Step Right Up

6-7 Minute Read

Having read this far, you’ve likely noticed that I have a mild obsession with game shows, and none more so than with The Price is Right. It may just be a series of product placements, intermittently interrupted by a lot of shouting, but it captivates me all the same.

Even in a world rife with division, I take comfort knowing that we can all agree that the Plinko board, which first graced the stage of The Price is Right in the winter of 1983, stands alone as the single most unheralded achievement of daytime television.

Let’s all stop for a moment and watch as the chip bounces towards us, a perfect circle rattling from left to right, right to left, immersed in its own fierce debate with physics.

In the amusement parks that I dream up during particularly long administrative meetings, we’re all riding an oversized Plinko chip down a frictionless white board, gravity shepherding us toward an unknown sum as viewers everywhere lean in to see what we’re worth, and who among us will survive to the end.

Now that I’ve inspired you with that especially hopeful image, try your hand at the following warm up activity, which encourages you to find inspiration in less than obvious places.

Getting Started

All we need for this activity is some kind of writing to work with. If you happen to have a book or a magazine nearby, they’ll work great, but you can just as easily do this with words on a screen.

To start, resist the temptation to read as you usually do, and instead imagine your eye is a Plinko chip that’s tumbling through the sentences. Give yourself permission to bounce back and forth and to read both quickly and erratically. As you do so, make note of the phrases you land on and jot them down as you go.

I just tried this with an article on the CBC’s website entitled “The Wackiest Vending Machines in the World.” Here’s what I came up with:

hot fish soup
fruit toppings
underwear vending machines
the Church of Latter Day Saints
subscribe to our podcast

Now, let’s see If I can use a few of these to come up with a beginning:

It was never my intention to get my underwear stuck in a vending machine, but when it happened—the first time, that is—I had this inexplicable moment of sheer ecstasy that somehow I had been ordained for this, that it was no accident I spilled out like oranges in the administrative offices of the Church of Latter Day Saints. So what if some podcaster eventually grinds my misfortune into hamburger? What does it matter that the security camera’s footage goes viral? Nothing stops the evening sun from subscribing to the lower atmospheres. All brains are, at best, fruit topping. All that the body can do is make peace with the sweat it finds itself in, whether that’s the vapour of champions breaking Olympic ribbons or the hot fish soup of perspiration that graces an intern’s back as she glides against the glass, the whole world just waiting to discover her.

This isn’t a story I need to pursue in order to feel fulfilled in life, but I do hope that it illustrates a few things.

Sometimes, by limiting the words that we get to use, unlike things get pressed together, and often in interesting ways (I’m not actually sure if I manage that here, but I’m sure you can see how that’s possible).

It’s also the case that our verbs may become less conventional: it hadn’t occurred to me that the sun could possibly subscribe to something, but I’m intrigued by the possibility, which is precisely the point of this exercise: play with your words to see where they lead you, and let them surprise you along the way.

One Last Thing

It’s a lot of fun to pull together random words and phrases to see what you can make of them, but Plinko chips do remind me of another writerly experience, one that’s considerably less enjoyable, but nevertheless worth making note of here.

If ever you’re fortunate enough to have your work published, you may experience a moment of insecurity that many writers face, one that arrives shortly after the initial elation of seeing your work has passed.

As your eye drifts through your story or poem, you begin to recognize the influence of other writers, and their presence feels so obvious that you wonder how anyone could possibly miss them. It’s like you didn’t write something, so much as you invited your favourite writers over for a dinner, then made them hang out with you and your words, which suddenly seem altogether paltry in comparison.

Embrace that feeling, as it’s a healthy one to have. You’ll find that the world of literary egoists is rampant with people who can’t recognize the extent to which others have shaped their work. And it’s a real shame, too, since they’re missing out on a sense of community and connection that would otherwise help sustain them.

So, if you ever find your eye bouncing back and forth between obvious markers of influence, know that it’s a healthy sign of humility and self-awareness. Know, too, that these influences probably aren’t as obvious to others as they are to you, and that most every reasonably well adjusted writer has, at some point, felt the same, which puts you in very good company.  

Looking Back

Speaking of good company: if you’re lucky, you’ll be reminded at various points in your development as a writer to read widely. I recommend taking such advice literally by looking for inspiration in all the written messages you encounter: a pamphlet on heart disease, a flyer from the hardware store, a tax form, a bank statement, a warranty for a robotic vacuum cleaner.

Words and sentences swirl around us, and you shouldn’t hesitate to let your eyes follow them wherever they go. When we begin to recognize how strange and wonderful words are, even in their most banal forms, whole new avenues of creative possibility open up before us.


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Cold Opens Copyright © 2022 by Dave Hickey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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