100 things

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

Every once in a while I get the feeling that I’ll crawl right out of my skin unless I clean out a closet. Nothing makes me happier than to fill bags and bags of unused stuff to haul off to the Goodwill store, where they always ask me if I want a receipt and I always say no. I have a theory is that everything ends up where it needs to be and if I don’t need it, it doesn’t belong to me, and how could I possibly take  a receipt for someone else’s stuff?

Closet cleaning. It’s a useful skill. Some people like a clean stovetop or a clean floor; I like a tidy closet. This isn’t just me being obsessive – well maybe, but I like to think that I am not so much a collector as an experiencer. I am not so much interested in getting stuff as I am in having insights and impressions wash over me like high tide on a blue moon.

Once, when I lived in Pennsylvania, I tried to temp my Amish neighbor into letting me take photographs of her beautiful young sons with their straw hats and wide blue trusting eyes. “For later, when they grow up, to remember them by,” I said, and she turned me down flat. “It’s not our way,” was all she would say. And I got it. She didn’t need  to take measure of the moment to save it for later. She wasn’t keeping a piece of now to reminisce; she was fully present. I liked that. I wanted to emulate that.

So, I like to throw/give stuff away. Make no mistake, I don’t exactly shun materialism, indeed, I find that a certain measure of pretty things make me happy and content. However, truth to tell, I find that I can’t quite think as clearly or creatively when things all around me are jumbled up and drowning in clutter and I can’t find my car keys.

Writing is like that, which is why I think I’s so important to write. A lot. If not every day, then several times a week, at least. It’s not because all that practice makes you a better writer, even though it does. It’s not because all the best writers do it and you’ll become  a best seller by osmosis, because that’s just silly.  No, writing every day is important because it gets all the clutter out of your head so that when you have something really important or profound or dazzlingly brilliant to say, it will be seen as diamonds sparkling on the sand, instead of dull objects half obscured beneath a verb-dump.

Timed writing exercises or list making exercises are great ways to purge the shrunken tee shirts and torn jeans of your brain. Oh sure, you think you’ll wear them again, but you’re just kidding yourself. They’re hanging out reminder you that the time is passing you by and those jeans will still be waiting there for you. Some day.

I used to think that I need to save my creative stuff up, like there was a limited supply of juicy ideas. You laugh, but it’s true. I thought, “well, I’ll just save that good idea for later, because then I’ll really have time to develop it and it will so rock.” It seems strange to think that now, but why else would I want to withhold my creative spark? Because, I thought, maybe that creative sliver of divine creative spark might be too good or not good enough to share with the world.

Let me just make one thing perfectly clear: there is no shortage of good ideas. If you use up one good idea, three will appear in its place. It’s when you stuff a good idea or ignore a good idea, that they stop flowing in through the open window of your mind. So use them up! Fast! And then use them some more!

And you know what else?  When you use up all your good ideas, when you pour them onto the page like good maple syrup on homemade sourdough pancakes, you’ll get to a place much sweeter than the place you’re at now. I totally promise.

Do this: write a list of the 100 things you know for sure how to do. I bet you’ll dash off ten things you’re good at without breaking a sweat. You’ll push on to twenty and start to chug. Climbing up to thirty, a little voice inside your head will start to sound like The Little Train That Could. Forty? You may feel like giving up. But here’s what you get when you push past the point that you thought was the outer edge: the ideas dam has burst and they start to flow fast and frenetic and suddenly you see the wisdom in the 100. It’s not the first or second or even the fifth ten things, it’s the ones past where you thought you knew where you were going that are the really interesting ones.

You can do this for a year. Write about the 100 things you look for in a soulmate. The 100 things you learned in college. The 100 places you want to visit while you still inhabit the planet. This is important stuff. Not because of the things themselves, but  because of the process of learning to open up to the place in your heart that exists beyond everything you think you know. It’s the stuff beyond that, that gets really good. Use it up! Use it all up as it comes in.  You can never use it up completely. Unless you want to, and that’s an entirely different choice, baby.

43 thoughts on “100 things

  1. Great advice! I am not entirely convinced about the lists:-) but I can see how they may help. I’ve been writing morning pages for about 3 months and found the exercise helpful, especially to get rid of clutter in my brain. I think it’s important – no matter what you do – practice as often as you can and in any form you can.

    • Thanks! Yes, whatever works, is what I say. I think it’s a good plan to write something you have resistance to. My friend is doing morning pages, and she had some real resistance to it. I think that the not-wanting-to-do-it is an important place to get past, no matter what. The resistance is like the gatekeeper, beyond which live the juicy bits.

  2. “If you use up one good idea, three will appear in its place. It’s when you stuff a good idea or ignore a good idea, that they stop flowing in through the open window of your mind.” This is so true. :-)

  3. yup. exactly. and i find that the more i write, then more i’m able to write next time. sometimes a floodgate opens, and then there’s more and more. sometimes i worry that i’m putting out too many blog posts and people will stop reading because it’s like, “oh, here he goes again, clogging up my inbox.”

