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Storyworthy Writing Exercise
An excerpt from Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks | Updated November 3, 2018
The exercise is called Crash & Burn. It’s a simple concept, and certainly not groundbreaking in any way, but it relies on adhering to a few simple rules that I have developed that are necessary to make the exercise work well.
Essentially Crash & Burn is stream-of-consciousness writing. I like to think of it as dreaming on the end of your pen, because when it’s working well, it will mimic the free-associative thought patterns that so many of us experience while dreaming.
Stream of consciousness is the act of speaking or writing down whatever thought that enters your mind, regardless of how strange, incongruous, or even embarrassing it may be. People have been utilizing stream-of-consciousness strategies for a long time, beginning first with psychologists in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, these strategies were adopted by writers and thinkers as a means of generating new ideas. Entire novels have been written to mimic stream-of-consciousness thinking.
I hate those novels.
But for our storytelling purposes, we will be utilizing stream-of-consciousness writing to generate new ideas and resurrect old memories, applying three important rules:
The goal of Crash & Burn is to allow unexpected ideas to intersect and overrun current ones, just as that rain-drenched corner of Main Street with my dog produced an important revelation about my father and a memory of sex on a golf course. Two intersecting ideas crashed into and overran the meaningful moment that I was experiencing with Kaleigh.
So, regardless of how intriguing or compelling your current idea may be, you must release it immediately when a new idea comes crashing in, even if your new idea seems decidedly less compelling than the original one. When Crash & Burn is at its best, ideas are constantly crashing the party, slashing and burning the previous ones. It’s in these intersections of ideas that new ideas and memories are unearthed.
Everything must land on the page, regardless of how ridiculous, nonsensical, absurd, or humiliating it may be. Similarly, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization are meaningless. Penmanship is irrelevant.
This can be difficult for many people. For years, writing teachers have demanded that students think about grammar, spelling, and punctuation as they write. They have required students to outline their essays and stories before placing a single word on the page. They have handed their students archaic graphic organizers and insisted that they be completed prior to writing. They have ignored the reality of writing, which is this:
Many writers have no idea what their next sentence or paragraph will be. Much of writing is done in the dark. The next sentence is often as much of a surprise to the writer as it is to the reader.
The artificial demands of outlines, graphic organizers, and planning often subvert the creative process and force would-be writers to think about what they are writing before a word even hits the page rather than allowing them to spill their guts and evaluate the material later. This is because writing teachers often are not writers themselves and therefore never engage in the writing process in an authentic, honest way. Rather than teaching the writing process followed by actual writers, they speculate about strategies that might help a writer or follow the advice written in writing tomes by people who only write writing tomes, often doing more damage than good.
When it comes to Crash & Burn, you must free yourself of this dreadful, hobbling, ingrained need to prepare and self-monitor. You must spill your guts on the page, free from judgment or worry about whether what you are writing is good or right. Just put the damn words on the page as they appear in your head and on your fingertips. Ignore your inner demons.
I say pen because, although I do almost all my writing on a keyboard, I have found that engaging in Crash & Burn with a pen tends to trigger greater creativity (and there is some science to support this claim). But if you must use a keyboard, go for it.
Either way, your hand or fingers cannot stop moving. You must continue writing words even when your mind is empty. To make this happen, I use colors. When I have no other thought in my mind, I begin listing colors on the page until one of them triggers a thought or memory. For example:
Red, green, blue, black, brown...I tell kids that brown is my favorite color, and it makes them all crazy, which makes no sense, but in truth, I have no favorite color, which makes them even crazier...
Writing down numbers is also a popular strategy utilized by my workshop students, though I recommend that the numbers be listed in word form. For example:
One, two, three, four, five...I have five fingers on each hand, and there are scars on five no six of them, which seems like a lot, but maybe not...
I’ve known frequent travelers to list countries. I had a mechanic in one of my workshops list engine parts. I had a teenager in a workshop list the names of his previous girlfriends (and apparently had more than enough names to work with). It doesn’t matter what you choose. Your list of items simply needs to be long and familiar to you.
That’s it. Set a timer for ten minutes, follow these three rules, and go.
Here is an example of one of my Crash & Burn sessions from a recent workshop. When I’m teaching, I speak my Crash & Burn aloud as I write so my students can hear how my mind is working. Specifically, I want them to hear:
If you go to the StoryworthytheBook YouTube channel, you can see me engage in this process, speaking it aloud as I do in my workshops. But below is a Crash & Burn final product, transcribed from pen to digital text.
I always launch my Crash & Burn sessions with an object in the room, but you can start any way you want. On this day, there was a bowl of grapes on a table, so I started with the word grape. Slash marks indicate the moments when new ideas or memories came crashing in.
