Posted in Creativity, creativity generators, Ideas generation

When inspiration strikes

Finding inspiration from a sunset somewhere over the North Atlantic, way out at sea

I’m just back from a summer vacation that has engendered seething jealousy from friends and colleagues alike.  The jealousy stems in part from what several have called its “inspiration” value.  And based on the story I told you last time, I should have my next book completely outlined with loads of snippets of narrative and dialogue in my little purple Moleskine notebook.

Inspiration it was – but I’m not quite ready to write yet – historical fiction requires more than an inspirational story line – it takes significant and detailed research.  We’ll get to that research process, but today I am fixated on the notion of inspiration.

In medical terms, inspiration means breathing in ad breathing out.  In a way, artistic inspiration is the same.  The writer (or choreographer, or painter or even corporate  strategist for that matter) has a sudden burst of creativity – the genesis of that moment might not even be discernable at the time.  We don’t always know the source of our inspiration in the moment.  We know only that something has triggered action.  So in a way, it’s like breathing in and breathing out – the creative fodder is breathed in, and the creative output is breathed out. Over the years, however, various creative individuals have had differing takes on just what it means to be inspired.

Leonard Bernstein said this: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time…The wait is simply too long.”  Lesson 1: Don’t just sit back and wait for the muse to strike. Find ways to seek inspiration in the meantime.  I found this writer’s blog entry that has a laundry list of things to do to fill that gap between sudden bursts of creativity.

Picasso’s approach to the creative process is echoed by many other artists: “Inspiration exists,” he once said, “but it has to find us working.”  Lesson 2: Just get down to work.  Write about anything around you and eventually, the creative muse will strike and you’ll be inspired either to trash everything or to use it in new and innovative ways.

A glass of champagne aboard the Queen Mary 2 is an inspiration in itself!

American businessman Nolan Bushnell has been quoted as saying that “the ultimate inspiration is the deadline.”  Lesson 3: Set deadlines and stick to them.  Better yet, have someone else set them for you.  Try this:  tell your significant other or someone whose feedback on your writing you actually appreciate, and tell him or her that you’ll have a few chapters to be read in two weeks.  Even that kind of a deadline is inspirational.  Then, when you have a deadline from a publisher, you’ll know how to seek inspiration from knowing it has to get done.

So, here’s what I’m up to: I’m looking at my vacation photos and seeing what stories they hold for me.  I’m writing about a number of things in several different genres. I’m doing research on two new ideas.  I’ve told my husband that he’ll have a few more chapters for him to read in two weeks.

Posted in Book covers, Creativity, creativity generators, Ideas generation

In the beginning…was the idea

titanic deck chair
Laurie Mireau's Titanic Deck Chair painting

When precisely does a book’s backstory begin? Does is start when the author says to herself, I should write a book about this? Does it begin when someone else says to a would-be author, You should write a book about that?  (This often happens with non-fiction, by the way.) Or is it earlier?

Is it when you come across an interesting idea? A small article in a newspaper – the one you almost didn’t read?  Is it at the moment when that little piece of paper you clipped starts to invade your thoughts – unbidden?  Is it when the would-be author finally says – not I should write a book – but I want to write this book and I’m going to write it?

This issue of the germination of an idea was in the forefront of my mind earlier this week when I pulled my car up in front of the studio/home of a local watercolor artist here in Halifax.  A month ago I’d never heard of Laurie Mireau.  But since the day that my husband, who had met her about a month ago, came home with a brochure about her artwork, I had been haunted by one of the pieces featured.  The piece was a stark watercolor painting of a deck chair from the doomed ocean liner – Titanic.  Titanic has a strong connection to Halifax.  Although the ocean liner went down  closer to Newfoundland than to Nova Scotia, a number of the bodies of those who perished here brought to Halifax and are buried in a cemetery in the city.  Add onto that the fact that there is a truly fascinating exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and you have a storied port city that is part of the tragedy.

But there has always been something iconic about that single deck chair – the real  one that is on exhibit at the museum, as well as the replica that is for you to sit in and let your imagination run.  You lean back, your head just below the star symbolizing the White Star Line.  You close your eyes – and suddenly you’re there, on her deck.  You can smell the ocean.  You can hear the clicking of heels on the deck – no deck shoes in those days.  At least that’s how it is for me.  In any case, when I saw that thumbnail of Laurie’s painting, I had to have it.

