Lisa Rowe Fraustino

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Getting Started: A Creativity Workshop

Mining the Mother Lode of Story

Lesson 1: Childhood as Training Ground

A few years ago when my parents were cleaning out their attic, my father brought over a forgotten box of my old things. In it was my “Journal to My Future Daughter” begun when I was twelve and kept sporadically through graduation from high school. He also had found my old blue writing binder, in which I had kept vocabulary homework, rules of grammar, and—most importantly—stories and poems by myself and others, meticulously copied in my best handwriting.

Reading those forgotten pages, I was amazed at my former self. Quite the little budding scholar! The roots of the writer I am now were forming early on. In fact, I had already been tapping them in my most successful writing efforts. When I saw my old writings, I realized why I’d been “in flow” while writing my young adult novel Ash in the form of a secret journal written to his brother. I was using a form I had mastered, unconsciously, at a very early age.

Exercise 1:

Free write for ten minutes—that is, write freely, quickly, whatever pops into your head, just letting your thoughts flow willy-nilly straight out your pencil—on the topic of your childhood encounters with words and pictures. When did you fall in love with story? In what manner? Why? Include any obsessions or habits you had. Recall the forms your most intense experiences took, such as listening to family stories; writing stories, letters, diaries; drawing from life or copying the art of others; reading poems, biographies, romances.

Lesson 2: The Edge of Memory

Often our best stories are the ones that come the hardest because they draw from the conflicts in our lives that we’d rather forget. At best, avoidance of conflict leads us to write “nice,” formulaic stories. We feel in control; we don’t need to risk bumping old emotional bruises, revealing ourselves on the page, possibly being rejected for it. We even get to feel good about ourselves if we get those nice stories published. Many of us who write for children have difficulty handling fictional conflict in a meaty way because we can’t or won’t or just haven’t thought to let down our defenses and look back honestly at our own childhood fears. The hard things.

Exercise 2:

This is a webbing activity. In the center of a blank sheet of paper, draw a circle the size of an egg. Draw several lines outward from the circle, like spokes on a wheel. Inside the circle, write the word FEAR. Then, writing on the web lines, very quickly scribble things you were afraid of, uncertain about, couldn’t face as a child. From each idea you may free associate other ideas, webbing outward. Begin with real fears, but after that don’t feel bound by “the way it really happened.” Let your mind play with the words and the ideas to make figurative connections until your web fills the page and spills off the edges.

Lesson 3: Let It FloW

The last part is very simple, but it involves some math:

The forms that made us want to be writers + The childhood fears we bury most deeply = The mother lode of story

Exercise 3:

Analyze the freewriting you did in Exercise 1. Select the form you began doing/reading most obsessively as a child. From Exercise 2, select a strand of the web that lends itself to beginning a story. Look for an intriguing or inciting incident that could make this day different from all the rest for your character. Using the form from Exercise 1, write a scene enacting in particular detail that incident from Exercise 2. The writing does not have to be autobiographical. The idea is to draw on the fear you felt as a child, and transpose that gripping emotion into a story situation sprung open by a form where you feel secure.

When you finish this story, go back and repeat Exercise 3 using a different strand of your FEAR web. That should keep you busy for the next ten years or so.

Author’s Note

Over the years, this workshop has helped many writers generate ideas. I first taught it at a conference of the SCBWI in Philadelphia in the early to mid 1990s. This version is condensed from my Spring 1999 column for Once Upon a Time.

©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1999, 2010

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