And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around

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Float On: 5 Exercises to Get Your Imagination in Gear

Fall is my creative season. The back-to-school mentality is so deeply ingrained that even now, after I’ve been out of school for years, I still get revved up for new projects and creative endeavors. Even so, I often lament how hard it is to do what came so easily when I was a kid, or even a teenager – let my imagination loose and just go with it. I am so distracted with my newsfeeds and emails and texts that I hardly get an uninterrupted moment to just…float.

They say boredom is good for creativity, so I’ve been trying to work on carving out a little time each day to drift off and see what my mind comes up with. Here are some things that I’ve done that have helped me feel like a kid again, bringing back that enthusiasm that reminds me why I want to write, why I want to draw, why I want to make stories. I’m curious about what else helps people “untether” their brain for a bit and float into a narrative or a character or a mood…

  1. Walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood nearby – and leave your phone at home. What catches your eye? What odd thing do you notice? What kind of people live in that little house that you’ve never noticed before? What about in that house with the crazy cow skull hanging on the front porch, surrounded by neon lights? (True story. Love you, Davenport Street. ❤ )
  2. Listen to music without lyrics. I’ve long been a film soundtrack junkie, and sometimes it’s even better if I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t associate the music with any existing narrative or moment. I’m so used to multitasking that it’s refreshing to drop everything (and yes, shoving my phone in a drawer), busting out my old school iPod, and listening to music with no distractions. Ideas may float in or out, or maybe it just sets me into a mood. I’ve noticed that the desire to be creative and make stuff seems to naturally return to me when I play more music and watch less tv. Maybe that’ll be my mantra. More music, less TV.
  3. Rewrite a fairy tale. If you thumb through a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a lot of the stories are pretty sparse, or have weird moments of dark humor (or just darkness in general) that you might have missed as a kid. Take one that intrigues you and run with it. Change the setting, tell it from a new point of view, or fix that ending you hate. It can be a short exercise, or who knows, maybe you can spin it into a novel. Those fairy tale rewrites are all the rage these days.
  4. Open a dictionary. Get a dictionary, open it to a random page, and then try to write a story with as many words from that page as possible. You might set a timer for 15-30 minutes, or you might just go as long as you can.
  5. Study some art. Go to a bookshop or library and dig into some art that intrigues you. A nearby art museum can also be great for a morning or afternoon of inspiration- just make sure to bring your notebook! You can even make a challenge for yourself and do some timed free writing about a specific piece.

I know these are sort of generic- I keep being reminded that I am the most creative when I:

  • Free myself from distraction. (For me, that’s turning off my phone and my internet. Arg, so hard!)
  • Make the time to write down ideas when they come to me. Ideas will always come at the most inconvenient time possible. It’s Creative Law. So, barring any safety concerns, I am trying to get better at taking the five minutes and jotting it down, then sitting down later and sifting through my notes so I can expand the ones with potential.
  • Stop making excuses and put pen to paper. When I was younger and in school, I had so much structure to be creative in. There was always work to put off- characters to draw in the margins of my notes, stories to dream up as I avoided homework. Now that I’m adulting, I come home from work and have the afternoon in front of me to do whatever I please. It takes a lot of discipline to park my butt in the chair and write. I wish I could say I did it habitually every day, but…I’m still working on it.

Good luck on your writing and other creative endeavors. This is the season for dreaming…so float on, friends.

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It Has a Vibe to It

This past weekend, I was in California visiting my brother. He waxed nostalgic about my current home, Iowa City, where he spent a chunk of his twenties. It was a different world a decade ago, when bars and bowling alleys were full of cigarette (and pot) smoke, and the now-upscale, Prohibition style whiskey bar was a seedy dive called One Eyed Jake’s.

“I love Iowa City,” my brother said. “That place has a vibe to it. You really only appreciate that when you move to other places and realize that not everywhere has a vibe.”

He’s right. So many places fall prey to sameness, not only from the prefab houses neatly spiraling into cul-de-sacs or the rows of chain stores, but because the people seem to settle into homogeneous pockets of predictable culture.

At work this week, I griped about the commute to Cedar Rapids, a short but congested drive that adds a stressful hour to my day. “I should just move to Cedar Rapids,” I grumbled. It’s an attractive notion, especially when stuck in bumper to bumper traffic because of a fender bender eight miles ahead. My drive would be shorter, I could actually afford a place of my own (unheard-of in Iowa City, where rent prices have hiked up thanks to corrupt housing companies and wealthy university students), and I would be more keyed in with the community, instead of straddling the line between two different towns.

But this evening, on such a cool, perfect fall night, all dimming blue skies and a nearly full moon and illuminated porches, moving is unthinkable. I walk down my street, past a large brown dog and its owner, who greets me with, “We never get anywhere quickly.”

“So many smells!” I say, more to the dog than to her.

I walk down the brick-paved Linn Street and bump into a friend outside of High Ground. She pulls me in to meet her friend, who read my cartoon in Little Village Mag, the local free alternative publication in town. I say a quick hello, but then I am dashing off to meet my date at Bread Garden, past a man playing on the public piano, who is singing something about how “two pretty girls walked by and didn’t even notice.” If I am one of the pretty girls he is singing about (It sounds like an impromptu lyric), I am too quickly walking to acknowledge that I noticed, already running late. I wish I could stop and smell all the smells, like that brown dog with nowhere to go.

My date and I have dessert and wine on the patio that is somewhere between inside and outside, children shrieking on the playground past us. We look at strange CD cover art in the library. We plan to meet at the farmer’s market next – my favorite way to spend a free Saturday morning in Iowa City.

I walk home in the cool dark. The buildings are taller and cleaner than when my brother walked these streets, but the porches still have worn-out couches and tables littered with cigarette butts and beer cans. I watch employees close shop in Bluebird Cafe, I walk past the bandanna-wearing chef having a cigarette on the bench by Riverside Theatre, I pass porches illuminated in twinkly lights. It is sometimes inconvenient to live somewhere with character, just like my drafty old house, but I need to remember that living in a place with a “vibe” is nothing to take for granted.