Just write and play

”Do we really have to do what we want to – again?” According to the legend, I made that comment after a day at daycare. I don’t remember the particular incident but recognize the feeling of being at a loss when being told to do whatever I want. Where to start? What to play? With who? For how long?

The same can happen nowadays when somebody tells me to be creative. I consider myself to be a creative person but the instruction Do whatever you want! Just write! Is the safest way to make sure I don’t create anything. At the same time I am a hypocrite – I have told the KI-bloggers for a long time to use the format of the blog to be creative and feel free to do whatever they want. 


Nevertheless, there have been quite some creative blog posts and projects on this blog – put a bunch of creative people together in one room and something magic will happen.

For me, changing the format and moving away from what you usually do can be a good way to boost creativity. In the beginning of the year we had a workshop about podcasting and the energy and enthusiasm generated in the room was amazing. We need more of that, I thought. 

On a recent visit to London I happened to spend the best part of one afternoon at Waterstones, a famous British chain of bookshops. This particular one, at Piccadilly Circus, has two cafés, a restaurant and toilets which means you never have to leave. (Long story short: I had a really nice afternoon.) In the end I found myself in front of some shelves entitled “writing” and somehow felt attracted to The creative writing toolkit. Although I had no idea what this was, I felt I need this. For myself, for my writing friends, for the bloggers. To give creativity a boost, to try something new, to step out of the usual routines how I write up a story. So I grabbed the kit, made it to the cashier yet another time and relieved my bank account a little more. 

Eagerly to try my new purchase I brought the little box to a blog-workshop. Some bloggers were enthusiastic from the start, others more skeptical in a scientifically healthy way. Spoiler alert: everybody had a really good time and we left the workshop smiling and laughing. 

The first sentence is the most difficult

A bunch of first sentences and 3 minutes of writing time until another random sentence enters the text. Photo: Natalie von der Lehr

First, we played the “first sentence” game. Everybody got a stick with a first sentence to start the story with. After three minutes of intense writing, everybody got another sentence and we repeated this procedure another time. After a total of only 9 minutes some amazing stories had come to life and everybody felt comfortable enough to read the stories aloud. Here are some examples (with the sentences on the sticks in bold).


I put tulips under all the pillows, and then I set fire to the house. Too many memories. I couldn’t stay, but I couldn’t let anyone change a thing. I don’t know where to go, but it doesn’t matter. If you’re not there, it’s not home anyway. Tulips. You would have loved them. They were from the little flower shop we used to go to. You remember? We were drinking champagne and losing our shirts. Those summer days. Before the diagnose. When we thought we’d live forever. But that was then, and this is now. And now I’m walking away from what’s left of our little piece of heaven. Tom lost 25 bucks at the races. You’d be laughing if you’d seen his face, my dear. And Anna is pregnant. I thought you should know. Not that it matters, because I won’t be coming back to this place. You’re coming with me though, aren’t you?


On Tuesday, Margaret told me she liked the little oranges with the seeds better than the ones I bought. I hated her for that. I knew that Matthew had been trying to grow those for a while and I was hoping to offer her favourite fruits before he would. I had searched carefully for an organic fruit supplier to make sure she would not complain about pesticides in fruits as she keeps doing. And then she still prefers Matthew’s oranges. 

I tried to get over this incident and invited her for a walk after work. The plane was two hours late so she actually suddenly had some time to be with me. I decided to take her to Kungsträdgården since the cherry blossoms had just bloomed and I knew she loved them. There was a gentle spring breeze in the air that finally made us feel that Spring had arrived in Stockholm. And Margaret smiled as soon as she saw the pink flowers all over the square. She thanked me for this little break away from the stress at work and said we should meet again with more time when she returned from visiting her family in England.

I cheated on my spouse. And it wasn’t the first time. This meeting with Margaret and the several attempts to get her close attention on me were making me feel so valued as I hadn’t felt for a while with Sarah. I could not avoid to gently kiss Margaret before she left and I felt my heart responding to it. I thought to myself I should be honest with Sarah after this episode and finally let her follow her path with someone who understands her better than I do.


There were 17 cats living in Larry’s apartment. He obviously did not have issues with allergies nor animals. But lot of people in his situation would suffer. I mean, 18 cats!? He was also a breaker of a stereotypes. He was a MEN! And a middle aged one at that. When you hear that someone has 18 cats, you think it is an old lady. Well, life is always full of surprises.

She was standing behind the counter, giving him this root beer-float kind of smile. But another surprising thing about Larry was that he did not like root beer-floats. They tasted like a melted toothpaste to him. But Amanda did not know that. She saw him there every day.

She found him in the Terminal Bar and Grill. He was sober, for a change. No, not Larry. Her husband. Her marriage was not a happy one. That is why she was intrigued by the kind, stereotype breaker, who fetched loads of cat food. Perhaps he has a kind soul, when he takes car of cats? Perhaps he can also take care of her?


Second game: A hero with a goal and an obstacle takes action

The second game was called “the protagonist game”. I rotated four wheels to select:

  • A protagonist (every story needs a hero) – Laurie, the famous actress
  • A goal – to be wild and free
  • An obstacle (creating some drama) – the inspector
  • An action (to overcome the obstacle) – takes up dancing
The protagonist game. Spinning four wheels give a random combination of hero-goal-obstacle-action. Ready, steady, write! Photo: Natalie von der Lehr


We added that the story should have something to do with career development. After 6 minutes of writing time everybody read their stories aloud. Here are some of the results – read and enjoy!


