and write about it, fictionalizing or not.

My personal favorite is the second on the list. How the heck did King John lose the crown jewels? How did he explain this, or did he need to explain, to his subjects? What about the queen? The story almost writes itself. If you’re a fantasy-type writer, use something from this list to create a mirroring event in your world. Any of these events can be an allegory or starting point for non-fiction, too. If you do send me a link, be sure to put the event you chose at the top!

Not in the mood to write today? Take a moment to set out at least one goal to accomplish by October 12, 2013. Choose something not already on your to-do list. Maybe something on your bucket list you can prioritize for this year. Maybe something it’s hard to imagine accomplishing right this minute, but what a difference a year can make. So many of us make New Year’s resolutions only to abandon them by February… But today you have 80 days until the end of the year. Why not start on October 12 and get a head start on your own personal Around the World in 80 Days?

Writer’s Challenge #3

On Tuesday, I wrote with nostalgia about email forwards and National Friendship Week. This week’s challenges were all inspired by that post in one way or another. Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. And if you don’t, something horrible will happen…

Fiction Prompt: One glance at her inbox that morning showed that something was amiss. Forty messages, maybe more, at least half of them marked ‘urgent’ and all from friends. All with different but disturbing subject lines: ‘Trying to reach you,’ ‘Is your phone on?’ ‘Are you okay?’ She bit her bottom lip nervously and took a deep breath before opening the first one…

Non-fiction/essay: What are you most likely to share with others online? Do you ever forward emails to friends? When and why? What meets the threshold for sharing on Facebook, versus Twitter, or crafting a blog to pass on? How do you decide something is worth sharing — is it a level of personal experience or investment? Entertainment value? What would your friends say about you based on what you post/share online? Does it jive with who you are in ‘real’ life?

Writer’s Business Challenge: What is your online strategy for promoting your work? Find two or three authors whose approach/philosophy closely mirrors your own and study them. What do you notice about their online strategy – is it aggressive or gentle? Subtle or loud? Do you think it works? Does it make you want to read his/her work? How can this information help you focus your own promotional strategy?