Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the Foothills Young Authors Conference in Okotoks, Alberta. It was the perfect setting for a conference, just south of Calgary and a great view of the mountains. I was asked to do the keynote and my topic was...The Lightning of Creativity. (I'll post the keynote below). The audience was 400 or so adults and young writers from grades 4-8. All quite full of energy for a Saturday morning!
The talk went well. Uh, I mean no one threw anything.
When I was done expostulating the students then attended classes with authors and illustrators, learning how to write. Both my groups were brimming with creativity! And Derek Mah, the illustrator extraordinaire of Monsterology, was there teaching a "how to draw monsters" class.
Here's Derek after I told him I was planning on keeping his portion of the royalties for Villainology.
All in all it was a great day for writing!
Cheers and ciao,
Here's the keynote, spelling mistakes and all:
The Lightning of Creativity
Honoured teachers, brilliant librarians, fellow amazing presenters, victorious volunteers, bright young minds brimming with creativity, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for inviting me to the Foothills Young Authors conference. I am humbled and honored and pleased as pie.
And I have only one wish for all of you--I hope each and every one of you gets struck by lightning. I know it’ll probably hurt. It may fry a few brain cells. It may blow off your shoes or clean out your sinuses. And it may change the makeup of your brain.
The lightning I’m talking about, of course isn’t the lightning that comes from Thor’s hammer, the lightning god of the norseman, nor is this lighting the almighty thunderbolts that Zeus, the king of Greek gods, loved to toss at mere mortals (which would be kind of a fun thing to do). And finally, this isn’t your every day lightning from a thunderstorm--it is the lightning of creativity, the thunderbolt of awesome ingenuity that zaps 10000 kilovolts of brilliance into your brain, rattles around your neurons, fires off idea after idea after idea and leaves you shaking your head going, what was that? Did I drink my slurpee too fast? Or is it that I’ve just had the most brilliant idea ever thought by a human being ever.
And that’s what we want today. Is to be struck by lightning. To have our brains vibrate with creativity. To think up brilliant ideas and get them down on paper. We are going to tell stories, through words or pictures. Really what we will become today are magicians or wizards or wizardesses, who make something appear out of nothing. Because before you tell your story, it doesn’t exist, right? You’ll create it. You’ll make it shine.
We, of course, won’t be the first people to tell stories. Take for example, the cro-magnon men and women. They lived in the upper Paleolithic period of the Pleistocene epoch, as you all know that was 40000 to 10000 years ago, give or take a year. They were very much like us, except they were more robust (they were bigger in the shoulders and chest) and actually had a larger brain capacity. Yes, that’s right. Brains have been shrinking for the last 10000 years. Anyway, these Cro-Magnons had sculpture, music, and cave paintings. And, they told stories.
Now, I have a cro-magnon story. You may wonder how I learned it. Well it was passed on through the family to me by my great great great great X1000 grandfather. Anyway, the story is that one time a hunter named Brug came home from the hunt and said “Ooga uggha ogra splegrukin” which kinda sounds German doesn't it, but it means, “I saw a sabre tooth tiger with teeth this big.” To which his friend, Urg, said, “Ooga Plooga!” Which means “prove it.” And so, Brug, answered, “Oooga ugha trooga rooga sploog sploog sploosh and kwabama!” Which means, sit down, pal, and listen to this story of adventure, splashing, blood spilling, and explosions (that’s the kwabama part). In other words, it doesn't matter whether Brug saw a Sabre tooth or not. It really only matters if he tells a good story.
