These days I don’t leave the house without a hand-held notebook, the kind that can slip into my back pocket not quite unnoticed, but at least making people wonder if I possess that masculine trait of carrying a wallet or a pack of cigarettes close. When I was walking around in a busy European city this past February, a man actually called out to me, because he was so concerned I would lose, what I assume he believed to be my money or passport (It was said in Italian and I didn't catch all of it), but regardless, it was a year's worth of words and sketches that would have been lost to the streets or a thief. I look forward to the day when I pull my jeans from the wash and the outline of that faded, tilted square has begun to appear, confirming for me that I’ve put in the time and effort of always having an accessible page to write notes, observations, and interpretations. The common places for me, where this has been extremely resourceful are: the laundromat, the grocery store, the DMV, in traffic (yes, be careful), parks, restaurants/bars, museums, and malls; anywhere where mass and diverse populations come together.
And with this habit I have adopted a new favorite hobby. More fun when accompanied by another person (but can also be done solo), this is a great exercise for not just writers, but for anyone who wishes to broaden their creative capabilities and become a keener observer. Me and a friend of mine found this activity quite enjoyable over a couple drinks one night at a favorite neighborhood bar (Sonny’s on Exchange, in Portland), and him being a jazz musician, pointed out to me that what we were actually doing was the equivalent of “riffing” in the music/poetry world. Of course riffing can take on various forms, but the point is to be able to come up with original ideas with an improvisational mindset. Even last night I had a conversation with one of my token philosophy friends (yes, these are very good to have as well, because they play devil’s advocate to any statement you make, and it gets your gears turning and your rebuttals better articulated), and we went down the existentialists’ road of theory and theology, brainstorming bright new ideas which I will later be able to utilize in my own storytelling, at some point or another.
Okay, now back to what you should try with paper and pen. Say you are in a bar where the cocktails are flowing and there are plenty of shiny, unique distractions that grab your attention. Find a spot that you can be comfortable enough and have it quiet enough to communicate with the other person (or if you are alone, where it is quiet enough where you can hear your own thoughts). Have the first person write down 4-5 objects or descriptions that jump right out to them, but do not discuss or show these to your evening companion. For example: Red, pearls, glass, fish, and mahogany. Now hand this list over to your friend, and have them come up with a different situation or scene with all these words enveloped inside, but here’s the kicker, it has to be one sentence long. (Recently, I also participated in an online contest inspired by a micro-novel written by Hemingway, where there was a 15-word cap to create the beginning and end of a story).
Here are some examples that came out of my experiences with riffing:
PERSON #1: The street formed the shape of a bracelet, glimmering like pearls and diamonds, the push and gentle pulse of the city, yes, this was New York.
PERSON #2: The street people were pushing New York, a more expensive sight than the pricey bracelet that hung from her gentle wrist.
PERSON #1: There was something about that stupid, fucking fedora, maybe even haunting, she contemplated running it over with her truck.
PERSON #1: The relatives will continue to talk about that skintight, pleather number Aunt Kathy wore, the color of a crayon that would never make it into the box, and not to mention the neon white Velcro sneakers and the faint smell of peanut butter that lingered wherever she went.
Check out this scene from the movie Sylvia, where Sylvia Plath (Gwenyth Paltrow) & Edward Hughes (Daniel Craig), riff: