Become the World You Want to Write: An Exercise

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Space speaks. Space acts. It is the character that contains all of the other characters—real or fictional—in your work. Yet we too often take it for granted, as a sort of window-dressing to add color to the comings and goings of characters, the machinations of plot, and the Big Ideas of theme. But think about your own life—how thoroughly it is shaped by the intersection of place and time. What is the self without place and time, anyway?

So let’s step back and give place the role it deserves: As a character in its own right:

Take the role of a place and narrate moments of its “life” in first-person, from the point of view of the place itself. How would the place describe itself? How would it describe its own history? How would it describe the things that have taken place—and are currently taking place—in and around it? How do people affect the place? How does the place affect people?

Use your powers of observation and empathy to really see how places  act upon their environment, and how the environment—including people and other living things—acts upon places.

On your first try, just write 2-3 compact pages. But bring this exercise into your regular practice, revisiting it every month or so, or anytime you are inspired, bewildered, or even dismayed by a place. You’ll find that you become more sensitive to both the sensory realities and subtexts of place, and that you are even moved to research the place further to get a deeper sense of its “voice” and history and modes of action.

This exercise help you integrate a sharp sense of place into even your more conventional nonfiction reporting!

The Place and the Mind: An Exercise

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This exercise is designed to help writers bring together the two essential vectors of creative observation—the external and the internal—discover the connections between them, and learn how to move seamlessly between them:

Choose a place of interest to you and spend 20 minutes staying very still, observing everything around you in as much sensory detail as possible. Take notes, but don’t become too removed from the observation itself—don’t get lost in the notebook. You can also take notes by speaking quietly into a recorder. As you watch and listen, be aware as well of what associations arise in your mind—links with memories, items in the news, historical moments, ideas, controversies, hopes, disappointments, outrages, dreams.

When you get home, write freely for an hour, developing the chronotope—the time and space at the moment you were watching—in as much detail as possible, allowing yourself to cross over into your mental associations—the time-space of the mind—as you go. The key is for the associative links to be clearly motivated by what you’re seeing and hearing, and to make sure to return from each association back to the original, physical time-space. I often call these associative moments “trapdoors in time”—they often summon up memories or history—and they can give great depth and importance to even the most everyday physical moments. The key is to remember to resurface from the trapdoor and return to the story. If you resurface, the association won’t simply be a tangent–it will be a deepening of the meaning of the story.

Remember: The associations often have to be pared down in a final draft, but if you don’t put them on paper, you never have the material to work with in the first place!

Training With Olympian Creative

At Olympian Creative, you’ll form a powerful partnership dedicated to your creative growth. We’ll help you shape enduring creative habits—and projects that will make you proud.

We’ll help you zero in on the story you’re trying to tell. It seems simple enough, but the hardest part of storytelling is deciding what the story really is. What is your vision—your passion—and how can you convey it with clarity and beauty? Each story—whether it’s a novel, a memoir or a business history—has a core that keeps it balanced and buoyant amid change and complications. We’ll help you discover the ideas, values, characters and events at the heart of your narrative.

• We’ll help you explore more broadly.  You’ll investigate your own dialogue with the world: Is it open or closed—determinate or indeterminate? Are you allowing the observed world, in all its unpredictability, to enrich your creative perspective? We’ll help you train yourself to look closer, notice the things that slip by, and build new value into the stories you tell.

We’ll help you find new ways to structure your creative approach—to make vibrant order out of free-roaming inspiration.

• And we’ll help you master the fine art of completion. In project-based coaching sessions, you will discover realistic, step-by-step approaches to not only doing your best work, but completing it.

For more information, please contact us at GBM@OlympianCreative.com.

Seven Secrets of Soulful, Selfless Storytelling

1. Be concrete.

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You’re conveying a world and a worldview: Let people see it come to life.

Examples, actions and anecdotes make ideas memorable.


2. Know your audience. But know yourself, too.

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Your approach, choice of examples, and even format will vary with your audience. But this is a matter of emphasis and tactics. Even as you make choices to suit audiences, stay true to your core principles as an organization and key values as a storyteller. If a particular audience forces you to stray from those values, it’s not your audience. Know who you are, and be more of it.


3. Identify trends.

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How do the things that you care about cross swords with the Zeitgeist? How can you speak from the heart about the great, transformative “now”?


4. Be Selfless

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Storytelling is the art of helping others see what you see. Be helpful.

Define your terms, both for yourself and your audience. Invite readers to think along with you. This “co-thinking” creates an alliance between communicator and audience.


5. Be curious about yourself.

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Think carefully and critically about who you are, what your principles are, and why you want to tell a story. If you don’t know why you want to say something, it will be hard to refine what you want to say, define whom you want to say it to, or decide when you want to say it. When you think about yourself, be open to surprising thoughts.


6. Climb the narrative tower.

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Many rich stories are built on a simple but sturdy foundation:

Person X strives for Y, discovering something about Z. Always return to the character, the quest, and the lessons, however subtle, of that quest.


7. Continue the conversation.

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Once you’ve told a good story, tell more. Once you’ve explored a deep idea, dig deeper. Look intently at your world, listen closely, think, learn—and speak anew.

About the Director

Greg at Red RockOlympian Creative is led by award-winning writer, editor and teacher Greg Blake Miller. With 20 years of media experience, Miller has written about everything from the wild transformation of post-Soviet Moscow to the boom, bust and revival of 21st-century Las Vegas. He has worked with renowned theatrical directors Franco Dragone and Pavel Brun (Le ReveCeline Dion’s A New Day) and respected author and documentary filmmaker Kerry Candaele (Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony). Over the past decade, Miller has helped hundreds of students develop their creative voices and fresh outlooks on the world in his writing and communication courses at the University of Oregon and the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He holds a doctorate in international communication from the University of Oregon and a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Southern California. Miller’s extensive research on progressive nostalgia, creativity and cultural change culminated with Reentry Shock (UMI, 2010), which tells the story of a group of late-Soviet filmmakers who leveraged personal and social memory to throw off the yoke of Stalinist thinking. From 2010-2014, Miller edited Vegas Seven magazine, helping to build the publication and lead it to 95 state and regional honors in its first four years. In 2011, he was named Nevada’s Outstanding Journalist, and in 2014 Seven won the state’s General Excellence Award. You can contact Miller at GBM@OlympianCreative.com.