Your Imagination Needs Regular Play Time

by James Scott Bell

Children are not meant to be cooped up. They need sunlight and play and jungle gyms and interaction with other kids. They need dirt and sticks (that are really swords, you see), so their bodies can begin to develop the immunities they need for a healthy life.

In the same way, a writer’s imagination needs to get out and play and mess around. It needs to occasionally skin a knee or fall out of a tree. Risk is part of life. It’s also integral to growing as a writer.

I was thinking about this the other day in yet another lockdown moment that usually begins with the thought When in the Sam Hill is this going to end? I pondered the many writers who have expressed, via blog or social media, that they are struggling with their WIPs, or with getting started on a new project, or even with the desire to type another sentence.

This creative ennui, if it goes on too long, can atrophy the imagination. Your imagination will, if allowed, kick back on an old sofa in your brain, eating Funyuns and watching episodes of Gilligan’s Island on an endless loop.

Then, when you finally do call on it to get to work, it may belch and tell you just what you can do with your WIP.

Don’t let that happen.

Especially when, due to circumstances beyond your control, you’ve lost the cheer and the joy of writing. You can overcome this by giving your imagination some daily play time. Just ten minutes a day will make all the difference.

So let me give you three exercises for your creativity muscles. In the comments, feel free to add suggestions of your own.

  1. Morning Bites

In the introduction to his collection of short stories, Ray Bradbury writes, “But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg — I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”

In the first groggy moments of wakefulness, pay attention to what’s going on in your mind. It will most likely have no discernable pattern. That’s okay. Get your first cup of coffee and before you do anything else (e.g., email, Facebook) take a couple of minutes to write down whatever it is you see happening in your mind. Just the act of writing and following those bites gets the imagination chugging away.

It’s very close to what Julia Cameron describes as “morning pages” in her book, The Artist’s Way.

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages–they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.

As a fiction writer, keep watching your morning words for story ideas or suggestions for your WIP. Ask your imagination to be intentional about it.

  1. Flash Fiction

One step up from Morning Bites is Flash Fiction. That’s a story under 1,000 words. It is the ultimate pantser’s paradise, for you get an idea and start writing and go wherever you please. Will you end up with a story that works? Probably not. You’ll most likely be painted into a corner or lost in a dark forest.

But that’s okay! The benefit of flash fiction is that it’s a workout for your story muscles, and they’ll grow stronger even if the story itself doesn’t pan out.

Every now and then, of course, you will come up with something solid, and that will bring you tremendous joy.

Heck, there are even places you can submit your flash fiction. You could publish it yourself on your blog. Or you could make it part of an alternative market for your work, as I’ve done with my Patreon page.

Where do you get flash fiction ideas? If your sodden imagination doesn’t have one (it’s been on the sofa, remember?) hop over to the Writer Igniter and get one.

  1. Creative Lifting

You lift weights to strengthen your body. To do it right, you alternate the exercises—curls for the biceps, bench press for the chest and shoulders, squats for the glutes and hamstrings, and so on.

So how about strengthening your style by lifting fiction from great writers? And by lifting I mean copying. The idea is not to try to imitate these masters, but to “feel” what they do, ingest their palette of literary colors so you can expand your own.

One of the great stylists of all time was Ray Bradbury. You simply can’t go wrong copying a page from his work. Here’s a clip from Dandelion Wine that I typed out:

Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .

“Boy,” whispered Douglas.

A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.

Love it.

Don’t limit yourself to one author or genre, or even to fiction. Indeed, the finest opening of any book I’ve ever read is in William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Here it is as I copied it:

The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a little fishing village whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

Behind them lay the sea.

It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis the XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern region is indefensible against disciplined troops. . . .

Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around like souls in purgatory, awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.”

Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters, the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s cup challenger Endeavor; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw–all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted and bleeding sons.

Even today what followed seems miraculous. Not only were Britain’s soldiers delivered; so were French support troops: a total of 338,000 men.

But wars are not won by fleeing from the enemy. And British morale was still unequal to the imminent challenge. These were the same people who, less than a year earlier, had rejoiced in the fake peace brought by the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Most of their leaders and most of the press remained afraid. It had been over a thousand years since Alfred the Great had made himself and his countrymen one and sent them into battle transformed. Now in this new crisis, confronted by the mightiest conqueror Europe had ever known, England looked for another Alfred, a figure cast in a mold which, by the time of the Dunkirk deliverance, seemed to have been forever lost.

England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s civilized Establishment had rejected. They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and political forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was, therefore, wicked.

An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty and the supreme virtue of action. One who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and what they might become….He would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a believer in the supremacy of his people and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and refract it to his ends, a man of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people—a believer in military glory was required, one who could rally a nation to brave the coming German fury.

Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.

Now…go play.

39 thoughts on “Your Imagination Needs Regular Play Time

  1. Wow. I’ve known about Dunkirk for 65 years and about the speeches Manchester is leading up to for nearly as long. But reading Manchester’s presentation…wow.

    There’s all kinds of art in the passage, but what strikes me, looking at it, is the paragraph pattern, the different lengths of paragraphs, the way Manchester punctuates with short paragraphs, especially the pivotal two-line paragraph ending with “338,000 men” and the last two, one-sentence paragraphs.

    I always knew “a lot of soldiers” were rescued at Dunkirk. Now I doubt that I’ll forget it was 338,000.

    • Right, Eric. His vocabulary is awesome without being pretentious. There’s a magnificent music in it that is in keeping with the subject. And just the research he had to do to get little details, like the names of the boats…and all to set up the line, English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted and bleeding sons.. I’ve read this page dozens of times, and still the tears come at this point. And at the very end.

      • I wonder how often, during those days, Churchill told people what a great job he was doing and that the German threat was “just going to disappear.”

        • Tread carefully, sir! Let’s keep this comment section on subject. Let’s just say that Manchester capture’s Churchill’s manifold qualities, so rare in any era.

  2. Inspirational. And interesting that writers share this collective consciousness. Ennui, for now.

    I have been looking for a pathway out of lethargy. The trailhead could be morning pages. I’ll give it a try.

  3. I love morning pages. During stressful times I did them by lantern light on our 2nd floor balcony with a perfect view of the moon (I’m up well before day break). These days it’s mostly on my days off. They’re very helpful.

    Thank you for reminding me of flash fiction. I’ve won a few flash fiction contests and it occurs to me I could do something with those.

    I feel as though I’m living in a parallel universe since I’m still working and life hasn’t changed (other than working reduced hours as our hospital, as many others, haa a perilously low census).

    Wishing everyone good health and happy writing.

  4. As I read the Manchester excerpt, I was reminded of Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour”. One of the best stories ever told on the screen, IMHO, with one of the best actors. But I’d sure like to, someday, just breathe the same air as Churchill, and possibly one of those boat captains. What a glorious sight that must have been.

    I think I’ll give Morning Pages a poke. Most of the time, I get my coffee and dive right in. Maybe I should kick back and have a play date with my right side. Or is it my left…?

    I’m a musician, and one thing I’ve tried is to take song titles in my playlists and dream up a story, or at least the idea for a story. Like, “Now That You’re Gone” by Fernando Ortega; or “Death Was Arrested”, performed by InsideOut. Just a different way of stating the “what if?” thingamajig. 🙂

    • Deb, that’s a great exercise. Glad you mentioned it. I also have playlists for several moods, and I know at least a couple of my books were generated by what I was feeling listening to a piece of music. I especially love movie soundtracks.

  5. Great post, Jim. Great exercises for our creative muscles.

    You mentioned adding some suggestions of our own.
    “You can overcome this by giving your imagination some daily play time.”

    I find that adding a little “work” time helps me. After lunch I tend to get sleepy and my productivity crashes. I now try to use that time to get up out of the writing chair and do something physical, something to wake me up, get my pulse pounding, and increase the blood flow to the brain. Especially if the work is mundane (a no-brainer), it turns my mind free to roam and explore. And it certainly is easier to remember all the ideas from the “work” time than to remember the fleeting instructions from the boys in the basement.

