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Attention Writers: Be a Sponge
Good writers are sponges, sponges that suck life in, hold onto it for a while, and then squeeze it out onto the page. Like a good sponge and with their minds porous and open to sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, good writers sponge the hard surface of experience and turn it into art.
How to sponge effectively
When family or friends visit, sit with a notepad hidden within the pages of a magazine or book and take notes on how they interact, what they say, and how they say it. Wherever you work, use order slips or memos or purchase orders to chronicle what the customers say and do. Write notes to yourself at stoplights on fast food napkins. Borrow brown paper towels from restrooms. Use church bulletins or envelopes that one held junk mail. Write on receipts, on walls, on desks, on your hands and arms, on paper bags, on dry erase boards, and even on food wrappers. Write on the back of a speeding ticket or a summons. If you don’t have a pen or pencil, use Sharpies or dry erase markers or borrow one from someone. Whenever you empty your pockets of these notes, reassemble them scrap by sheet by wrapper into your laptop where they will sit waiting for more of the detritus of life to connect them into art.
Sponge off daily life
Get out of your office, guest room, kitchen, study, den, or bedroom and enter the most original world ever invented—planet Earth. Hang out in shopping malls, restaurants, and coffee houses. Ride the bus, subway, or train all day. Browse an art gallery or bookstore—and browse the people, too. Loiter inside and outside a convenience store. Wait in line. Go to a game. Walk through a park. Sit on your stoop or porch. Stop at every scenic overlook. Stand on a street corner and absorb everything you see for an hour. Go up on a roof and record the life below. Have an unannounced picnic with the world, and eat up everything you feel, see, taste, touch, and smell. Eavesdrop on conversations. Try to record exactly what people say. Write character descriptions. Focus on faces, hands, gestures, and clothing. Notice how people walk, talk, sit, breathe, eat, and fuss at each other. Describe a dark alley in detail. Paint a sunrise and a sunset in words. Record the contents of a gutter or garbage can. Imagine where people are going and where they might have been while you drive. Write it all down, because whatever you write is about it all.
Sponge off literature
Read an eclectic mix of authors and not necessarily authors in your own genre. Read that classic you’ve always wanted to read—Les Miserables, War and Peace, or the Mahabharata. Re-read that book you didn’t understand in your teenage years. Re-read Beloved by Toni Morrison with your mind completely tuned-in this time. Pick a book at random from the clearance section of a bookstore. Mine the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, or the wisdom of Lao-Tzu. Analyze the work of Voltaire, James Joyce, Plato, Swift, Ayn Rand, James Thurber, and Noel Coward—in that order. Read Wuthering Heights and Emma simultaneously. Recite the script of an absurd play by Pinter, Ionesco, or Albee. Marvel at Steinbeck’s lengthy description of a turtle. Immerse yourself in the poetry of Sexton, Plath, Yeats, Ginsberg, and Snyder. Read Thomas Hardy’s poetry. Read good writing, literature that has stood the test of time, and absorb everything that jumps off the page.
Sponge off art
Write character sketches of the people in a Vermeer, a van Gogh, a Renoir, or a Toulouse-Lautrec. Let your senses go and list your emotions when you look at a Picasso or a Goya. Become the fish or the clock in a Dali. Sketch the face of Rodin’s The Thinker and record what he’s thinking. Write short stories based on Vautier’s Snow Scene: Children Leaving School or Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand-Jatte. Write the autobiography of The Son of Man by René Magritte. Write a horror story based on Siqueiros’ Echo of a Scream or Munch’s The Scream. Compose a song, lyric poem, or love scene based on The Kiss by Rodin or Canova’s Amor et Psyche. Write a novel or short story based on Romare Bearden’s Southern Recall. Get your fill of art so art can fill your poetic soul.
Sponge off music
Have your characters walk through a park to some George Winston. Listen to John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and write romantic scenes. Outline a battle scene to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Compose a series of sonnets while listening to Handel’s Messiah all the way through without interruption. Let your characters sing Broadway hits and misses. Modernize Verdi’s Aida or Il Trovatore. Write the blues while sitting in a blues club. Turn grunge into soul, disco into funk, and the Big Band Sound into pop. Insert gospel and ska into an a capella poem. Fuse rhythm and blues with country and western in a crowd scene. Write a character’s introspective thoughts while listening to some Clannad. Transfer the lyrics you hear and the rhythms you feel into everything you write.
Squeeze out your sponge
Squeeze out your sponge. Get it down, and then get it right. Spew, splatter, and expectorate your words onto the page. Play with words and let them become a stampede—you can bring your “dogies” back into the corral later. Be creative as you are and can be during the first draft of anything you write. Go nuts. Lose it and loose words. Wild out. Whenever you’re writing, keep in mind the pottery-making scene from the movie Ghost. Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore made a beautiful mess—and one of cinema’s most remembered scenes—but for that mess to sell, they needed to carve it, shape it, mold it, and turn it into art. Sponge up the paint that life gives you, make a beautiful mess ..., and then turn it into art.