No matter how prolific a writer you are, we all run into moments where we need a little extra inspiration.
Here are some tips on how to use your own photographs to inspire all elements of storytelling, from mood to setting to character and beyond. There are plenty of articles about how to find inspiration for your writing and look outside yourself, but using your own photos as a reference is a unique way to find inspiration inside yourself while still removing yourself from the piece of writing at hand. I know this is certainly a method that has helped me a great many times.
- Write the true story of the photo, the details of the moment(s) preceding or following. Or, perhaps a close look and write a description of the elements in the frame.
- If you had to use one word to describe the photo, what would it be? Use that word as the theme for a story.
- Zoom in close on parts of the photo or crop sections as small or large as you like. Don’t be afraid to cut to random sections, don’t overthink it. How does the energy of these sections of the photograph differ from the original photograph? Write a character that has the same emotional presence as each of the cropped or zoomed sections, then write them into the scene of the original photograph.
- Write a character into the scene. You were there for the photo, you took it, or maybe you’re even in it. How might you imagine another character would have behaved in that moment?
- Zoom out: you know what’s happening in the frame, now tell us what’s happening around it? What can’t we see? What terrors or joys lie just outside this glimpse into a moment in time?
Have any ideas of your own? Share them in the comments below to help keep your fellow writers inspired.
NOAH TOPLIFF is an undergraduate student at Hamline University in the final year of completing his BFA in Creative Writing. He spends his time outside of his studies writing and recording music and spending time with his dog and girlfriend.
“…most of the books I have written and those I minted to write originate from the thought that it will be impossible for me to write a book of that kind: when I have convinced myself that such a book is completely beyond my capacities of temperament or skill, I sit down and start writing it.”
What is it that gets you to read? What is it that stops your mind from nodding off to another online post, and instead grabs your attention, forcing your mind to fixate on something utterly, inexplicably strange? What is it that gives you pause—makes you ponder the world—and gives you a deeper understanding of what it means to be a person?
It is not the familiar that sets our minds abuzz with new ideas. The creation of the new is left to the strange. The weird and wacky elements of writing that make us pause to think about things in a new perspective. That is where we can draw inspiration from. And that is what I wish to help understand today.
For me as a fiction writer, it has always been the strange that attracts me. From fanciful imagery of cities put forth in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, to the more subdued sci-fi of Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day, there has always been something that is just so utterly fascinating about a piece that throws convention out the window in an effort to stretch the authors creativity to its limit. It is the ability to embrace what has never been done before that sets truly great writers apart from their contemporaries. Because we as humans always crave something new to mull our minds over.
So this is the question that we face as undergraduates writers, and writers in general: how the hell are we supposed to write something new?
My advice? Write the impossible.
Sounds pretty easy, right? Actually, it is. You see, when it comes to the term ‘impossible’, the definition is actually already set in stone. Based on the Merriam-Webster dictionary, something is impossible if it is either:
- Incapable of being or of occurring, or
- Felt to be incapable of being done, attained, or fulfilled: insuperably difficult.
So all we must do is write something that cannot occur. It can be something as silly as a banana suddenly appearing in front of us out of thin air, or a goat somehow wandering onto a space shuttle and being blasted to mars, or as serious as world peace or total annihilation. All we must do is think of something that is incredibly unlikely to occur, write it down, and bam: we have written the impossible. Created, through our own hands, something that is completely and entirely new in this world.
Sounds easy, right? Well, it might not always be so.
It’s an unfortunate reality of the mind that we can become utterly stuck on what we already know. Corner ourselves with facts and logic that dictate that we write a certain way, express the same ideas, and generally create nothing of value. And even if we do end up creating something new, or having some grand idea, we may become stuck along the way of writing that idea out onto a page, or somehow be incapable of making an engaging story about what we have to offer. What should be done in such situations? What should we do when we become ‘stuck’?
I’ve been in such a situation many times before, and apart from just taking a break to clear my mind of the writing process, the most effective thing I have ever done is to ask myself a question. And that question is this:
What if my main character doesn’t succeed? What if the task is impossible? What if gravity suddenly gave way and we found ourselves floating in the inky blackness of space? What if the sun didn’t come up tomorrow, as it has every other day? What if this happened, or this happened, or this or this or this or this or…
And then my mind is free. So if you ever want to take a stab at writing something wonderfully and truly bizarre, I suggest that you try to write something that is completely impossible and roll from there. And if you ever get stuck, I suggest you start asking yourself “What if” questions to get yourself unstuck. There is no theoretical limit on creation or creativity, and it would be an utter bore if we only ever retread paths that have already been walked upon. So get out there and write something weird, bizarre, and completely impossible.
Meet the blogger:
BLAKE BUTENHOFF is a thoroughly odd individual. He is supposedly a Senior of Hamline University’s Undergraduate Creative Writing Program, but no one knows quite exactly how he got into such a position. He enjoys strange works of fiction, hiding out in the quiet corners of rooms, and ketchup on his macaroni.