First, I had to find out if she still had the original.  I didn’t want a print – only the original would do.  So, I contacted her and she managed to find it.  When she asked me about why I was interested, I spewed out an entire story about the deck chair, a painting that I’d seen and photographed on the wall of a bar on a cruise ship a couple of years ago and how I had an idea for a book set in about the 1920’s or ‘30’s – on a transatlantic voyage.  (No doubt she thought it was too much information!)  To tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of an idea, but it occurred to me that  the idea was germinating.  I had the distinct feeling that this might just be the beginning of a backstory for a new book that I’d write in the coming years.

My ocean-going character

It doesn’t take much to get my mind rolling.  The new book whose cover you looked at in last week’s post all started when I stumbled upon an academic article in an early music journal calling into question the  widely-held belief that St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Catholic mystic, writer, healer, composer actually knew enough about music to compose the 77 songs attributed to her.  I started thinking: if she didn’t, then who might have?

See, that’s all it takes for a backstory to start. I suppose the fact that next Wednesday I’ll be stepping onto the deck of the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton in the UK to take that transatlantic voyage to New York might have contributed to the story. I’ll let you know. (Two weeks holiday now!  See you in 14 sleeps as my hair stylist says.)

Posted in creativity generators, Ideas generation

Paying Attention: Or how to attract ideas

My avocado drawing

The most accurate way to describe my mind is to use the Buddhist term: monkey mind.  That’s me.  My mind is always moving; the thoughts are chattering away, unbidden.  Ideas fill my head from morning until night.

Here are some of the writing ideas that have flitted through my brain in just the past 24 hours:

  • I was doing some background fact- checking for the cover copy that my publisher has just completed for my upcoming book and I stumbled on the biography of Christiane de Pisan.  Never heard of her?  I’m not surprised; she was a 14th century woman, a writer, a woman ahead of her time, a Venetian by birth.  That sounded intriguing to me – and I wondered where I’d heard of her before.  In any case, I decided that there was a story there just waiting to be told.  A new book, perhaps?
  • Then, I was working on a document for my day job (university professors have to write stuff even when they are not in the midst of a teaching term), and I stumbled on another interesting idea: maybe I should write something about how university students want to be entertained by their professors these days.  Interesting.
  • Then, there are the inevitable ideas that spring to mind as I complete the activities necessary for our upcoming vacation.  A story set in London or New York? On Broadway, perhaps?  Well, you get the idea.

I did take meditation classes a few years ago and do have a meditation practice – when I have not fallen off the wagon as I have recently.  (Yes, of course I’m writing a piece called The Meditation Class based on the journal I kept.)

But, here’s the thing: to truly capture ideas, I have learned that you need more than a sturdy journal or two.  You actually need to quiet your mind and pay attention.  According to research, a wandering mind is one of the characteristics that make us human.  However, it is also what makes us unable to be attentive.

A few years ago, I decided that I need to be able to hone in on details more – that these details would enrich my writing.  So, I decided to learn to pay more attention.  I took a drawing class.

I am someone who clearly does not have a shred of talent when it comes to that kind of visual expression.  I seem to have some flare for graphic art, but picking up a drawing pencil was very foreign to me.  But I persevered with the classes.

Le Gourmet
Le Gourmet, Picasso, 1901

What I learned is that to be a visual artist, you have to be very observant.  Even if your artwork resembles Picasso’s later works with all of the deconstructed images, you still need to be keenly observant.  Until I visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona some years ago, I had no idea that Picasso was not always an abstract painter; in fact his early work was very realistic. All of his work required considerable focus on details regardless of the artistic product at the end.

I did learn to pay attention to visual details and I did learn to draw.  I’ve often used this new skill in paying attention to details of people around me that later make their way onto a page.  Funny how I learned to describe things better from learning to draw.  But the bottom line is that I now (sometimes) pay attention.  Next week I’m going to tell you how many writing journals I have and what I use them for…