by Vivian Wagner
My love of randomness started when I went to a weekend writers’ retreat and heard a presentation by the mystery novelist Kylie Logan about using tarot cards to inspire our writing. At first I thought she would talk about divining the future using the cards, but in fact she showed us how to use the cards to get ourselves unstuck, to think of new plot points, to discover things about characters and about ourselves.
In one of the workshop’s exercises, I drew a card that showed a woman blindfolded and surrounded by swords. Logan asked us to study our card, to think about what it said to us, and to freewrite about the image. She didn’t mean for us to use the card to predict the future. Rather, she knew that whatever random card we drew would spark something in our minds, take us in new directions, make us think differently about our stories.
I love the accidental, the aimless, the incidental. Many of my essays have started with random prompts of some sort or another, and they always get me out of my regular paths of thought and expression.
When our minds encounter random events, pictures or words, we tend to make meaning of them. And that woman with the swords and the blindfold spoke to me in deep and meaningful ways. I wrote a piece of an essay that afternoon inspired by that card. It was the right card at the right moment, not because of any prophetic power in the cards, but because my story-making mind made it so.
I’ve since found that other techniques for inspiring randomness can be equally effective. In fact, there’s a whole industry that’s built up around decks of cards, games, books, and prompts to get writers going, thinking, and moving beyond the places where they get stuck. One of my favorites, lately, has been a deck of cards called The Storymatic, which promises “six trillion stories in one little box.” The Storymatic has two types of cards: gold character cards and copper plot point cards. Through drawing several of each, you’re led into a story generated entirely from random elements. Even for nonfiction, these cards can spark ideas based on their utter randomness and unpredictability. For character cards, you might draw “hitchhiker” and “person who needs a job.” For plot cards, you might draw “this time it’s bound to work” and “what is that smell?” Just reading these cards is enough to start feeling creative, and though they’re completely random, the mind almost immediately starts to weave them together into a story that makes sense.
I also like a little cube-shaped book called The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination, which you can open to random photo and text prompts. One page says, for instance, to “Write a story that begins, ‘The last time I saw my mother was fifteen years ago.’” Another simply has a photo of a car driving down an empty highway. I love to flip through this book, and it’s led me to write numerous flash pieces and to develop parts of longer essays.
I also like an iPhone app called “Writing Prompts,” produced by writing.com. This app has built into it a number of random prompt-creators. Its Sketches function gives a genre and a type of writing. It might offer the genre “History,” and the form “One Sentence.” You swipe or shake the phone to get any number of sketches. I’ve never gotten the same combination twice, even after several years of using the app. Another feature creates a scene out of random elements of place, character, object, and weather. So you might get “an industrial waste plant,” “a bike messenger,” “a carton of milk,” and “a warm, sunny day.” The app’s Text feature offers the beginning of a story, such as, “You discover that aliens among us have no shadows, and to prove that, you…” Yet another iteration generates random words, like “cut,” “father,” “male,” “mute,” and “flowery,” and you can attempt to write a story or essay or poem including some or all of them. Finally, there’s a news story prompt based on current headlines, focusing particularly on strange or unusual stories. You might get a headline like “Antiquarian bookseller sees future in the past,” click on the link, read the story, and write from there.
I love the accidental, the aimless, the incidental. Many of my essays have started with random prompts of some sort or another, and they always get me out of my regular paths of thought and expression. They force me to see the world anew, offering me infinite directions in which to go. When we’re writing, we often run up against corners and walls. Random prompts show us the doors and windows.