Oral storytelling has existed for as long as humans have been able to use language.
Every story told has a foundation that was built on stories told before it, starting at the beginning, in the tellings of ancient myths. The mythic structures utilized by storytellers have become the veins that run through and power all other stories.
One popular mythic structure is the hero’s journey. There is something special about being able to sit back and listen to a masterfully woven tale full of heroes and their adventures. As technology continues to evolve, there has been a return to oral storytelling, but in a new genre: Podcasts.
I was first introduced to the McElroy brothers in the summer of 2019. I was going to be playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time ever, and my partner thought The Adventure Zone: Balance, a podcast run by three brothers wherein they run a comedy style DnD campaign with their dad, would be a perfect segue into the world of table-top roleplaying games.
The McElroy family immediately captured me. The brothers, Justin, Travis, and Griffin, and their father Clint, were hilarious and heartwarmingly charming. More than just a play-by-play tutorial on how to, as the brother’s call it, “Dungeon and Dragon”, it was something new.
The podcast, while focusing on the comedy already ensuing from typical DnD roleplaying, also employs an episodic narrative that blends high-fantasy storytelling with RPG gameplay. I was previously unfamiliar with both elements.
The storytelling element was elevated, as the family played out the adventure for the listeners. This wasn’t some static thing, it wasn’t a book or a memorized tale, this was action and reaction, and it was all neatly recorded and edited into an hour-long podcast.
The brothers run many different podcasts, but this one was special. It was as if the characters of a book had come to life and were performing for me, and all I had to do was chillax and listen.
Griffin, as the Game Master, prepared for his family and listeners a deluxe experience. As Justin, Travis, and Clint played their characters, Taako the wizard, Magnus the fighter, and Merle the cleric, they began unraveling the story that Griffin had crafted. The story takes place in a world out of time, where three goofs and their pals are all that stand between the life and bonds they created in their chosen home and total evil’s annihilation of the whole universe.
Over eight ‘arcs’, the boys go on myriad adventures, full of hilarious quips and shenanigans. Taako’s my personal favorite, as a flamboyant wizard who at one point, goes on a date with Death.
The Adventure Zone’s first arc was adapted into a graphic novel, The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins in 2018, and they have since released two other graphic novels that cover arcs 2 and 3, with another book covering the 4th arc on the way.
One of the most powerful things about the way in which the McElroy’s tell their story, is the fluidity and movement involved in the literal playing. As the GM, Griffin creates a base adventure, but the way the in-game story moves is wholly up to both the players and the actions they choose to make, and the chance involved in the rolling of the dice. The story makes itself as multiple different voices provide input, and the dice gods decide the character’s fates.
Another powerful attribute to this brand of storytelling is the defiance of genre. A DnD game is typically pictured as a group of friends playing around tables in basements or abandoned farmhouses, while eating salty snacks and drinking energy drinks. While DnD has always prioritized storytelling as its core element, with multiple books and videogames being created from its lore, this new adventure into a wildly broadcasted digital storytelling medium is a fantastic way to incorporate imaginative play back into creativity.
It is a reminder to all creatives to follow their gut and make weird things that push the conversation forward. What are your favorite works that defy genre? Let me know below!
Meet the blogger:
JESSICA ZICK (they/she) is a poet, essayist, and libra. They hold an AFA in creative writing from Normandale Community College, and they are currently pursuing their BFA in creative writing from Hamline University. They live in Northfield, Minnesota, the town that always smells like cereal, with their partner and two cats, Huckleberry and Valerie.
When it comes to writing on the go, away from your desktop, nothing can beat the reliable luxury of a laptop – except, maybe, a tablet. Here’s what I noticed when I made the switch.
Last Christmas, I asked for an iPad, mainly to have a better place to do digital art besides my ten year-old Wacom tablet. Before the pandemic, I was also planning on bringing it to class with me. It would save paper for notes and make my backpack lighter.
Then, I realized it’d be perfect for writing.
Everyone has had the experience of back pains brought on by backpacks overloaded with binders, textbooks, and of course, the almighty laptop. When I switched out mine for an iPad, I surprisingly noticed a difference. The standard iPad is about the size of a thin book, much more compact than the laptop I was lugging around. If you still don’t have room in your bag, they’re small and light enough to carry without hassle.
Cheaper but not Cheaper
We’re college students. We thrive on 99 cent ramen and splurge on coffee. Not everyone can afford to buy a next-gen laptop. The iPad 7th Gen is only $330 on the Apple website, compared to the MacBook Air, which starts at $999. When I switched to writing on my iPad, I barely noticed a difference. It doesn’t run slower, and you can still access your google drive and docs (or download another writing app if you don’t prefer Google Docs.)
Buying from Apple also gives the opportunity for payment plans rather than paying the lump sum right up front.
As stated above, switching to a table doesn’t decrease the functionality or accessibility while writing. However, I did have to buy a case with a bluetooth keyboard for my iPad, because using the on-screen keyboard for writing was an impossible task. Sites like Amazon and Ebay have numerous options for keyboard cases and bluetooth keyboards, at decent prices but still great quality.