We have been telling stories, no matter what culture we come from for tens of thousands of years. The Greeks told the story Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior of all time. When he was a child, Thetis, his mother, dipped Achilles in the river Styx, holding the baby by his heel. The river Styx was blessed by the Greek gods. So when she pulled him out he was totally invulnerable. No spear or sword no scissors would pierce him. The only place he could be cut was on his heel, why? Because that’s where his mother was holding him when she dipped him in the water. Years later the Greeks were all mad that Helen, the the wife of Menelaus of Sparta was stolen by the Trojan Prince Paris. They really wanted their property back--err--I mean Helen. Of course they didn’t ask Helen what she wanted. She kinda liked living in Troy. So they gathered all their armies and Achilles joined the Greek army to help lay siege to Troy. The battle rages on and one. When Achilles’ best friend Patroclus was killed during the battle for the city of Troy, by Hector, the greatest warrior the Trojans had, Achilles got really, really mad. He took on the Trojans all by himself. At the sight of him the Trojans broke rank. They ran one way,he chased them down one by one. They ran another way. And he cut more of them down. The stunned Trojan survivors rushed back behind their walls like frightened rabbits.
Now it was Hector's turn. He decided he had to fight Achilles. The two men met and both armies stood back and watched amazed. Hector's plan was to run around the city walls, hoping to tire Achilles who had been lazing around a lot of the time. Three times Achilles chased Hector around the walls and each time Hector ran for the safety of a gate, Achilles would cut him off. At last Hector stood to fight and at once Achilles drove his sword through him, gaining revenge for the death of Patroclus.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. A few days later, Paris, the brother of Hector, fired an arrow from the walls of Troy and it found the only vulnerable spot on Achilles, his right heel, and the great hero of the Trojan War died.
Now that’s a great character. A man who is nearly unbeatable, except for his heel. And I think that as you sit down to make your characters you should be thinking how can I make them more interesting? Do I give them an Achilles heel of their own? For example, Superman, his Achilles heel is kryptonite. An achilles heel can be a weakness. Say a fondness for chocolate ice cream. Lets say this girl’s mother gave her money to buy groceries and she spends it all on ice dream. Or a boy who loves playing video games. So much so that he doesn’t notice that the toaster is on fire and the dog is barking at him.
The Greeks weren’t the only ones who told stories. Every culture does. The Vikings talk about Jormungand the giant snake who was so big he could wrap himself around the world and he lived under the ocean, coming up to swallow a whale or a Viking ship. For the Vikings this was how they explained natural occurences. If thorday was out fishing and didn’t come home. They’d assume Jormungand got him. He just doesn;s t sit down therre. He finally swallowed Odin during Ragnarok, the end of the world. Or here was another hilarious story. One day Loki, the trickster god, stole Thor’s hammer and gave it to the giant. The giants, of course, are the enemies of the gods. Thor was so mad he grabbed Loki and held him upside down until Loki promised to help get the hammer back. Loki’s plan appeared in his head at once. And it was a very simple and ingenious plan. He decided to get Thor to dress up like a bridesmaid, veil and all, and steal back his hammer. Thor said, no way, not in a million years. But eventually Loki convinced him. He pretended to be the bridesmaid, a gift to the giant. Who was surprised when he saw the red, angry eyes behind the veil. The hair arms didn’t bother him because all giants and giantesses have hairy arms. It was the red, angry eyes behind the veil. Loki explained that it was because the bridesmaid was so excited, she couldn’t sleep. Then Thor grabbed the hammer and knocked all the giant’s heads off. And that’s exactly what happened. But the Vikings Norsemen understood humour. What could be more funny than the toughest god of all having to wear a dress?
How do you make your characters more funny? Well you don’t always have to get the big tough guys to wear a dress. But doing something opposite. Make the guy who doesn’t like dancing have to do a foxtrot. The girl who’s afraid of getting dirty or messy have to babysit a dirty messy baby.
We can look back to these old stories and be inspired by them. I was and have been in all my writing. One thing I love completely is stories. Why did I become a writer? When did I know? I always wanted to create something. But what made me want to become a writer was an assistant pig keeper. An assistant pig keeper? Did he just say that. Yes, he was a character named Taran in a book called The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. It was the very first fantasy novel I’d read. Before that all we had in our library were Hardy Boys books.
It starts out with:
“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.
“Why?” Taran cried. “Why must it be horseshoes?””
Now that’s a great start to a book. We see that young Taran wants something other than horsehoes. He wants adventure. He’s a pig keeper. An assistant pig keeper. But it turns out the pig is a magic pig and there is someone called the Horned king who is after him.
