Novelty, Absurdity, and Magic: Three Elements of Play that Will Enhance Your Writing Life

Last week, I laughed hysterically while watching the video of Rod Ponton, the lawyer who showed up to his Zoom court hearing with the kitten filter turned on. 

I replayed the video three more times, just to hear him say, “I’m live, and I’m not a cat.”  

If you haven’t seen the video, click here. You won’t be disappointed. 

That laughter was a welcome reprieve after a month of memoir revisions right before the anniversary of my brother’s death. 

Developing the capacity to sit with difficult emotions is an important skill we all need to cultivate. But to truly live—and write—with an open heart, we need to balance the dark times with a little fun. When it comes to levity, play is an ally. Play is also essential for your writing projects.  

While getting my bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Louisville, my mentor Paul Griner said there are only seven story plots. Novelist John Gardner reduced them to two—hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. Either way you look at it, there are no original stories. But there are original ways to tell them. 

Play can enhance your creativity and originality. It helps you increase your sense of focus, engage with the unexpected, and develop novel connections in your brain. Those novel connections will allow you to see problems in new ways, and as a result, churn out fresh new stories. 

To play and have fun with your writing life, you need to incorporate novelty, absurdity, and magic into three fundamental aspects of your creativity.

Why novelty, absurdity, and magic?

The brain lights up when it encounters something novel. That neural firestorm can create the new story connections you’ve been looking for. 

Absurdity is about embracing the ridiculous. When we do ridiculous, meaningless things, we look at the world in new ways. This can lead to story innovations. 

Magic, and in particular enchantment, is all about delight. When we’re delighted, we experience joy. That joy energizes us and motivates us to create more. Not sure if this is true? Ask yourself how many pages you wrote during your last major funk. Compare that to your output when you were feeling lighter.  

Here are a few ways you can add novelty, absurdity, and magic into your creative life. 

Play with movement 

If you want to be a successful writer, you must develop a blue-collar work ethic around your writing sessions. While this means committing to a butt-in-the-chair practice, sitting for long stretches causes blood to pool in your extremities. This takes nutrients away from your idea maker. You need to balance your butt-in-chair time with a little movement. 

Research has found that walking is a great way to generate fresh ideas. Many of us have developed walking practices during COVID. But to move playfully, you have to do something new. 

Novelty: Take a new route.

Absurdity: Be THAT neighbor: skip, twirl, or walk backward along your route. 

Magic: Stop and listen to the emotions hidden in birdsong. Search for a talisman in the rocks you pass. Photograph something strange or out of place. 

Play with Form

Most of us develop our stories in the same way. We write lots and lots of words on a page. When we’re done, we cross out the ones we don’t like, rearrange the ones we love, then try to perfect our sentences. But that’s not the only way to tell a story. In fact, telling a story off the page either before you draft or between the drafts might lead to insights that make your story stronger. 

Novelty: Instead of writing your story, PowerPoint it, collage it, or storyboard it. If you’ve already written your story, take some time to draw your scene shapes

Absurdity: Instead of writing your story down, record yourself as you perform the draft. Do it in your worst British accent. Make up ridiculous voices for your characters. The more you get into it, the more you’ll open up to the process.  

Magic:  Create the board game version of your project (Think The Game of Life, Monopoly, or Chutes and Ladders). What does the board game look like? What are the rules of this world? 

Play with Ideas

How many times have you flipped through the idea files in your brain, hoping one of them contains a fresh story idea? Instead, you write what you’ve always written. Often, those scenes have the same emotional flavor. Guess what? Sometimes, the best ideas aren’t inside you. To create something fresh and new, look outside of yourself. 

Novelty: Gather four jars and some 2-inch by 2 -inch squares of paper where you can jot down single words. Make a list of situations, feelings, problems, and objects. When it comes to feelings, be sure to include the ones you typically write about and the ones you avoid. If you’d like to expand your repertoire of feelings, click on this list. Write one item on each square of paper.  Drop your situations into one jar. In the second jar, add your feelings. Add your objects to the third jar. In a fourth jar, include your problems. Choose one item from each jar. Now, get writing. 

Absurdity:  Make a list of inappropriate or absurd situations your characters could find themselves in or create a list of objects that would make you think twice about someone. If you’re looking for some inspiration, watch some episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld. Here’s a link to the episode where Jerry steals a loaf of marble rye bread from an old woman.  

Magic: Create an astrological chart for your character and use it to gain insights into their problems.  Or play the board game you created in the previous exercise. Use it to guide your storytelling process. 

 Try a few of these exercises then send me an email. I’d love to hear what worked for you.

Stay warm, find some lightness in your days, and as always write on. 

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