Grape. Grape juice. White grape juice / When I was a kid I stepped on a broken Mello Yello glass bottle and cut my foot — got infected — happened by a pond / oh, the pond, Yawgoog had three different waterfronts and Ashaway Aquatic Center — I never took / I was a lifeguard at Yawgoog — so boring so dumb to be a lifeguard at a Boy Scout camp — at least you give yourself a chance to look at girls but I saved that kid who couldn’t swim and didn’t want to tell anyone / when Eric and what’s his name? Rory yes Rory flipped their canoe adults facing away from pond and Jeff and I went to / a pirate is a criminal on the sea — I should commit a crime on the sea so I can be legally called a pirate / I was a criminal but if you’re found not guilty were you never a criminal or a former criminal? actually I was definitely a criminal: mailbox baseball and stealing the shoes lots of other crimes — isn’t everyone a criminal or am I just especially bad / list of crimes would be / story about a guy who commits a crime at sea just to be a pirate and wears an eye patch for effect / I used to walk the train tracks as a kid but I wouldn’t want my kids to walk the tracks even though it must be safe, right? how does a train sneak up on you? Not possible / nail polish for women has weird and crazy names maybe I could do something with it / green red yellow blue gray / The Confederates wore gray uniforms, right? Seems like the least inspiring color — British wore red to conceal blood and make fellow soldiers / I took that ASVAB test and would love to see the results — I had no idea what kind of job I might have landed in military — thank God I didn’t re-sign at 17 I wonder what / I took the pledge at 17 in a fake way and then had to take it again at 18 and refused thinking I would but does that make me a bad guy of some kind? / bad guy the black and the white is inconvenient Stephen King says that the side of the good is the side of the white which I like but sort of places it in unintentionally racist terms similar to “forgot the face of your father” is great but / haven’t read Dad’s letter yet why am I so scared all I want is a relationship and /
Once I’ve finished with a session, I look back and pull out threads that are worth saving. Story ideas. Anecdotes for future stories. Memories that I want to record. New ideas. Interesting thoughts.
Here is an annotated look at what I produced in those ten minutes:
Grape. Grape juice. White grape juice / When I was a kid I stepped on a broken Mello Yello glass bottle and cut my foot — got infected — happened by a pond /
I have no idea how grape juice brought me to Mello Yello, but my mind somehow made the connection, and it brought me back to a day of swimming with my family at a water hole when I was five or six years old.
I had forgotten about the Mello Yello bottle and the cut on my foot until this Crash & Burn session, but more importantly, it brought back another memory from that day, not recorded during my session, because a new idea came crashing in, a much more meaningful memory than the one about my infected foot.
It was a memory of my father jumping in the pond from the edge of a large, flat rock and remaining underwater for so long that I was sure he was dead. I was absolutely certain that he had drowned before my eyes. I remember a wave of crushing sadness washing over me, overwhelming me. My father was gone. The only man I loved was lifeless on the bottom of the pond. I knew in that moment that my life had changed forever.
As I opened my mouth to scream, my father’s head emerged amidst a patch of lily pads, and “forever” had miraculously come to an end. Life was instantaneously returned to normal. Rarely have I experienced such an emotional swing in my life.
It turns out that I have inherited my father’s ability to hold his breath for a frighteningly long time. Over the years, I have terrified many people, including my wife, by disappearing under the water for excessive periods of time, never once thinking about that moment by the pond when I thought I had lost my father forever. This is probably a story that I will tell someday.
oh, the pond, Yawgoog had three different waterfronts and Ashaway Aquatic Center — I never took / I was a lifeguard at Yawgoog — so boring so dumb to be a lifeguard at a Boy Scout camp — at least you give yourself a chance to look at girls but I saved that kid who couldn’t swim and didn’t want to tell anyone /
The memory of the Mello Yello water hole triggered memories of Yawgoog Pond, at the center of Yawgoog Scout Reservation. Yawgoog was the Boy Scout camp where I spent many summer days as a boy. The bit about the stupidity of working as a lifeguard at an all-boys’ camp might be worth exploring for part of an essay or perhaps for my stand-up routine. It feels funny. Or at least potentially funny.
As for the boy who nearly drowned (after being too embarrassed to admit that he couldn’t swim), I had forgotten about that moment entirely until this Crash & Burn session, and it will
certainly make a good story someday.
when Eric and what’s his name? Rory yes Rory flipped their canoe adults facing away from pond and Jeff and I went to /
Yawgoog Pond brought me to a pond in Vermont. While visiting friends at their vacation home years ago, a boy named Eric and his friend Rory turned over their canoe over in the middle of the pond. The two boys weren’t wearing life jackets, so they were clinging to the edge of their submerged canoe for dear life. My friend Jeff and I were the only adults who noticed that the boys were in trouble, so we raced out in a canoe to help. The boys credited us with saving their lives, but in truth they could have clung to their canoe for quite a while. I was still happy to take the credit.