    Thanks for the post. I’m enjoying LAST CALL. Almost finished.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Steve. I have found that for afternoon sluggishness, lying on my back on the floor with my feet up on the bed, relaxing for 10 minutes or so, is refreshing. Something about the blood going to the brain, I suppose. Obviously my brain can use all the help it can get.

  6. I am an American, not British. Yet I read the words “ trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters…” tears formed in my eyes and I blinked hard to keep them there.

  7. Hi, Jim
    Thank you for today’s very timely post, it’s just what the doctor ordered! It’s so easy to be caught up in the process of writing a series, in a particular genre, etc, and loose hold on keeping your creativity invigorated.

    Morning pages are something I haven’t done in a while. They were replaced by more “mission-directed” journaling ala Morrell about the novel in progress.

    I’m a big fan of writing flash fiction. The first stories I sold were flash. Prompts are perfect for flash. “An encounter at a lonely crossroads at dusk,” became my first published story, “Dead Wife Waiting.” Flash is fun, and a great challenge to tell a story in under a thousand words.

    Retyping great writing you admire is another favorite of mine, and one that I need to return to. I used to do it, years ago. And Dandelion Wine! I read that novel when I was twelve or thirteen, and it had a huge impact me.

    • Thanks, Dale. I truly believe one of the reasons I’m a writer is that I read The Illustrated Man in junior high school. Talk about a memorable reading experience!

  8. I neglected to share one of my own exercises: the writing prompt.

    Take a book, and open it randomly to a page, pointing to a word there. That’s the object. Do it a second time, to a different page (or a different book), and the found word is your verb. The third time is the subject. Voila! You have a sentence prompt to write a flash fiction, scene or story seed to. Write for fifteen minutes, as fast as you can, no correcting what you’ve wrote.

    There are also wonderful books like Pocket Muse by Monica Wood and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnson.

  9. I have a question for you, JSB. If you choose to write someone else’s prose to get started, are there ways one should choose the work to type (I hesitate to say ‘copy’ with all it’s implications.)
    For example, although I can appreciate the beauty of the prose in your examples, they are both so far removed from my voice, that I wonder how much might bleed through once I get back to my own work.
    That being said, very little in my life has changed given where I live and my love of isolation. I fear anything ‘stream of consciousness’ would be like, “She noticed he hadn’t opened the back gate after letting the dog out, so that was her first task before putting out the bird feeders, remembering it was Sunday, which meant moving the seed feeder to the next bracket. Feebie trotted up the stairs, oblivious to the fact she might have been locked out, and came inside eager for her morning three-trick-biscuit.”
    What I do to get the writing going is re-read what I wrote yesterday and try to move forward. Been doing that for years, and it ain’t broke so I see no need to fix it. Deep down, doing “morning exercises” or other writing prompts seems to keep nagging at me with “You could be working on your book.”

    • Terry, I’m not worried about bleed-through. I welcome the infusion. When I write, I trust myself enough to know how I want to do it. I think more worrisome would be writing only one writer’s style over and over. That gets you too close to the danger zone of trying to sound like someone else.

    • “She noticed he hadn’t opened the back gate after letting the dog out, so that was her first task before putting out the bird feeders, remembering it was Sunday, which meant moving the seed feeder to the next bracket. Feebie trotted up the stairs, oblivious to the fact she might have been locked out, and came inside eager for her morning three-trick-biscuit.”

      I’m right there with you. I’m sure Jim would agree that sometimes the best writing happens when you’re not trying to do good writing.

      • When I come to a big “moment” in a scene, I’ll often freewrite for five or ten minutes, stream of consciousness, page-long sentences, etc. Later I go back and look for just one or two gems, and always find them. They may need some polishing, but they hadn’t even existed until then.