She needed a change. Not that being a famous actress wasn’t what she had wanted, but she felt like it didn’t reflect all of her. When you’re an actress, it means you’re mainly other people. You’re told who to be. If not for a specific role in a movie, then by your manager. Smile like this, walk like that. She wanted to be free. And she wanted to be appreciated for something else than her smile and her walk. She was actually quite a smart cookie, but who would ever care? So, she started thinking. What would be the wildest, craziest thing she could do? Something to break the role of pretty, dumb blonde girl she’d been stuck in. A scientist. That was it. She’d become a scientist. She’d have to change her looks, maybe her name. People wouldn’t take her serious otherwise.

And low and behold, a decade later she did become an independent researcher, though it had taken a while to build up the new life. It’s hard if you don’t have the connections, or don’t want to use the ones you have, because they link back to a past you don’t want to be part of any longer.

Until the inspector. After a research scandal, her university got subjected to a huge background check of all employees. It turned out she had no past. Or at least, no past that was linked to her current identity. The other researcher had never cared where she came from, but this guy needed an explanation.


She put on her ballet shoes so tight that it hurt. Pain is good. No pain, no gain. All she had ever wanted to do was whatever she wanted, and now she was here, behind the stage, waiting for the lights to turn on. 

 The show must go on. Put on a happy face. She had done that all her life. Her parents and big brothers applauded for her when she did her sketches and improvisations in her cardboard stage in the sunny garden. Her father always announced her as “Laurie, the famous actress!”, decades before this was actually the case.

 And now here she was, breathing heavily in her tutu. The inspector of the theater frowned at her. “You wanted this show, you put all your money into this, learned how to dance, and now, at the supreme moment, you’re hesitating? What is wrong with you?”

 Laurie looked up and smiled sadly. “Just that it took me some time to realize what it is I want. I just want to be wild and free.”

 She did not bother to close the door as she stepped onto the street into the fading sunlight.


Laurie was a young and naive actress from a small country. Rose to work hard and persevere. She had a difficult beginning in this new country, long and cold winter nights. But she knew that this was the beginning of a better life. She wanted to raise high, experience a new culture, be wild and free. Everything was going according to her plan. Until one day the inspector came with the news, no more free time. No more wild experiments, everything should be summarized, and soon should come to an end. She needed more time, what shall she do? Take him for a dance? Wait, he couldn’t dance. He didn’t dance. Anyway, she didn’t dance well either but maybe they could dance this issue together and find a more suitable solution for the time. And time they found


Laurie had many talents. Despite being known as an actress, she was also very good in writing. She liked to observe and notice different moments, thinking about how they could develop and where they could lead in the future. 

Laurie had a well-established career, but at some point she felt an urge to change the way of life everybody in the society expected her to live. The longing for freedom pushed her to an extraordinary decision: taking almost nothing, leaving all money at her bank account, she decided to go to Ecuador and to learn how to dance traditional dances. Deeply inside, she has always been dreaming about moving the same way as Ecuadorian women. There was fascinating passion and wilderness in a way they did it. 

Laurie was ready to complete her escape: courage, passport, some money and her tickets; that were the only belongings she took. However, in the same evening before the flight, she became a witness to a crime, to be precise – to a murder. It happened when she went to a local store to buy some food. How many times after that she wished she stayed hungry…

The first person she met at the police station was an inspector in his fifties. 


Laury was a famous actress. When she was still unknown, she believed that with career fame will come freedom. She will not have to listen to directors, designers and others. She could be wild and free, spontaneous in her acting like she always wished. Her biggest nightmare was the content inspector. He revised everything – her sentences, the tone of her speech, her facial expressions. She felt she needed to change who she was more and more just stay within the film producing machinery.

We all have career dreams just like Laury. When I was a PhD student I also thought with the next stages of my career I will gain more freedom. Freedom to do the research I wanted. The research that will actually benefit people. Instead my nightmares are filled with grant and paper reviewers. Like Laury, I am in a machinery, which sometimes makes me loose myself – the wild and free, dreaming, inspired and idealistic person within me.

You might think acting and research do not have much in common. But I believe we can learn from everyone. So what did Laury do? She was not ready to give up her acting career, but clearly needed a change. She took up improvisational dancing. In those few hours a week when she danced, none told her who to be and how to be. That way, she could retain her inner compass and keep her career.

My compass is teaching and mentoring. Explaining a concept to a student or a colleague reminds me of my passion. And perhaps it won’t change the whole world, but it might change someone’s world. Like Laury changed hers. And perhaps that is enough.


Join the game!

I left the workshop with that happy, bubbly feeling inside, longing to be creative and just write and play myself. Thank you bloggers for this boost! I will definitely use the creative writing toolkit more times, both for workshops and myself. I am already looking forward to some creative writing time during the summer. Who knows, maybe one of my secret writing projects will finally take off?

If you have read all the way to the end I have one final suggestion: join the game! You don’t even need the kit, just collect random sentences from the newspaper, facebook updates or a snippet of an overheard conservation on the bus or in a café and spin on. Do this with a friend, or even better a couple of them, have fun and a good laugh.


Guestblogger Natalie von der Lehr is a freelance science writer, podcast producer and coach for the KI Career Service blog team.

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