By Kea Wilson
When I’m struggling to write, the number one thing that helps me to get started again is to do an exercise that reminds me that writing is an act of synthesis, not genesis. We actually “make up” very, very little when we write; more often, we receive the gifts the world has given us — sensations, scraps of overheard dialogue, unanswerable questions, the way a stranger at a bus stop touches her nose to concentrate when she’s reading a particularly difficult passage in her book— and we put them into a new arrangement on the page, creating little at all besides that arrangement. If we’re lucky, that new arrangement starts to remind us of other gifts we’ve received in our lives, ones that aren’t so close at hand. That’s when things really start happening.
For example: Say we’ve put a character who touches her nose when she’s reading into a particular red armchair with a rip in the fabric. Suddenly, that detail — the armchair with the rip — evokes the time you ripped the fabric on your father’s favorite armchair when you were six years old and couldn’t resist pulling a stray thread, and his immediate and total forgiveness when he found out fell over you like a waterfall: this is a memory, a gift.
And then, out of nowhere, you have the urge to place a character who’s six years old in your character’s living room. And then, suddenly, it’s clear to you that this fictional six-year-old has done something that needs forgiveness — say, he broke the spine on a very old and valuable book. His mother — the reader in the chair – needs to read for hours each day to stay on track for her PhD, and the boy knows this. It was her favorite book, the one he ruined. Suddenly, possibilities for where the story could go emerge like paths in the forest, and it is your job, as a writer, to recognize the infinite gifts of the universe scattered along the ground, memories and details and questions that you can recognize so easily, if you just give yourself permission to stop questioning whether those gifts are worth picking up and studying, much less allowing to suggest a path. Of course they are. They are gifts. They are yours.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been experimenting with literalizing this process even more. Because suddenly, my friends in the neighborhood and I have been giving one another a whole lot of gifts: individual tinfoil wrapped cookies dropped on porches, cloth masks we’ve sewn for one another and hung over doorknobs, loaned garden tools, even occasionally art. A friend of mine painted this very odd and beautiful painting (pictured above) for my husband and I the other day, the most recent of a litany of gifts that have included a personalized Spotify playlist engineered to my mood, a bucket of leftover carnitas they couldn’t finish at dinner, many cookies and cupcakes, and a lot of good socially-distanced companionship between our front porch and the sidewalk:
I decided to give myself a gift-specific variant on a very common word-incorporation writing exercise, so I could make something new to thank him. (I baked cookies too.)
Let's Get Started
1. Study the gift.
If the gift can be held, hold it in your hands (ideally) or put it in your line of sight or somewhere else in your sensory sphere where you can study it for a moment. Be quiet with the gift for at least one full minute — really, trust me, set a timer, even if it feels weird and you’re not much for meditation. You may think of the person who gave it to you as you do this, the relationship that lead to them giving you this beautiful gift, even simply the physical object itself; wherever your mind goes, don’t filter it and don’t judge it, and let the object emanate whatever it might.
2. Choose five words.
Then set the gift down and write down five words — these are gifts, too — that the object evokes for you. If your gifter is available and generous, you can even ask them for a handful of additional words as well.
3. Write a piece that incorporates those words and your gift somehow. Your task, now, is to write a piece that incorporates those words (within the text), and allow the text to suggest its own path forward as memories (also gifts) surface in response to this process. I find it helpful, if possible, to keep the gift near me when I work, and to use the words in the order they came to me.
Note: When you are done with the piece, you may gift it back to the person who gave you the initial gift, or not; it may not be for them anymore, and that’s okay.
Kea Wilson is a novelist, writer and teaching artist. A graduate of the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, her first novel, We Eat Our Own, was published by Scribner in 2016. She also writes nonfiction, reviews, and interviews, mostly about urbanism, arts and culture in the midwest. She currently serves as a senior editor and advocacy journalist for Streetsblog. She lives in St. Louis.