  10. What a magnificent excerpt from “The Last Lion.” I love the cadence of the paragraph that begins “An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted…” The qualities needed to lead the nation read like a drumbeat, the volume rising with each clause, forcing the reader’s heart to beat in rhythm with the words.

    I wonder how long it took William Manchester to write that page.

    • That’s a good question, Kay. I know he labored over the first two volumes for years, but suffered two strokes before he could finish the last volume. He said after that the language just didn’t come anymore. So sad! He handed his material to another writer to finish but, alas, there was only one Manchester.

  11. Can’t play today. I’m too fired up about my new true crime book proposal (hubby and I played yesterday). Though I love the advice, Jim. Thank you!

    Since you asked, I’ll add one tip…

    Rather than turn on Netflix or Prime, read. While reading, either rearrange sentences to how you might write them or rejoice in the skill of the author…pay attention to how they did this or that, and highlight passages that moved you in some way–in your Kindle, of course; we’re not monsters. 😉

  12. Years ago, I belonged to an online group who were the first writers of a start-up publisher. The publisher turned out to be a crooked disaster most of us escaped, but the group jelled and stayed together for many years of publishing, babies, deaths, and atta-girls and publishing disaster hugs that only a writer can understand and give another writer.

    Anyway, the start-up and its long and illegal ending was a major burn out for many of us who saw our first sale turn from happiness to horror. (Here’s a sad bit of info, new writers. The brutal business of publishing is a bigger danger to your writing health than writer’s block will ever be.)

    A group of us decided to write short stories around a particular idea. We built the premise which spanned centuries and romance subgenres because of what each member wrote. We each picked a time period and the subgenre that fit and went to work. We achieved not only a revitalized love for our writing, but also one heck of an anthology (BY FATE’S HAND) which we somehow managed to sell despite doing the exact opposite of how an anthology is put together. (Ask the pro writers here if you need an explanation about that.)

    After the earth and soul destroying events of 9/11, we did the same thing without a strict premise and gave the funny romantic collection for free in various ways. My own contribution about a werewolf trapped in an animal shelter later became a freebie given to animal charity donors. If you are curious, it’s now available on my website. Do a search of my last name and “The Werewolf Whisperer.” Please don’t drink any liquids while reading the end because of comic spit-takes. Your keyboard and screen will thank you.

    Now might be a great time to do the same thing with other writer friends.

    • Good thoughts about community, Marilynn. Being online or onscreen with friends who write really helps, as does a daily check-in here at TKZ!

      • Weird. There really aren’t any filters on my end unless Dotster added them. I’ll be happy to email you a copy if you contact me via my website or my full name at State the format you want.

        My mom was always my first reader even though she wasn’t a fan of the paranormal or romances. Her comment on “Werewolf Whisperer” was, “I’ve read some weird stories in my time, and this is one of them.” I liked it so much I used it in promotion of my story and attributed it to “Author’s Mom.”

  13. I’ve never been one to bring an apple to the teacher, but, this morning, I must do something similar.

    Oh, my, Mr. Bell. Your post this morning was spectacular, flowing in styles of crescendos and in styles of kittens licking the first cream in the bowl. (Forgive the mixing of metaphors.)

    I will copy and e-mail it to myself–to re-read on the days when I need something to re-read.

  14. I just ordered a nonfiction book I’ve wanted to read for ages, precisely for the reasons listed, Jim. It’s the story of Castle Knepp Estate, in England, which had been farmed for so many centuries that the land was just basically dead. So they let the whole place go wild and introduced cattle and other livestock as close to the ancient breeds as they could get. And the land healed. And the livestock are making them money hand over fist. I read a long article about it, and it was so wonderful for my brain (kind of a Secret Garden kind of story, about the dead land coming back to life) that I want to read the book now. 😀

  15. The cadence and rhythm of Manchester’s passage is what I seek to emulate on a constant basis in my writing. He transports you the beach of Dunkirk, where, if you look out over the horizon you could almost see the ragtag fleet of ships arriving to rescue ‘England’s exhausted and bleeding sons.’
    Those last two lines…incredible.

    Thank you for sharing this James!

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