Another bonus with using an iPad is that it’s connected to my phone. I am someone who constantly gets random writing ideas throughout the day, and my best friend is the notes app on my iPhone. Being able to connect my phone and tablet together allows me to pull those notes up on my iPad in the middle of writing and refresh my memory of what I wrote earlier that day or week.
In all fairness, there are a couple cons when it comes to writing with a tablet over a laptop. The biggest one – and I received it as a question from friends when I tell them I write with a tablet – is that the screen is smaller. It does make it a tad bit harder when writing, but as someone who is constantly hunched over when I’m writing it doesn;’t make much of a personal difference.
I will say this next downside is a personal preference (and might make other writers shudder.) I have recently started writing some personal pieces without capitalization (gasp!) and using the google docs app doesn’t allow you to turn off auto-capitalization. I started a piece on my laptop – sans capitalization – and found that the rest of the doc on my iPad was being forced into proper grammatical format. So if you’re a writer like me and have your own personal preferences when it comes to writing form etc, using a tablet might irk you slightly.
Given the pros and cons of using a tablet from my experience, it’s a switch I don’t plan on undoing. The efficiency and practicality of my iPad makes writing anywhere so much easier for me. If you’ve ever thought about making the jump yourself, I’d say go for it! You might be pleasantly surprised.
Meet the blogger:
REMI SHERMAN is a senior at Hamline University, studying creative writing. When she’s not spending time (in and out of class) writing, she’s playing overwatch until two in the morning and streaming BTS’ latest album. She’s hoping to be an editor after college and writing a novel in her free time.
Most of us have been reading and writing from an early age, but there’s quite a bit of information out there that may stop you in your tracks regarding the origins and stories behind your favorite words, authors, and novels. Let’s take a look at some of the weird, quirky, and wonderful parts about writing and the people behind the craft.
1) Agatha Christie’s Dysgraphia
The famous British crime writer had dysgraphia, a neurological condition that causes people to have difficulties putting thoughts onto paper. So, Christie dictated while someone else transcribed her work.
Try saying that one ten times fast. Or even once at all. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (pronounced [noo-muh-noh-uhl-truh–
mahy-kruh-skop-ik-sil-i-koh-vol-key-noh-koh-nee-oh-sis] in case anyone wants to drop this word at a dinner party) is the longest word in the English language and refers to a type of lung disease caused by silica dust. I don’t know who came up with this word, but I would just like to ask them, from the bottom of my heart, why?
3) Fairytales to Phobias
Hans Christan Andersen, the Danish writer most known for tales such as The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid, was also known for experiencing multiple phobias. He was afraid of dogs, didn’t eat pork for fear of contracting trichinae, and carried a rope around just in case he needed to escape a fire. Andersen was also fearful of being buried alive, so before he went to bed, he’d write a note saying “I only appear to be dead.”
4) The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Some of you may have already heard the sentence above and know that it’s more than a sentence describing an odd scenario. It is actually a “pangram”, which is a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet. Go ahead, check if you don’t believe me.
5) Baseball Inspiration
Haruki Murakami wrote his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, after watching a baseball game at the Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, Japan. It’s said that after he watched David Hilton hit a double, Murakami knew he could write fiction. And that he has most certainly done.
6) Words that Don’t Exist
Dord. No, that’s not a typo. Ever heard of this word? If not, it may because it’s not actually a word. It appeared in Webster’s Second New International Dictionary of 1934 and only showed up in that one edition. So why was it included in a dictionary? Well, it was due to the misreading of a note from Webster’s chemistry editor, Austin P. Patterson. It was written as “d or D, cont./density” and the d or D became “dord”. This results in a phenomenon known as a ghost word. A ghost word is defined as a word that’s never in established usage and results from errors and misconceptions. Abacot (from a misspelling of “a bycoket”), kimes (“knives”), and morse (“nurse”) are all examples of this.
7) Pieces of the Past
One of the most well-known poets, Sappho, is considered to be in the same arena as fellow Ancient Greek poet, Homer. But did you know that only one of her poems is fully intact? She was prolific and wrote at least nine volumes of poetry, but what remains of her work today are fragments on papyrus scrolls. Nonetheless, generations and even more generations to come will be able to immerse themselves in her work.
8) Pen to Paper Meditation
The act of writing has similar effects on our nervous systems as meditation. So, if you have trouble sitting still for very long but want the benefits of meditation, try mindful journaling! Not everything you write has to be at the polished level of the writers I’ve talked about above. Make a list, write a haiku, invent your own words, do whatever makes you feel more okay than you felt the moment before. Writing is one of the most powerful tools we have, so use it!
Got any other fun facts and interesting tidbits? Let us know!
Meet the blogger:
DANIELLE FRANKE is a Senior at Hamline University studying English with a concentration in Creative Writing. When she’s not studying, reading, or writing, you can find her ogling every single dog she sees while out on walks around Como Lake.