Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

The Power of Juxtaposition & Creative Alchemy: A Microfiction Prompt

Choreographer Twyla Tharp in her book, The Creative Habit, encourages creatives to keep a journal of the things we see (hear, taste, smell, etc.), especially when they are juxtaposed in interesting ways that draw our attention, be they intentional or accidental. 

It’s tremendously useful to keep a journal of the things that particularly draw your attention in your daily life. Maybe the idea of writing lots and lots of pages of your inner workings every day doesn’t appeal. But you can jot things down. And when you’re stuck, go back and look at them again. I have these odd notes on my phone: snippets of overheard conversation, a phrase from a song, peculiarities of the natural world (or of my neighbors down the street). Lots and lots of photos. Collect images and ideas you’re attracted to. Put them in your phone or folder or spiral notebook, whatever. Just don’t rely on memory!

Doing this, coupled with some daily “down time” (even if only for 15 minutes) will work magic on your creativity. 

It’s about openness and receptivity to, well, a sort of creative alchemy. 

Via: Giphy Flying Rene Magritte GIF by Feliks Tomasz Konczakowski

Juxtaposition is defined as: “the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side often to compare or contrast or to create an interesting effect.” (Merriam-Webster)

Poets are great at juxtaposition. Haiku writers and mosaicists specialize in it. They jam two or more very different ideas or images together to create new meaning and associations. It’s why we so often get an “ah ha!” experience from reading poetry. Filmmakers and photographers and visual artists of all stripes also make powerful use of juxtaposition.

But flash writers can (and should) make this a part of their toolbox as well. 

In Joy Williams’ collection Ninety-Nine Stories of God, (a book I highly recommend), there’s a flash called “Veracity” that manages, in a scant couple of hundred words, a brilliant juxtaposition of church pews, a birthday bounce house, a dog, and a ’64 Airstream Globetrotter. And every single one of these elements feels necessary and significant. 

My flash, “Foundling” (below) uses a similar jamming together of elements in a very short space:

Foundling

They discovered the baby in the grass, under the snapping cotton sheets. The clothesline spun and creaked, throwing light, then shadow, on his face, his wee head smooth and curved as a doorknob. The woman didn’t bend, only drew her hair from her eyes. He smells like Malt-o-Meal, the little girl said, hoisting him. Support his neck, the woman told her. It’ll snap like a pencil. Christmas Eve, her husband had packed and left for Cincinnati. Now, as raindrops dotted their arms, and the woman’s skirt flicked her calves, he came rushing through the gate, holding a newspaper over his head, calling Margaret! Margaret!

 

The exercise below will have you bumping together disparate objects / images / ideas in micro form to see where it takes you, what surprises you, what you unearth. You may discover new meaning is created when juxtaposing two disparate objects, ideas, or images. Forcing yourself to do this in a very small space actually serves to ramp up the power of juxtaposition. Very little room is left to “explain” yourself. You must allow what your unconscious delivers to you. The results are often delightful or disturbing, but always surprising.

Microfiction is variously defined by different word limits. For our purposes, let’s say 150 words or fewer. Microfiction often resembles prose poetry. The line between flash and prose poetry is wafer thin at times. But please set aside any need to categorize your work at this juncture. Allow whatever emerges. 

So! Your prompt:

  • I want you to combine two or more disparate elements as compactly as you can, bump them up against each other, in as tiny a story as possible. 
  • Don’t worry in this first draft about “making sense”…your unconscious has a tendency to make its own kind of beauty and sense. It’s what we are wired to do, after all. Find the patterns. And if we can’t find them, we create them.
  • Choose ONE from List A and ONE from List B and get to work!
  • Try to keep to just 150 words or fewer if you can.

List A

tangerine 

ghost

disco ball

Isaac Newton

surgeon

List B

Saturn

Marilyn Monroe

fortune teller

continental drift

funnel cloud

This prompt will be easier if you allow whatever delightful or disturbing weirdness ensues and resist the urge to explain it. Enjoy!

Uncategorized

On Happiness & Choosing the Creative Path by Chris Bowen

Writer/chef Chris Bowen joined Nancy and me for our first ever flash fiction retreat last summer in Breckenridge. (Read Nancy’s interview with him here.) We’re thrilled he’ll be joining us again in Grand Lake this August. We thank him for sharing his reflections and insights on his creative path since Breckenridge.

 

It was nearly a year ago I took part in Nancy and Kathy’s inaugural Breckenridge, Colorado writing retreat. It’s been three or more years since Nancy invited me to Denver for the first time, reading for the FBomb reading series then and even further back, it’s likely been ten years or more since I first met her at a reading in NYC.

But life wasn’t always this much fun. Just recently last year, I lost faith. I lost faith in my career as a chef, living and working in an isolated part of Pennsylvania at a college for almost three years, having left my family and anyone I knew two hours away in Cleveland for corporate salary.

Life isn’t always fun, but it damn well better be meaningful.

Moving home to Cleveland then and taking less responsibility with my employer last fall, I was determined to ‘take a step back.’ I had turned to Nancy in Breckenridge even that summer on where my life was going, the fact that I was so unhappy and had been for awhile. I still remember the gray, weather-worn wooden picnic table we sat at in the mountain backyard when I told her that, the kind you look for rusty nails sticking out of before you sit. The heat of the afternoon sun. I had joined the retreat to cook for authors and attendees and aside from sitting in on a couple craft talks between prepping meals, this conversation was the only thing I ever needed.

We talked about happiness, France, doing things by and for yourself. Because anyone only has so little time. Between the talk, it was clear I needed to re-evaluate my life somehow. So, I ended up moving home to find retreat in the only thing strong I really knew I could: my family.

