Ashley Schumacher Gives Unorthodox Advice
Author encourages students to find inspiration in strange places
March 31, 2023
If you are ever afraid to tell an idea, first say it to an animal-shaped eraser because you are your sponge person.
At her LitFest workshop entitled “From a Brain Trickle to a Brainstorm,” fiction writer Ashley Schumacher gave listeners beautifully unconventional advice – and an animal-shaped eraser.
To be entirely honest, when I walked into the second-floor classroom, roughly four minutes later than I was supposed to because I couldn’t find the classroom where Schumacher was giving her presentation, I had low expectations.
Admittedly, having seen one too many English teachers give their two cents on brainstorming, I thought I knew what Schumacher would say. So, I sat in a chair to her left, got out whatever notebook my hand grabbed first, and was utterly blown away.
Schumacher’s first advice was the kind she said no English teacher wanted her to give. She advised that google is an invaluable resource, so use it. Schumacher used the example of a “Macbeth” essay, for which she said she would first see what she could already find, not to steal, but to learn. Or, as Schumacher phrased it, “be a sponge.”
Schumacher sees no problem with using whatever resource she can find, partly because, in her eyes, originality is an impossibility. If the fiction writer did not have my attention before, she certainly did now.
And if my attention had not peaked then, it surely did when she showed a collection of Tik Toks she had saved and the ideas for books that they inspired in her, joking that Tik Tok was good for the brain and that she would not be invited back next year. These tiktoks ranged from a man angrily playing the piano to a dead puppy, and the ideas Schumacher thought of ranged from kidnapped children to a magical cello.
When formulating her ideas, Schumacher reiterated that they do not have to be brand new to be interesting. When explaining what she meant, Schumacher cited how successful many retellings have become, saying that the story will be original because the author or the perspective are different. Because, just as writing a totally new story is impossible, so are two people writing the same story. But, Schumacher also mentioned that a not-uncommon experience for her was thinking of an amazing premise for a book, only to discover the idea was already available at Barnes and Noble.
Schumacher also explained how the tropes of a story – especially when developing characters – are not original, but they are useful. A trope, such as a romance between a “sunshine” character and a “grumpy” character, will not make its debut in something currently being written, but they are reliable and do not in any way mean the story is unoriginal.
In her workshop, Schumacher even went as far as to give out a worksheet where listeners could write their favorite tropes and character combinations to glean inspiration from. This list also included a place to write favorite settings and plot twists, as well as what skills the person filling the sheet out already had and what they could speak about for ten minutes without preparation.
Schumacher explained that using one’s previous knowledge is important when writing a novel. She furthered her point by saying that many of her books were set in places she herself had been, and often stalked on google maps. And, while her skills in repairing ice cream machines that she learned working in an ice cream shop are unlikely to make an appearance in her books, if she has a skill, then so do her characters.
Schumacher also shared her advice for how characters can almost begin to write their own stories, saying that when stumped on what to write next, put a character where they don’t belong – or with people they do not belong with. Or, in her own words, “mess with the vibes.”
Yet, even after all the paths to a good story that Schumacher illuminated, the fear of sharing a new idea is not foreign to her. But, for this, Schumacher has found a solution – eraser animals.
Idea Buddies – as Schumacher referred to them as – were Schumacher’s tried and true solution to embarrassment when sharing ideas. Because, Schumacher stated, how could one be afraid when talking to something so cute. As a gift to those in attendance, Schumacher generously brought a basket of pet erasers for those in attendance to keep and use. And, since I’m sure everyone is wondering, mine is a tiger named General Stripes.
Schumacher’s presentation was not what I expected. She was not boring, and the advice she gave was not tired. Moreover, she was funny, comfortable in front of a crowd, and gave real, applicable advice that did not feel copied from a wiki-how page. If, despite her jokes of not being allowed to, Schumacher returns for LitFest next year, I will gladly be the first to sign up for her workshop.