“Just-So” Stories (part 1)

This activity can take some time to “complete”. Don’t feel that you have to finish it in one sitting. In fact, you will likely get more out of it if you return to embellish and add to it later.

I’ve deliberately split this activity into two posts. I’ve found I get more creative and flexible ideas if I work spontaneously, without trying to invent something to fit a particular situation.

Sometimes, the problem or situation you think you are working on is not the one you really need to think about. Sometimes, when a problem is resisting solution, you need to go off in a completely different direction so you don’t wind up with just a small variation on what already hasn’t worked.

Try to get at least to the point of having written down a short version your story before you stop.

By the way, if you have (or can borrow some) kids, this is a great activity to do with them! It’s also a great group activity. A glass of wine or s’mores around a bonfire with a group of like-minded friends can work wonders to open up your creativity and intuition.

See Who Wants to Speak to You

To begin, select an animal, plant or natural feature, such as a lake or mountain. If you are having a hard time coming up with something, or if you tend to go again and again to the same things, take a short walk out in nature and see what catches your eye today.

Or, flip through your Creative Seeds to see if you catch a glimpse of a natural creature there. Or look with fresh eyes out your own window, or in your own backyard. What’s been there all along that you haven’t really taken note of?

Is there a hardy weed that persists in growing in the crack in your front walk? Why is it being so persistent, pushing its way into your life and awareness over and over? Maybe today is the time to listen to what it has to say?

If you are stuck inside, you can even use Google Images.  Type in “Nature” and start scrolling until something jumps out at you.

Like Kipling’s “Just-So” stories, and in the manner of many indigenous peoples, we’ll recognize this natural creature or feature as a person, with a story to be told.

Tell your story aloud.

Tell the story like you’d tell it around the fire late at night—“This is the story of Mighty Wild Boar,” or “Once upon a time there was a Tiny Forest Pool,” or “I am Milkweed; hear my story!”

Here are some things you might tell:

  • How did this natural person come to be (at the beginning of the world) or was he/she/they always there?
  • Is this person male, female, both, no gender, some blend of both? What other characteristics does this person have?
  • What are their special abilities or significant history?
  • What defining moments or adventures has this person had?
  • What great or terrible deeds have they accomplished?

Any of those things can be the basis for your story.

It’s best if you can tell the story aloud first, dramatically, making it up as you go along. Find a willing audience (your cat, your philodendron or a tree will do).

Why? Because when you have to make it up on the fly, you’ll be more spontaneous. You’ll surprise yourself more. You have to say something next, so your brain will seize on any old stray thought lying around and toss it into your story.

The beauty of this is that “stray” thoughts arise because there’s some connection; you just might not know what it is yet! It doesn’t matter if it’s outlandish or silly. Humor can be a way to lighten up and get some perspective, or a way of getting to the edge of things that might be too scary to blurt out directly.

The story doesn’t have to be any particular length. Start anywhere, and tell the part that feels right to tell today. You can always end with something like, “And on another day, I’ll tell you the story of how Bumblebee got so fat,” and leave the rest of the story for another day.

It’s a Story, Not a Therapy Session!

We live in a society obsessed with self-analysis. And clearly, I believe that self-exploration (which is a little different, but nevermind) is a worthwhile activity.

However, self-analysis is NOT good story-telling!

Once, I was trying to illustrate how I use story-telling in my journaling to a good friend. I said to her, “If you were going to tell me the fairytale version of your life, today, what would it be?” I was thinking along the lines of a Cinderella-ish story, or a lost-in-the-big-forest story, or discovering-you-are-really-the-princess (or superhero) story.

Instead, she began with something like “Well, my family was always one of those dysfunctional families . . . ”

Do you know any four-year-olds whose eyes would light up at that?

I didn’t think so.

Try starting with “Once upon a time . . . “, or “Tonight, I’m going to tell you the amazing story of how Hippopotamus got so fat . . . ” Be dramatic!

Will you feel sort of ridiculous? Probably. But we spend so much time analyzing ourselves and others that we sometimes need something dramatic to jolt ourselves out of that mode of thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, analysis is very useful. But it’s death to creative expression.  Let your mind run wild for now. You’ll get to reflect and analyze in part 2.

Maybe 99% of what you say in your story will be utterly without creative value. But I’ve found that often the 1% that is creative gold only gets dislodged if you allow it to be flushed out by the 99% that’s nonsense.

So just blurt it all out and worry about what it means later.

Write it down, just as you told it.

Now that you’ve told the story aloud, write it down. Do your best to write it down as you told it. Keep resisting the temptation to explain or analyze at this point. Just record the story.

Illustrate it. (Don’t panic!)

Now it’s time to illustrate your story. Don’t immediately stress out about whether you can draw. If you feel completely at a loss, check out the article What If I REALLY Can’t Draw? for some ideas about how to add recognizable images to your journal even if you are new to drawing (or just don’t feel like drawing).

I almost always look through my journal to see if there is a Creative Seed page that looks like it fits my story. Sometimes, I find one that actually looks like a character in my story.

More often, the colors or shapes just seem like a good background or context for my story and illustration. At least I don’t have to start with that scary blank page!

Try it! You’ll be surprised how much better even the humblest drawing looks when it has a Creative Seed as background and support.

Instead of imagining the sort of lovely illustration you might see in a children’s picture book, it might help to think of the sort of story representations that are found in much older forms—pictograms on a boulder or cut into the land, stylized patterns woven into a piece of cloth or drawn in a childlike, fantastical way in the margin of an illuminated manuscript, a mask, a coat of arms, a piece of old pottery.

After you have at least gotten the bare bones of your story down, preferably after you’ve done at least some illustration, you can move on to part 2, in which you’ll reflect on the what you story has to teach you.

Try to let things emerge spontaneously  until you feel your focus wane. That may be a signal that you are falling out of the creative flow and you’re ready to mine your work for insights.

You might also find yourself feeling restless because you are getting close to something that makes you uncomfortable. If you feel you are just giving in to distraction to avoid something you need to stay with, then gently bring yourself back, or allow yourself to complete the work in a separate session.

But at the same time, don’t force yourself to continue working on part 1 just because you feel like you haven’t spent “enough” time. Your unconscious mind might have just needed one big shout! If you feel it’s time to move on, then go with the feeling.

Okay, on to Part 2!