Six months in, I’m a part-time student finishing my bachelor’s degree, but more importantly,  have settled in Denver near those mountain. And writing.

There’s something intimidating about these vistas, how they were formed, how strong they are, how difficult it is to reach them as if ghosts just out of reach.

‘If you can’t inspire yourself, how can you ever expect to inspire others?’ they whisper to me.

I think of the ending to Robert Redford’s movie, ‘A River Runs Through It,’ his voiceover at the end:

“Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I see mountains every day. They remind me of how little I am, how short of time we all are. I don’t know if I’ll live here forever or climb a mountain, but I do know whatever I choose, it will be because I wanted to and because it made me happy.

Christopher Bowen is the author of the chapbook We Were Giants, the novella When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, and the non-fiction, Debt. He blogs from Burning River and has traveled throughout the U.S.  

Note: A few spots remain in our August High Altitude Inspiration Retreat in Grand Lake. Consider joining us! We’d love to have you. 

Nancy Stohlman

Spring is Coming: Planting Seeds for The Rupture of Your Creativity

Here in Colorado, the Rocky Mountains are still covered in what feels like endless snow, but underneath all that snow the spring flowers are actually stirring…we just can’t see them yet.

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Grand Lake, Colorado, in winter

This “stirring” is a potent metaphor for our own creativity: Sometimes we cannot see the fruits of our labor yet, but underneath the surface new life is growing still. And just like spring, one day we will look around and ask: Where did all these flowers come from all of a sudden?

But the artist knows that it never happens all of a sudden.

I love this quote by Cynthia Occelli:  “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

frc3bchlingsblumen_im_schnee

So hang on! The rupture of your best work may be working its way to the surface right now!

That also means that now is the perfect time to start planting your creative seeds for the spring/summer: What creative flowers do you want to bloom this year? Do you want to send out more submissions? Enter a contest? Finish a manuscript? Maybe you want to get into a daily writing routine? Try a new form (like flash fiction!)? Get your website going? Network with other writers or go on a writing retreat with us?

Whatever your goals are, now is the time to put those seeds in the ground and let them stir–invisible but moving–towards fruition.

Happy planting!

Love, Nancy

Find out more about Flash Fiction Summer Camp in Grand Lake August 2019

Find out more about Writing Wild in Costa Rica March 2020

 

 

Interviews

Writing Wild in Costa Rica: An Interview with Participant Corey Miller

Writer and brewer Corey Miller is joining us for Write Wild in Costa Rica in a few short weeks! Here, Corey shares a little bit about himself and what he’s looking forward to on our retreat.
KF: Hi Corey! Can you share with us a little bit about your writing life?

CM: I began writing during college in my free time. I enjoy writing short stories that can quickly envelope the reader but still leave much to the imagination.

KF: What are you most looking forward to in Costa Rica?

CM: I can’t wait to explore the area and get out of my comfort zone. I think a change of pace will spark some new creativeness.
KF: Sparking creativity is certainly one of our goals for this retreat! Now: One book, one meal, one song…go! 
 

CM: The Giver by Lois Lowry, grilled cheese and tomato soup, PYT by Michael Jackson

KF: Ah, great answers. Would you like to share with us something unusual or interesting or weird or wonderful about yourself?
CM: I went to college for music but brew beer as a job. Oh, and I live in a tiny house I built.
KF: Oh that’s so cool! I love the “jungle cabinas” at our venue in Peace Retreat. Like tiny houses! Thanks so much, Corey. Really looking forward to meeting you and working (and retreating) with you in Costa Rica next month! 
Note: Our Costa Rica Retreat is filled, but openings remain for our upcoming retreats in Italy and Grand Lake. Check them out!

Bio: Corey Miller works and writes in Cleveland, OH. When not writing, Corey takes the dogs for a hike and enjoys cooking for the family. 

 

Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized

Why You Need a Writers Retreat: The Dopamine of Anticipation

Recently I was gifted the use of an empty condo in the Colorado mountains for the weekend, a glorious three days with just myself and my writing. I’d been looking forward to my own mini writers retreat for weeks!

I bet everyone here can relate: Having a retreat or vacation (of any length!) to look forward to gives you an instant dopamine hit–the body knows something is coming and it’s already happy, already excited.

Ah dopamine. It’s that chemical that makes us feel good. It’s released when we fall in love, ride a roller coaster, win a prize for that story we wrote, and it’s also the culprit in all sorts of addictions, from chocolate to sex to the constant “ping” of our text messages. When dopamine is released we get the message that “this feels good” and we keep coming back for more.

But here’s something interesting: Researchers have found that it’s the anticipation of pleasure, rather than the pleasure itself, that gets those feel-good chemicals in our brains going. Meaning we are already feeling good BEFORE we even get the reward.

According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, vacationers already “started experiencing a significant boost in happiness during the planning stages of the trip because they were looking forward to the good times ahead.”

Which means looking forward to pleasurable things is as good for your overall happiness and well-being as the actual experience of them. You are already getting that “hit” of pleasure every time you think about the exciting thing that’s coming.

Stanford biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky says from his studies with monkeys that “dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than the happiness itself.”

Want to geek out on the science a bit? Check out the 5-min clip fromRobert Sapolsky’s lecture on the Science of Pleasure below:

So what’s the takeaway here? The bottom line is that the anticipation of an upcoming vacation or artistic retreat is already releasing sweet, sweet dopamine into your system. Every time we think about it, talk about it, every time we look at pictures, every time we do research and tell others about it.

So…are you excited yet?
~Nancy

P.S. Join us on an upcoming retreat!