That book changed my life. I knew that there were other worlds. There were wonderful fantasy stories. And I began writing my own version of these stories. The other event that changed my life was Star Wars. Yes, I know it’s a long time ago. But that movie had everything I ever wanted in a movie. In a story. I felt as if every good story I’d ever read was coming to life on the screen. Lightsabres, good guys, bad guys, a princess, laser pistols, everywhere. I began writing screen plays the very next day. No one bought them.
But I didn’t stop. I wrote poems, and short stories, and I read. And I read and I read. Comic books, Lord of the Rings, Stephen King, Science fiction, Ray Bradbury, Fantasy, horror, more comic books and all of those characters clamoring in my head. But I didn’t just read stories. I read books about the Roman Empire, Norse Myths, Medieval Knights, Medieval weapons, World War One, . And I kept writing. I wrote in poems and stories in grade 4, I wrote in grade 5, once in awhile. A short story in grade 8 got me a good mark and some nice words from the teacher. It was all about a boy who plays a video game and somehow saves the world from invasion.
But it wasn’t until I was in grade eleven that I really decided to become a full time writer. My English teachers made us all write a short story. Mine was all about uh, the end of the world, come to think of it. Seems to be a theme in my early work. And I got 100%. Now I’ve never had 100% before and I haven’t had it since, but that was really when I started calling myself a writer.
If there had been a special hat that said writer on it. I would have put it on. I started my first novel shortly afterwards. I sent it to 8 publishers and they all rejected it. I’m sure you’ve all heard about it, it had the most amazing title. The Bardsong. Doesn’t that sound amazing to you. A bard as in a singer. and A song...uh, okay maybe the titled wasn’t so great. But the plot was amazing, It was all about a singer who saves the universe by singing a song. Now you see why it was never published.
It took me about eight years of writing to get my first story published. Another 4 more years after that before my first book was published. And probably the most important thing I learned was to rewrite things. Yes, the teachers love it when I say that. But writing is never its best when you first put it down. It’s better to go over it again and again and again until its perfect.
Here’s an example (Oh I should warn you the next sentence has violence in it (and arachnid squooshing): The little boy picked up his big booted foot and squashed the spider so that its guts were everywhere across the road.
That get the point across. But I rewrote it again and again until I came up with this:
It’s insides were outside now.
Much shorter. And it makes the reader do the work.
So rewriting is a big help.
Anyway, I thought I should end with a few words from my favorite writer, Ray Bradbury. He wrote a book called Fahrenheit 451 and another called Something Wicked This Way comes. They’re both brilliant books and if you like dark fantasy or science fiction, I recommend them.
As an example, of how he writes, I’m just going to read a section about a train coming to a small town in the middle of the night. Most of us would write something about the train’s whistle sounding ghostly, but this is what Bradbury writes:
“Yet this trains whistle! The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon dreamed dogs, the seep of river-cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protest of a billion people dead or dying, no wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, burst over the earth!”
All that, in the whistle of a train. I’d tell you what was on the train, but you’ll have to read the book.
But I will say one more thing about Ray Bradbury. He too explains how he first became a writer. It all started when he was a young boy and the carnival came to town. He went to see Mr. Electrico.
“Mr. Electrico was a fantastic creator of marvels. He sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people, young and old, of Waukegan, Illinois. When the electricity surged through his body he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row below his platform. When Mr. Electrico reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, "Live forever!"
Ray Bradbury thought living forever sounded wonderful. But how to do it. How do you live forever? Finally he decided the best way was to write. To write stories like the Greeks wrote, like the Romans, the Vikings, the Chinese. He became a writer that day and he wrote every day and still writes today, into his 80’s.
And that’s what I wish for all of us here. I want us to all live forever, to be hit by that lightning of creativity, to be knighted by Mr. Electrico, and to find that creative electricity in our brain. Hear it snap and crackle. Let it all burst out of you.
Just don’t fry your brains.