  4. I also used to worry that I would use up my inspired ideas. Tried to save them for a special occasion. Or, as you elude to, I’d miserly guard them like an undiscovered gold mine. Which they are, when I give them away. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. What a great post – and great starting point for a writing adventure. It makes more sense putting it in the context of cleaning closets, too – I can totally relate!

  6. Reblogged this on Reading Today and commented:
    Okay, it actually wasn’t the title that drew me into this post – it was the closet-cleaning. There’s nothing quite like taking a load of stuff to the Goodwill for someone else to use and looking at the clean, semi-bright, carpet beneath it and wondering what might go there next.

    And then it got even better – a post about lists! What’s not to love?
    And lists for better writing and inspired ideas – perfect! I think I’m going to start with the 100 things I know how to do and maybe try the 100 things I learned in college. I’ll write about them…maybe here, maybe not….but it will no doubt get those creative juices flowing and find some of the hidden gems I’ve buried in my conscience (maybe for good reason, but I won’t know until I try).
    What “100 Things” would you make a list about to inspire creativity or reflection?

  7. I really enjoyed this post, because I can relate. Both with the thrill of giving away my things to Goodwill (well, actually we donate to a mission) and knowing others can use what I no longer could, and because I, too, have hoarded my creative ideas, thinking, “oh, I’ll get to that in the future”. In fact, just yesterday I took one of those ideas and started writing it up in a story, even though I have many other things I need to work on. But I can work on it in bits. Better it’s out on paper (or on my laptop, anyway) than stuck in my head. :)

  8. Love the 100 idea. Will give it a shot if I hit a blank patch although at the moment I am jotting creative notes constantly, working them, using them and sometimes reworking and reusing them… upcycled writing.

  9. You are absolutely right that you never run out of good ideas. As a bit of an OCD perfectionist, I’ve resisted that logic for years. I think your message of “spring cleaning” for writing echoes Natalie Goldberg’s musing that all that jumbled-up mess of stuff in our heads might be manure, but it is because of this rubbish that the great ideas are able to bloom and flourish.

    • Hi Nicole,
      Isn’t it funny that the very thing that we resist is often the key to the vault? I love how that works. PS: A reference to this work and to Natalie Goldberg in the same breath is the highest order of compliment. Bless you, bless you. Cynthia

  10. Your post is just what I needed this morning! A list. Yes! Its funny how the universe conspires to place in front of you, the hints to retrieval of what you already instinctively know. Mired in “self promotion”, wondering if this is what publishing leads to … this miasma of approval seeking, attention pandering, status climbing, non-creative junk … you remind me to go back, open the window, and breathe in the creative air and just write – RIGHT!

  11. What fantastic excercises (the closets and the 100 things). I love the idea of “learning to open up to the place in your heart that exists beyond everything you think you know.” That truly is the good stuff. And it’s similar to the critical things that are left after disposing of the 100 useless items cluttering my closets. Great analogy. Thank you.

  12. It’s definitely an article that feels spot on with my current feelings towards writing a blog. Ever since I started it, I feel I am able to focus a lot better when it comes to revising my work.

    I think the reason is because I get to keep a clearer head. There are no ideas there to wrestle down and keep quiet while I fix mistakes, adding a word here and erasing another there. Even the most inane, trite stuff I can think of has gotten out at one point, and in spite of its poor (to me) value it has left me alone and without distractions.

    I’m very organized about my literary work, but surprisingly disorganized about everything else. And I like it that way. My room is a mess but I always know where are my keys.

  13. I am always always always afraid of using up all of my good ideas. I keep thinking, what if they’re finite and you better take care of them because this is what you have to work with. I love your idea of cleaning up your mind to let in all of the other ideas that haven’t come down the line yet. I’ve definitely got a few metaphorical ripped jeans that could go!

  14. Loving reading your back catalogue – glad you haven’t sent all these former posts off to Goodwill! I too am a closet-clearer. If I buy something, I have to pass-on at least 2 things. Some would call me the worlds’ worst clean freak, but I ain’t that bad. I just need a clear environment (and brain) to write. A friend once said his world would end if he dried the last of the dishes. For me, that’s when real life begins!

    • I know what you mean, Michael. My house is never cleaner than when I’m writing!
      I just went through a major purge and got rid of stuff that I’d been hauling around for years. . .literally and metaphorically. What a relief to be rid of that stuff. The writing though? I never purge it. What is that about? Ego? Eternal hope? Probably a little of each.

      • I reckon writing is purging, it’s just once you’ve let it go, you can refine it. Imagine giving an old jumper away, then cleaning and repairing it for the new owner, until it’s better than it ever was when you owned it, then putting it up for sale! You WOULD be called an egotist and a hopeful fool, but do we care?

    • I know what you mean, Michael. My house is never cleaner than when I’m writing!
      I just went through a major purge and got rid of stuff that I’d been hauling around for years. . .literally and metaphorically. What a relief to be rid of that stuff. The writing though? I never purge it. What is that about? Ego? Eternal hope? Probably a little of each.

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