Possibly a story, or at least part of a story.
A more storyworthy moment from that visit to Vermont came when Eric walked in on my wife, Elysha, fully naked and six months pregnant. Elysha nearly killed the poor boy, who ran for his life and later denied seeing anything, though we all knew that was impossible.
By some bizarre twist of fate, Elysha would become Eric’s fifth-grade teacher two years later, making him perhaps the only ten-year-old boy in the history of American education to see his elementary-school teacher fully naked while pregnant. Now that is a story that needs to be told.
As you know, I’m simply needing to tell my facet of the story.
a pirate is a criminal on the sea — I should commit a crime on the sea so I can be legally called a pirate /
Something about the memory of racing onto that lake in a canoe brought the idea of piracy to my mind. I’m not sure if committing a crime at sea would make me a pirate, but it felt right when I wrote it.
If it’s true, and if I need not be arrested or convicted of a crime to be classified as a pirate, I may add this to my bucket list. Commit some petty crime — steal silverware from a riverboat cruise — so I can add “pirate” (or even better, “buccaneer”) to my résumé.
I was a criminal but if you’re found not guilty were you never a criminal or a former criminal? actually I was definitely a criminal: mailbox baseball and stealing the shoes lots of other crimes — isn’t everyone a criminal or am I just especially bad / list of crimes would be / story about a guy who commits a crime at sea just to be a pirate and wears an eye patch for effect /
In 1991, I was arrested and tried for a crime I didn’t commit. Even though I was ultimately found not guilty in a court of law, did my arrest make me a criminal? At least for a while?
What about all the crimes that I’ve committed over my lifetime but was never caught or prosecuted for? Destroying private property in endless games of mailbox baseball (a game in which you score a home run by knocking a mailbox off its foundation with one blow from a baseball bat). Stealing shoes and a display table from a children’s shoe store. Making and selling fake driver’s licenses to underage college students. Picking up hitchhikers. Posing as a charity worker to steal money from would-be donors (a story that we will look at in close detail). Driving over a “No Parking” sign on the front lawn of a church. Smashing the windshield of my ex-stepfather’s car multiple times.
Do these criminal acts make me a criminal? Is my list of unprosecuted crimes lengthier than most? Are these crimes more egregious than most? These are questions that might be worth exploring in a blog post or magazine piece.
I used to walk the train tracks as a kid but I wouldn’t want my kids to walk the tracks even though it must be safe, right? how does a train sneak up on you? Not possible /
I really can’t say how piracy and crime led me to memories of time spent walking the train tracks as a child, but it did. It’s one of the benefits of Crash & Burn. It allows for random thoughts to enter your mind at any moment.
From a frighteningly early age, I was permitted to roam free, without any adult supervision. I would often leave my house just after sunrise, armed with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in a paper bag, and would not return home until dinnertime. And some of that freedom was spent — for reasons I can’t explain today — walking with friends on the railroad tracks that cut through town. I hadn’t thought of this memory for years until this Crash & Burn session.
I write for several magazines, including Parents. This feels like the basis for a parenting essay or perhaps a blog post.
nail polish for women has weird and crazy names maybe I could do something with it / green red yellow blue gray / The Confederates wore gray uniforms, right? Seems like the least inspiring color — British wore red to conceal blood and make fellow soldiers /
Once again, I can’t explain how railroad tracks transitioned to nail polish, but this is Crash & Burn at its best. Random, incongruous, inexplicable thoughts colliding.
Regardless of how the mental leap was made, I happen to know a person whose job is to assign names to nail-polish colors. Something humorous could be done with these names, perhaps as part of my stand-up routine or as an amusing detail in a story.
I took that ASVAB test and would love to see the results — I had no idea what kind of job I might have landed in military — thank God I didn’t re-sign at 17 I wonder what / I took the pledge at 17 in a fake way and then had to take it again at 18 and refused thinking I would but does that make me a bad guy of some kind?/
Thoughts of Civil War soldiers led me to memories of my encounter with the United States Army. When I was seventeen, I took the military placement test, accepted a position in the army, signed a contract, and swore an oath in front of an American flag.
I knew that the contract and oath were only symbolic. Since I was only seventeen, I knew I would need to re-sign my contract and have the oath readministered when I turned eighteen and became legally eligible to sign. The recruiter used the symbolic contract and oath as a bit of pomp and circumstance to make me feel committed to the army, but I knew exactly what I was doing: opening a door to an opportunity that I might or might not walk through upon graduation from high school.
