Not Dead, Just Frozen – Bringing Stories, Novels, and Maybe Even Imaginations Back To Life, Part I: NONONONONONO!

And! If you’re checking this out, come check out Part II: What To Write About When You Don’t Know What To Write About.

The Escapery is extending the deadline for BOOM! The Revision Breakthrough Workshop – $200 until August 3rd. Boom is a 5 week class approaching revision and story-development breakthroughs from unexpected sides, everything from craft to improv to crayons to exploratory questions. If you’re reading this, we’d love to have you. To find out more or register, find us here


“That Dead Feeling” – it’s the saddest thing that can happen to writers and stories and artists and all living things.

used to have imagination. I used to be a writer. This used to be a great story. We thought we had a good idea. This story used to be good. But now it’s gone. Dead.

When the dead feeling comes on, it’s always winter and never Christmas. Writing and revising feel like work instead of play. Art fills us with anxiety instead of joy.

Glass Coffin 2

Well, here’s a secret I learned from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro. Come close, I’ll whisper it in your ear.


frozen tundra

Keith Johnstone was a teacher and theater artist who devoted his life to the unfreezing of art and artists. This wasn’t just an academic interest for him, it was a question of “imaginative survival.”

“As I grew up, everything started getting grey and dull. I could still rememebr the amazing intensity of the world I’d lived in as a child, but I thought the dulling of perception was an inevitable consequence of age — just as the lens of the eye is bound gradually to dim. I didn’t understand that clarity is in the mind.”

Johnstone embarked on a 20 year quest to revive the spontaneity of art, to rediscover imagination. How to unfreeze what is frozen. His method draws on fairy stories, word associations, free associations, and intuitions, and is based on the idea of spontaneity, attending to, seeing again. And they work!

“After a lot of practice…the deadness and the greyness…sloughed off — I’d thought I’d never move through a visionary world again, that I’d lost it… The dullness was not an inevitable consequence of age, but of education”

And the deadness can be unlearned. The only requirement is understanding that the story isn’t dead. It’s just frozen. And what is frozen can be unfrozen. One way to unfreeze, Johnstone found, was contrariness.

“As soon as you put not into an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens out.”

By tapping into the quality of no, not, what if it wasn’t, we awaken our inner terrible two year old, and stories begin to unfreeze, and possibilities open up. We lose touch of “because I said so,” and venture into “why can’t I have ice cream for dinner?” Saying no can do the opposite of shutting down possibilities, it can project us into the world of WHAT IF, where everything is possible and nothing is frozen, and writing becomes alive again breathless, bloody, and boiling!  

Here’s a place to begin. Want more? Want to try this in good company? Come write with us! We can’t wait to zombie-thaw with you.

A Contrary Approach to Unfreezing A Story (adapted from Keith Johnstone’s Impro)

1. Print out the story/ paragraph/ poem.

2. Go through the text with a pen, adding the word “not.” maybe even every other sentence. The woman was NOT beautiful. I love you NOT. It was NOT a dark and stormy night. It was NOT the best of times; it was NOT the worst of times. Consider these nots. Has any possibility opened up?

3. Consider: Where else can we be contrary, in the story and beyond? Try this: Every time anything happens in a story or in life, consider the exact opposite. Captain Ahab is obsessed with killing the white whale…NOT, he’s a greenpeace warrior (check out Gary Graves’ play Project Ahab. Stories absolutely must not have plots (what should they have instead?). Hamlet doesn’t want to avenge his father, he wants to avenge Yorick (how might he do this?). Juliette is NOT in love with Romeo (she’s in love with Mercurio, she’s in love with her nurse, she’s in love with the old priest).

I’ll leave you with this last from Johnstone. Happy Writing! (or not! Painting! Sculpture! Crayons! Dance!). Whatever it is, I hope it’s an adventure.

“If you have a good idea, open your mouth and say something else.” 

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