A Child-like Way to Make Your Stories Glow

Today’s post is from guest writer Dr. John Yeoman.

“Some of you write better than I do.”

Or so I tell my first-year students at the university where I teach creative writing. And I’m not lying. I’ve spent 42 years as a commercial author. I have a PhD in creative writing. How come 18-year olds, fresh out of school, have the edge on me?

“True, you still have a lot to learn about structure, syntax and language,” I tell them. “No, Jed, you can’t use a comma as an all-purpose punctuation mark.” Sharon giggles. “Or spread one paragraph across three pages, Sharon. “ Jed smirks.

Freshness. It’s the master ruse of art. Geniuses get better at it. The rest of us lose it, somewhere around our 20th year. Maybe even in kindergarten.

The Russian critic Schlovsky called it ostranenie – the gift of seeing life with perpetual freshness. Perception without interpretation. The thing itself. Gertrude Stein hinted at ostranenie: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Her sparring partner Hemingway perfected it in his later stories. Language is pared to the bone. Incidents are selected and structured but the author is invisible. The story appears to speak for itself.

Great writers like Hemingway find the words to express something they have felt, as if it has never been felt before. Hacks struggle to fake an effect that they have never felt.

Here’s how to recover a freshness of perception – and convey it in your stories.

It’s the Epiphany exercise. I send my students out to the coffee shop for 20 minutes. (This exercise is very popular.) I ask them to stop at the first thing they see. Maybe it’s a chair, a blank wall, or a sandwich. “Take five minutes,” I say. “Just perceive it, with all your senses.” Within the limits of propriety, they should also touch, smell, hear and even taste it. (I warn them: “Watch out for the security guards.”)

They then return to class and write, in three lines or less, exactly what they observed or felt. The results are often luminous.

“I felt the sadness of a poster that nobody had ever read.” “Three red chairs were chatting up a round grey table. It didn’t know which way to turn.” “The coffee shop lady said: ‘You’ll have to pay on the other side. And she frowned at me like a hell fire preacher.’”

James Joyce did this when wandering the streets of Dublin. A snatch of dialogue here, an observation there. They litter Ulysses. Ripped out of context, they appear fresh, even shocking. Brad Meltzer does this in The Book of Lies. Glittering phrases and sly insights leap from every line. The crime thriller transcends its genre. Despite its pulpy plot, it verges on magical realism.

Of course, some of my students never ‘get’ it. They want to be journalists and write reportage. An event is an event is an event. Who needs poetry? Yet the finest poetry goes beyond a game of words. “Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.”  “A green thought.” The phrase couldn’t be simpler. Andrew Marvell understood ostranenie.

No doubt, some people can never learn the trick of freshness. They must discard their comfortable labels, those neat categories into which we bundle experience. That’s dangerous.

For Thackeray – a comfortable, literal-minded man – the streets of London were just streets. For Dickens, they were a Jurassic swamp, evocative of mud and dinosaurs. The trick demands the raw imagination of a child, a willful capacity to take risks. There was much of rawness, experiment and the child about Dickens.

But anyone creative enough to write fiction can acquire the art. Simply look at any mundane object, say a bookshelf. Suppose, although otherwise experienced, we had never seen a bookshelf before? It might be a mouth of giant teeth, a Bauhaus tapestry, a mausoleum of mummified ideas…

The labels become dislodged.

Suddenly, we find ourselves playing with new phrases. “Sniggering paperbacks,” “A room that reeked of paint and fresh books,” “Plaguey thoughts, mummified in old leather”, and so on.

Try that ‘epiphany’ exercise for yourself. Your stories will glow with freshness. If you can do it in a coffee shop, a Dublin street, or a library, you can do it anywhere!

Dr. John YeomanDr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, has 42 years experience as a commercial author, is a former newspaper editor, and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight works of humor, some of them intended to be humorous.

John judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. His free 14-part course in writing fiction for the commercial market can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/story-success


18 thoughts on “A Child-like Way to Make Your Stories Glow

  1. This is a wonderful example of the power of ‘being’ and observing without ego. I thought the contrast between Thackeray and Dickens was so exact. I always get my best ideas in a cafe – now I’ll add the ephiphany exercise as well.

  2. I believe the same kind rejuvenation could also be used in sketching and painting. Risk taking makes all the difference between the mundane and fresh innovation, as well as, a selflessness.

  3. Thank you, I really enjoyed this. Though I know you write of many things in this post, this is the second place I’ve noticed a strong differentiation between journalism and poetry, two vastly separate realms of writing. As one who loves both, at their very best, I am interested in if they can be reconciled and recognized as sharing a world, if they might intersect at some points. For example, perhaps a curiosity about the world and its various possibilities bridges the gap between? A search for truth — but in ambiguity versus fact? An interest in humanity and the connection between phenomenon? Certainly a yearning to capture readers… Just ruminating 🙂

    • In my poetry writing classes of yore (I went to school in the 50s, 60s and 70s) some profs talked about “found poems”–I think your ruminations would be a great description of such poems. They’re all over the place (rarely–and sadly–not so much in journalism any more).

  4. I am off to write my post with new inspiration feeling comfortable like an old leather seat smiling her cheshire cat leathery grin at me . You inspire with your words, fresh, powerful, and encouraging. I am grateful.

  5. I had been chastising myself for my over-use of adjectives in my writing and trying to discipline myself to be more succinct. Since your post, have decided to keep on writing from the heart – I have always seen the world through the strength of my senses so that is how I will continue to write to write about it.

  6. Thank you for posting this article and what a wonderful day to have read this after sputtering out just a few hundred less than satisfactory words on a nearly blank page. Now I’m off to a coffee house to find a wall to stare at or lick. It all depends on how close the security guard gets.

  7. Thank you for a wonderful idea! As I started reading I was already imagining the volumes I could write about the object… then I got to the part about returning to class to record 3 lines… WOW, a worthy challenge for those of us who tend to ramble!!

  8. I was fully captured by the lyricism and poetry (are they the same?) of your words, John. Thank you for pointing out the simplicity of being childlike in observing all that is around me. Made a difference in my commitment to see through fresh eyes.

  9. I felt sick reading this, not because it was bad but because it was perfect. I’ve been trying to work out for a while where my writing was going and I stumbled over this. Everyday situations I see as a story or a few lines that must be noted. It’s become obsessive. I studied English to get it done, reading all the great writers and never thinking about the stories I wanted to tell. Thank you.

  10. Just a quick follow up to everybody’s wonderful comments here. (Thank you!) I confess that the inspiration for this post came just a few weeks ago when I stumbled on a short story my daughter had written many years ago, at age twelve. I gasped.

    Why? Her grammar was bad, her punctuation nowhere. But she had recounted one moment – a little epiphany – when she had sat beneath a lilac tree outside our house. Then some oaf had driven a motor bike around her, scattering her with gravel.

    It was no more than a haiku. But it was beautiful, perfect.

    I asked her last week: ‘Why didn’t you carry on as a creative writer?’ She replied: ‘There’s no money in it.’ Today, she has a well-paid job in a petrochemical company. And there goes childhood…

    Please do continue to add your comments. I enjoy them immensely and I promise to reply.

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