How to Spark the Imagination

14 Jun
Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Once you’ve got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015.

Part of the terror and joy of writing anything creative, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or poetry, is that you often have no idea what will happen. You sit there, and maybe magic will happen—or maybe you’ll just sit there, at least that’s the fear, and being a writer probably means accepting that sometimes you’ll write uninspired dreck that you’ll toss out.

And, yet, I recently heard a writer say that when you look back on your drafts, it’s impossible to tell when the words were flowing and when they weren’t. I suspect that what many writers learn is how to create the opportunity for magic. If you create the conditions for a spark, sooner or later something will happen. A good example of creating the conditions for the imaginative spark can be found in Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015.” It was published in Conflict of Interest, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

At some point, every writer (and every kid in a writing camp or class) will play the game, “Exquisite Corpse.” It was invented by the Surrealists, who wanted to bypass the learned logic that their minds had picked up through living in the rules and strictures of civilization. They wanted to access the wild root of the imagination. To do this, (as you know if you’ve played the game) they’d write down random phrases and words, toss them in a hat and then pull them out. You couldn’t control what you’d pick, and so you might pull out two slips that add up to “Exquisite Corpse.” The logical brain might never invent that phrase, and yet there it is, meaningless and full of potential. As soon as you read it, you begin to make sense of it. Turns out, the phrase is beautiful and magical. You could, if you wanted, write an entire poem or passage based on it.

The trick, then, is to create the conditions for a kind of surrealist game on the page as you write. If you can somehow get a phrase like “exquisite corpse” on the page, your imagination will do the rest. But how? Collins’ story offers a guide if you pay attention to the imagery.

It begins with the phrase “we’ve lost all our bearings,” which is sort of the point: to get yourself lost and then reorient yourself within strange horizons. Collins immediately does this, giving us fishing—but inside a building. Then she pairs boys and caterpillars. In the next paragraph, she adds gar—and, as with the fishing at the story’s beginning, the usual setting has been scrambled, a fence instead of the water. These are unexpected images, and yet you can see Collins’ brain beginning to make (to invent) sense out of them. The character imagines the fish saying “Here we are…where are you?” which echoes the line from the beginning: “we’ve lost all our bearings.” In the last paragraph, we’re suddenly in a bar, next to a woman practicing vowel sounds—and, again, there’s that sense-making happening. Her mouth resembles a fish’s: O, O, O.

In literature classes, the focus is on reading and interpreting such connections as these. But, for writers, the emphasis is on making those connections in the first place. Collins creates those opportunities—the conditions for the imaginative spark—by pairing unlike images and throwing familiar images into unfamiliar terrain. Her creative juices may not have been flowing when she first sat down, but when you’ve got gar in fences next to caterpillars and women practicing English in bars, an imagination can’t help but get intrigued.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create the conditions for an imaginative spark, using “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” by Callie Collins as a model:

  1. Start with an image. Just pick one out of your head, something you’ve been thinking about, that you keep returning to. It doesn’t need to be “beautiful,” whatever that means. Collins starts with kids practicing casting. It’s simple and straightforward.
  2. Put it in unfamiliar territory. This is like the improv game where actors play out a scene in front of a green screen. They’re having tea or celebrating a birthday while dinosaurs or whatever rampage behind them. Again, don’t think too hard. Take your image and place it somewhere unexpected—but somewhere that your character would go. It doesn’t need to be the Jurassic period. Think about the usual places: work, school, kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, street, church, post office, store, bar, restaurant. You probably have a natural inclination about where to place your image. Don’t follow it. Instead, try a place that seems not to fit.
  3. Create a scene or passage around it. You’ve got the image and place; now write. What gets said, thought, felt? Again, be practical. Collins puts casting in a building and then sticks to the logistics: how to cast, a manager on an intercom.
  4. Jump to another, different image. Collins jumps to the caterpillar—and then to the gar, and then to the bar. Each one is unexpected, but each also fits within the frame of the story. There’s been a flood, and so gar could get washed out of their natural habitat. A cocoon is a great image for transformation. Try this: Use Collins phrase “we’ve lost all our bearings.” Figure out why that’s the case for this character in this moment. While disoriented, what does the character notice? Run with that image.
  5. Continue the scene or passage. Keep the scene going. The character sees the gar after work and walks over to look at them. The narrator sees the woman practicing her vowel sounds and watches. Again, what gets said, thought, felt?
  6. Make sense. You’ve juxtaposed two or more images. Rather than trying to make sense of them as the writer, let your characters make the sense, as Collins does. Uncle Billy sees the gar and imagines what they’re saying. The narrator sees the woman practicing her vowels and connects woman’s mouth to the fish mouths. Letting the characters do the work takes the pressure off of you. You can always say, “I didn’t come up with that stupid idea; it was my character.” Of course, what you come up with could very well be the key to the entire piece of writing.

The goal is to create the conditions for your imagination to fire up by juxtaposing compelling images.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Spark the Imagination”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Callie Collins | Read to Write Stories - June 16, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on sparking the imagination based on Collins’ story “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015,” click here. […]

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