An ad for a creative writing competition cycled through my Facebook newsfeed enough times that my curiosity gave in. I clicked on the link: a flash fiction contest during which participants receive word prompts, have forty-eight hours (a timed weekend) to write a story, and are asked to advance (or not) through a series of subsequent creative writing challenges, resulting in possible publication and a cash prize. I enjoy a challenge, so I signed up. But when then the timed weekend came, I flopped. I received word prompts that didn’t jive with my creative juices. Suddenly, the whole competition seemed moot—and then I realized that the creative writing process allows for valuable personal insight, just like a reflection practice.

The weekend of the competition arrived. Comedy, driving school, fake tattoo—these were the words I received as writing prompts. What was I supposed to do with them? I rarely chose to read comedy, and I didn’t know much about writing it. Driving school and fake tattoo were lackluster words for me, too. I put pencil to paper, and nothing happened. Later that day, I decided to watch a comedy movie for inspo—Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a time-traveling tale of two doods who need to save themselves (and the world) by passing a history exam. It happened to be on top of a recommended watch list for the media streaming service I have; the movie seemed like it would be a good fit for my creative block. As soon as I turned it on, I started cracking up at Bill and Ted—so many exclamations of “Dood!” and “Be excellent to each other!” I thought, “Wow, whoever wrote the script really captured details that give the movie such character.” I had seen the movie as a kid, but watching it now gave it a whole other layer. It was funnier, stupider, more poignant than I remembered. But the theme—overcoming challenge—and story—two underdogs take on a giant task, which launches them on an epic journey—was really something I could vibe with, especially since personal growth and evolution can feel like that.

Bill and Ted have an excellent adventure

And then I went back to work on my own piece. I decided that I would brainstorm around something I enjoy (exploring space) and how I could turn it into comedy. I wasn’t thinking of a particular theme, rather, I wondered what would make a story funny? What if the main character wasn’t human? What if it were a dog? What would the dog wear? What would the dog’s name be? And then, What if the dog accidentally rocketed itself into space?

Space exploration is something I’m really interested in, so it’s no surprise that popped up in my brainstorming. I’ve had many moments during which I wondered, “How the heck did I wind up here?” in relation to situations in life—and spent many hours retracing memories to figure out the answer. Space, in its vastness and mystery, appeals to me because nothing, not even the rules about how we understand its very existence, are hard and fast. So writing about a dog who winds up in a sticky situation was a way to flex creative muscles and allow anything to happen to a character—but essentially, the dog is me. I decided the dog would wear a fake tattoo while practicing space flight at a driving school, as in, I’m going to practice finding myself in a place that is unknown. THERE! All the prompts were satisfied and a story on hand.

The writing started to flow, but not easily, and I started thinking that if I didn’t do something fantastic, I didn’t want to write at all. I finished (barely), and submitted a story that didn’t feel like an accomplishment, or relief, or (least of all) good; I just got it done. Then, I realized exactly what was happening. I was thinking about how hard it was, which led insight about the quality of my thoughts, how they were attached to an outcome (since I didn’t feel comfortable with the words, my story wouldn’t be good).  The thoughts weren’t part of the actual creative work, and that informed me about my inner dialogue aka the inner critic aka the voice inside that holds me back rather than propels me forward.

That is where I find the overlap of the creative process with the process of personal growth–writing out the story allowed me to imagine, play in a new situation, be a character and not have any investment that might boomerang or bottom out. Writing the story was test driving a new experience, a new reality. I could express what that was like through the comfort and safety of a dog in a space ship. The analog here is for the journey through the inner landscape that manifests in our physical reality.

I’ve facilitated conversations with people who have want to make change in their lives, but who have also said, “But I can’t imagine my life any other way.” I’ve also facilitated conversations with people about writing, and they often say “I am not creative, I can’t write.” That’s like saying, “I can’t hear anything but my inner critic.” The impetus to create is often sparked by an external factor (wanting something to change in our lives or receiving a writing prompt), and the impetus to express is often an internal one (that experience that comes along with change or work). I often ask and encourage people to “Write your own story,” and the process is the same, whether creating fiction or real-life change. What you find in the story—the self expression—is rooted in the exploration to the reaction, “How did I get here? How do I get there? And where do I go?” That is your story. Write your own or explore the one you have—it  involves the same creative process.

After reflecting, I realized that receiving “humor” as a prompt was not what I wanted but what I needed: I need to laugh at myself. I was so serious over the whole creative thing! Likewise, I get sooo serious when trying new things, as in, if the new thing doesn’t work or feel good, I feel like it’s an investment wasted. But this isn’t the case IRL. So this creative writing experience created a little bit of space between the cramped inner voice that was so loud and close that I couldn’t hear anything else, and what was actually happening outside me. And, I wanted the dog to react in a way that embodies courage, not fear, because that’s how I aspire to be (even if it doesn’t happen).

May you be excellent to yourself in the creative writing process!

(And, here’s a link to the finished story.)