Ultimately, I chose not to re-sign the contract. As you know, I moved in with Bengi. The recruiter was not happy. He and I had quite the verbal confrontation. It was one of my first real arguments with an adult who was not a parent or a teacher. There is probably a story to tell here, and I hadn’t thought about that experience in years. I would also like to see the results of my testing, though they probably don’t exist anymore.
bad guy the black and the white is inconvenient Stephen King says that the side of the good is the side of the white which I like but sort of places it in unintentionally racist terms similar to “forgot the face of your father” is great but /
The phrase bad guy triggered thoughts of the way that good and evil are characterized in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which I had recently reread. King’s characters refer to the side of the good as the side of the white. I like the nonreligious nature of this characterization, but it also feels a little racist. I wish it didn’t.
Characters in the Dark Tower novels also say that a person who does a foolish thing has “forgotten the face of his father.” I like this expression a lot too, but it’s admittedly patriarchal. I also wish it wasn’t.
I can’t imagine doing much with these bits.
haven’t read Dad’s letter yet why am I so scared all I want is a relationship and /
The phrase the face of your father caused me to think of the face of my own father. I rarely see my dad and barely know him, but he sent me a letter three weeks ago. I have yet to open the envelope. I’m afraid of what he may have said or not said in the letter, so it remains sealed. I’m protecting my heart, at least for now.
I feel this might be the start of a story. I’m probably in the midst of the story, still waiting for the end.
Addendum: I opened the letter two weeks after this Crash & Burn session. I was sitting in a movie theater with my wife, watching commercials flash across the screen, when I removed the letter from my pocket, opened it, and read.
Elysha asked why I had chosen this odd moment to read my father’s letter — in a movie theater minutes before the trailers were set to begin. I explained that if my father’s words were disappointing or upsetting, I would have a two-hour comedy to help me forget my troubles. It was my way of protecting myself from possible pain. This has now become a story that I tell, beginning with the moment first recorded during my Crash & Burn session.
This was a productive session. Ten minutes of effort yielded:
Stories are gold. Precious and priceless. Finding six potentially new stories is thrilling.
Even better, I recovered memories from my past that had been lost to me until I sat down to write. Forgotten moments that will remain with me now until the day I die.
With each recovered memory, my life feels more expansive and significant. The years gather greater meaning and purpose. Surprising, significant associations between the past and the present are discovered. My life becomes brighter and sharper and better with every memory that is uncovered.
The reason is simple: We are the sum of our experiences, the culmination of everything that has come before. The more we know about our past, the better we know ourselves. The greater our storehouse of memory, the more complete our personal narrative becomes. Our life begins to feel full and complete and important.
As I said, Crash & Burn is damn good for the soul.
Instead of the five minutes a day that I’ve asked you to dedicate to Homework for Life, this exercise requires about fifteen minutes at a time. Although I think it’s a highly productive exercise, I realize that fifteen minutes every day is asking a lot.
So I’m asking a lot. Do it every day. Close Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Ignore your children for a quarter hour. Turn off the television. Find a quiet room with a lock on the door. Make it the bathroom or a closet if necessary. Give everyone in your home a cookie and tell them to go away for a little while.
Author Zadie Smith says, “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” She’s right. Storytellers must selfishly guard their time, especially from the people they love most.
Storytellers need to know how to tell a good story, but they also need good stories to tell. Lots of them. Crash & Burn will not only give you the content you will need, but it will change the way you perceive yourself and your life in the process.
Give me fifteen minutes a day, and I’ll guarantee you some amazing results.
In case you were wondering, my father wrote me a beautiful and hilarious letter describing his recent foray into gardening. Avoiding the issues surrounding our relationship (or lack thereof), he offered me a glimpse into a life that I want to know better. Since that first letter, we have exchanged about a dozen in all and continue to write. I don’t know if my father and I will ever be able to spend much time together or open our hearts to each other, but these letters have been a blessing for me, and, I hope, for him.
Matthew Dicks is a bestselling novelist, thirty-six-time Moth StorySLAM champion, and five-time GrandSLAM champion. In addition to his widespread teaching, writing, and performing, he cofounded (with his wife) Speak Up, which produces sold-out storytelling performances throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York at least once a month. He lives in Newington, Connecticut. His website is www.MatthewDicks.com.
The Secret to Great Storytelling
There are many secrets to storytelling, ways of crafting a moment from your life into a compelling, connective, memorable story.
Crash & Burn: Writing Exercise
Crash & Burn is stream-of-consciousness writing, writing down whatever thought that enters your mind, regardless of how strange, incongruous, or even embarrassing it may be.
Based on the book Storyworthy. Copyright ©2018 by Matthew Dicks. Reprinted with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com.