Posted in Creativity

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.

All about historical fiction

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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Posted in Backstory, Ideas generation

The genesis of an idea

I’m not a literary writer in the artistic sense of the word.  I don’t write literary novels or short stories.  I write both fiction and non-fiction stories (and make no mistake, the non-fiction is based on story-telling in its best sense) that result from an active process of looking for ideas.  Oh, once in a while I stumble on something, or I end up using an idea in a very different way than the way I started out; but on balance, finding ideas is for me a very proactive process.  And although I am not part of the high-brow literati, I can still appreciate that those who are might be able to articulate an idea in a different way – not better or worse, but differently.

Emily Dickinson, a literary-minded writer in her own right of course, put it this way: “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”  I wish I had written that – I didn’t but I identify with the concept. I open every door to see where those doors might lead.

The idea of inspiration, and what it is, has shown up here before; being open to inspiration is a kind of internal process.  There is clearly a relationship between the ethereal notion of being inspired to create something – whether it’s a piece of choreography, a new theory, a strategic plan or a new book – and the idea upon which that creation will be based, but in my view they are not exactly the same thing. So, finding ideas is an external process – or at least requires interaction with the external world.

Being open to inspiration requires a certain frame of mind that makes that mind a fertile place for that idea generator to take root and grow.  The question now is not how to keep your mind open, but how to find that genesis.

So, where does an idea for a creation come from?  I’ve gleaned ideas from any number of places over the years.  Some of these have included the following:

  • Long conversations over wine (this is essential) with my husband and sometime collaborator.  Never underestimate the power of those meandering conversations with someone whose ideas you respect. Putting your two heads together even without the goal of finding a writing idea often results in transformative ideas.
  • Newspaper articles.  This is a no-brainer for writers no matter what kind of writing you do.  It might be that headline story (you’ve heard of the ripped-from-the-headlines type stories), but my experience tells me that more often the idea is likely to come from a small piece, the piece that you might easily have overlooked.  I’m currently working on a contemporary piece that is based on a ten-line article in a newspaper.  This is when you take up your trusty scissors or those newspaper cutters that should be beside your reading chair at all times, cut it out and paste it in your journal.  Or if you re reading electronically, use a select and paste  tool (but I do need to point out that often these ten-line gems of stories that fill up column inches often don’t make it to the electronic version).
  • Interviews with both celebrity types and every day people.  Sometimes you’ll be watching someone being interviewed on television, or hear it on the radio while you’re driving your car and one line might get you thinking.  You need to have a way to capture those lines – a journal if you’re not driving, a voice recorder if you are.
  • Conversations overheard.  Everyone expects writers to be slightly odd, so eavesdropping isn’t as far off the radar as you might think.  If you take public transit for example, you are awash in a sea of possible writing ideas.  I’ve sat on the subway in Toronto more than a few times and overheard snippets of conversation that seem to evoke a sense of character or even a story.  (I don’t live in Toronto and never take public transit at home – so I really feel I’m missing out on that one!).  And what about listening to other parents when you’re waiting for your children at school?  Or at the school concert?  Or audience members around you at the ballet, the theater or even the movie?  The hockey rink? On a beach while on vacation?  At a bar?
  • Online conversations “overheard.”  This is a bit more controversial, but nevertheless full of juicy material.  If you lurk around on social media sites, people might think that you are spying, but practically everyone does it to one extent or another.  Reading posts on forums without actually participating in the conversation is the definition of lurking and it has its controversial side – but it can be for the greater good.  For example, if you are interested in women’s health issues and you lurk around a social network focused on these issues, you might very well be inspired to write an article or book that will help people.  So, it’s not all bad!

And finally, my personal favorite…

  • Academic articles.  For anyone who happens to read academic articles, you’d be surprised how often one of them can contain the germ of a story.  I once read an article in a medical journal back in my medical writing days about how Edgar Allan Poe died (or what wasn’t known about it to be more specific), and that ignited an idea.

These are just a few places where ideas spring forth.  Ideas come from everywhere and often coalesce to form that big idea that eventually becomes the genesis for a story.   It then takes on a life of its own as the settings, characters and plots take over the writing.  Ask a writer where his or her idea actually had its genesis, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint.  But for me, I can usually tell where the germ actually comes from.

And when it comes to my historical fiction work, the idea is usually as a result of an unanswered question from history.

