Finding Writing Inspiration in Creative Cross-Training

I was honoured to be a guest blogger on “A Writer of History” thanks to historical fiction author M.K. Tod whose own work is well worth exploring.

A Writer of History

Grace-Note-by-PJ-ParsonsI met Patricia Parsons, author of several non-fiction and fiction works, at my daughter and son-in-law’s wedding. In that strange process of serendipity, Patricia has now moved from Halifax to Toronto and become a friend. Her novel Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow is a compelling story with the premise that Hildegard of Bingen may not have written all the music attributed to her. Today, Patricia muses on the notion of creative cross-training.

Finding Writing Inspiration in Creative Cross-Training by Patricia (P.J.) Parsons.

A few years ago the magazine Fast Company published a piece by writer Jane Porter (who writes both fiction and non-fiction herself) called “Five Ways to be Inspired by Your Everyday Life.” Her suggestions about feeding our curiosity, learning to manage risks, un-programming our thinking, using creative exploration and scrutinizing the unfamiliar all carried within them a single thread of commonality: each of them suggests to us that inspiration is fired by doing something different

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The romance of the library: A writer’s refuge

The rare book library at the University of Toronto is open to the public.
The rare book library at the University of Toronto is open to the public.

This past weekend I found myself roaming the spaces inside the rare book library at the University of Toronto and thinking about novelist Rita Mae Brown when she wrote: “When I got my library card, that’s when my life began.”  I suspect I could have said the same thing.  I have always loved a library, and this visit brought back a flood of memories, and reminded me about what a real, book-filled library can mean to writers.

When I was 16 years old I started my first part-time job.  I was paid 80 cents an hour to work ten hours a week in the local children’s library. A writer and book lover even then, I was elated not only at the extra $8.00 I had to spend (or save if I was feeling virtuous), but most especially because I could spend those hours among the stacks, re-shelving books and helping kids find that perfect read. The next year I started university and got another library job; this one was completely devoted to stacking books among the very many, multi-tiered spaces that constituted the main library at my university.  I was still delighted to breathe in that unmistakable smell of books. I loved it until I could no longer afford the time away from my studies and that was that.

Years later I found myself toiling as a university professor; again the library became an important refuge for both work and for research.  But the end was drawing nigh.  Online resources became so much more convenient, saving me both time and effort thus permitting me to accomplish so much more.  The digital book became a god-send, although I thought that I’d probably not go that way for my own leisure reading.  I was wrong.

Today I cannot imagine not carrying my library around with me on a mini-tablet.  I cannot imagine not being able to highlight with a click of a finger-tip, or to make a note that will immediately be filed in order.  I cannot imagine a student today wanting to lug around heavy books.  But none of this means that I like a real, book-filled library with a real, living, breathing librarian any less, nor does it mean that the library is any less important to culture in general and to writers in particular.

So what does this real library offer today’s digitally-savvy writer?  Here’s what it means to this writer.

How could you not be inspired by such books as an original Chaucer?? You have to go to a library to find these gems.
How could you not be inspired by such books as an original Chaucer?? You have to go to a library to find these gems.
  1. “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunken treasure.”  So said Virginia Woolf, and so do I.  Libraries are treasure troves of writing ideas.  You can go into a library without a single notion of what to write, and come out with a journal full of ideas.  Although free roaming can be inspiring, if you have a general area of interest you can go to that section of the library and begin scanning book titles.  Or, what’s even more fun, you can randomly select a few books from the stacks, find a comfortable place to curl up with them (libraries are full of these areas) and begin to explore between the covers.
  2. “A library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life. “  I like to think that Norman Cousins was echoing my own notion that when you have an idea for a piece of writing, but are not entirely sure how to get it from the beginning germ of an idea to a fully finished piece, you go to the library and allow that idea to gestate and elaborate.  I begin by searching for a specific book about the topic area.  For example when I started writing about Edgar Allan Poe in In the Shadow of the Raven and I had an idea about the female heroine, I went into the university library and searched for a book about 19th century women.  I found a wonderful and very old book that was just the inspiration I needed to get into the character.  Then all you have to do is scan the shelves near to your first book to see related but increasingly divergent topics.  Just get to know the cataloguing system in the library of your choice.  Often public libraries use the Dewey Decimal System, while university libraries use the Library of Congress System. And yes, you can go into a university library to peruse the books even if you can’t take them home.
  3. “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”  Neil Gaiman hit the nail on the head with this one.  Librarians are amazing professionals.  I have never met a single one who wasn’t delighted to help me find that exact resources for me.  That’s because finding materials is what they do and they do it very well.  Start with Google of course, but get that one crucial piece of information from a real person.  The American Library Association put it this way:  “When you absolutely positively have to know, ask a librarian.”

Libraries can be magical places for writers.  You can have your coffee shop writing sessions or your marathon computer stints, but I’d recommend trying a library appointment with yourself.

I’ll let Frank Zappa have the last word:  “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”

Why we write what we write

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in LibraryJust like most writers out there in the twenty-first century, I follow a number of writer/author groups and blogs.  I suspect, though, that I follow far fewer than many writers.  I believe we need to spend more time writing than talking about writing; but that’s just me.  Apart from the extreme time suck involved in participation in these online groups, one of the other primary reasons for my reluctance to get more involved is because I really don’t find that many kindred spirits in them.  Perhaps that shouldn’t matter to me, but it does.

For example, just this morning, I received an email from a LinkedIn site that I follow in a general kind of way.  A participant in the discussion posted the following gem as a discussion starter:

“I want to embark on fiction but I just do not have the imagination to concoct stories and plots. Can anyone share with me how successful novelists repeatedly fabricate stories?”

Now, I would expect bona fide writers on this forum to weigh in as follows: If you have no imagination and no stories to tell, you clearly shouldn’t write fiction. End of story.  But, no, that’s not what they said.

One actually started his response by saying that it was a great question.  A great question?  Are you kidding? It is a moronic question in my view and epitomizes what’s wrong with open access to publishing.  There are so many people out there today who actually do have stories to tell and can’t get them published that I shudder to think what will happen to the literary world when self-published books become nothing more than the yearnings of wannabe fiction writers who really want to have written a book – not to actually write one.

Another “writer” suggested to the poster without imagination that he simply mine his own life.  That should be good.  No imagination needed there, I guess.

Someone else told him to read.  Another told him to take a ride on public transport – in response to the very astute comment of one responder who actually had the temerity to say, “If you lack the imagination…why start?”  Bravo to that honest writer who is like me.  What a surprise it was for me to find a like-minded writer in an online forum.

What I want to know is why someone wants to write fiction if he has no story to tell and admits upfront that he lacks imagination.   All the creative thinking suggestions in the world will not help if there is no imagination to carry an idea through.

Arthur Schopenhauer thought a lot about writing and why we write.
Arthur Schopenhauer thought a lot about writing and why we write.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer probably had it right in The Art of Literature when he said, “There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. […] The truth is that when an author begins to write for the sake of covering paper, he is cheating the reader; because he writes under the pretext that he has something to say.”  People can write whatever they want and I encourage them to do so.  Much of what we write, however, should not be published.

I think that there are people who truly want to write because they have something they want to say, and those who simply want to have written a book.  The former makes a life –even if it doesn’t’ pay the bills.  The latter makes for good cocktail hour conversation.