GRACE NOTE began to take shape many years ago.  In the late 1990’s, there was a resurgence of interest in a little-known Roman Catholic mystic who lived in 12th century Germany.  Her name was Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard was born in 1098 and when she was about fourteen years old (the historical dating is inconsistent) she was tithed to the church and walled up in a hut attached to a Benedictine monastery, proclaimed dead to the world, to live her life as an anchorite.  Of course, history tells us that she didn’t stay walled up forever, rather went forward and accomplished a great many things in her career as a nun and abbess.  She has been proclaimed a feminist (!), physician, mystic, teacher, and very prominently, a composer, often referred to as the very first female composer to live.  The problem is that there isn’t hard evidence of the actual authorship of her music and in 1998 an article appeared in the journal Early Music provocatively suggesting that there is no evidence that she accomplished so much.  That’s where my story began.  And GRACE NOTE is the outcome of the idea genesis followed up by lots of research on what is known and what is not known.

Where have you found your ideas?

Posted in Ideas generation, Journals, Memoir, Writing craft

Keeping journals

What kind of book notes & ideas reside in this journal? Hmm...

Do you keep a journal?  If you’re a writer, perhaps you ought to consider it.  There is hardly a teacher of writing craft around who doesn’t encourage students to keep journals.  It is said that,  “Journals have been the secret weapon for writers from Allen Ginsburg to Virginia Woolf to Victor Hugo.”  So, there are aspects of a writer’s journal that might bear discussion.

First, let me edit my original question to make it more specific to me and my own backstory.  Do you keep journals?  That “s” at the end of the word is key for me since I keep multiple journals.  In fact, I’m a tad addicted to the notion of journals – and I have journals that are pen and paper ones, as well as journals that reside on my computer.  As you can see, I’m not a purist either way.

Virginia Woolf is quoted as having said, “The habit of writing for my eye only is good practice,” and that sums up the first reason for keeping a journal: it gives you a chance to work on your writing without the self-consciousness of knowing it will be read by others.  Although this might, at first glance, seem like that cathartic kind of journaling that has become the ubiquitous habit of the navel-gazers among us, it’s really more than that. This kind of journaling is really an exercise that lets you try out different turns of phrase, that lets your mind wander to ideas deeply buried in your sub-conscious (see the comments on last week’s discussion), and that is a safe place for writing that you have no intention of showing anyone else.  And this kind of journaling can be semi-structured.

Writer and teacher Natalie Goldberg’s approach to journaling is one that I’ve come back to year after year.  In her first writing book (which I highly  recommend) Writing Down the Bones (originally published in 1986 and re-released in 2010), she suggests that you take pen to paper – something that  she’s adamant about – and place your pen on the paper, never lifting it for your ten-minute writing practice each day. Her rule is this: keep your hand moving.  Begin with the words “I remember…” or even “I don’t remember…” (She has other suggestions but you’ll have to read her book to get those ones); and never stop or lift the pen as it moves across the page.  Every time you get stuck, write down “I remember…” again and keep going for the full ten minutes.  It’s a very liberating process.

There are other reasons other than practice, though, for keeping journals.  One of my primary reasons is so that I have places to keep ideas that come to me.  These ideas can be thoughts, clippings, photos etc.  But I also have general idea journals and a special journal for every project I’m working on.  Okay, I do have lots of journals, but I’d wager a guess that I’m not the only one!

One of the journals I kept for many years was a bit like a diary – but it focused
on only one of the general kinds of experiences in my life.  It chronicled my experience as a ballet mom.  That journal became the basis for my memoir Another Pointe of View: The Life and Times of a Ballet Mom.  I was able to capture detailed memories that would have faded into themists of my mind, and that would have been altered by subsequent experiences.  That journal was critical to my ability to write a story that might resonate with other mothers of gifted children.

Right now, I have so many journals on the go.  I have two that hold notes on two separate book projects.  I have one that is a kind of general catch-all for ideas.  I have a travel journal (this is a new idea – it’s time to capture details of our travels).  I have one that keeps notes about a book that my husband and I will write in our retirement to add to the four that we wrote some years ago.  I have two new ones that have not found their purpose yet, but they will.  And I have one for this blog.  I also have two computer-based journals and one on my iPad.

The very best part of my journals, though, is when I look into one of them and what I read becomes part of something larger – something that I’ll write that
someone else might read and enjoy – or at least learn from.