When I am stuck for inspiration I try to take some time out and look at other forms of craft or art. It is exciting when you cross from one art-form to another. I’ve noticed that some people start by looking at a pile of Calligraphy magazines. Something in me says ‘NO’ to that! It’s hard work to look at something awesome and change it enough so that it still lookes awesome, but your own creation; not theirs, or a weak version of theirs or a blatant copy!
Anyway I found myself perchance in my daughter Megan’s Magical Realism Workshop. Megan wrote Rope of Words as you know and many of you have enjoyed it.This workshop inspired me on many levels, not least because I produced a little story. Hey, I can write stories, not just facts. I never knew that! IT also inspired me as a teacher.
If you missed the first instalment on Wednesday, view it here. Otherwise, read on…
This blog is nicked directly from Megan’s Writers’ Greenhouse and I have left it as something awesome (by Megan)
You can do anything with the alphabet.
An abundance of approaches
To get my students inventing, I brainstormed heaps of ideas-generating activities. I quickly realised that not all these activities would work for all the students. I also realised that the usual teaching approach, everyone working on one activity at one time, with me leading and time-keeping, would work against exactly the kind of liberation that I was trying to create. I needed to give my students the options and the freedom – a different kind of approach, buffet-style teaching! For the generating-ideas part of the workshop, and the writing part towards the end, I created “Ideas menus” and “writing menus” from which they could select what they wanted to do. (The lovely hipster-style jars was fortuitous: I had to figure out a way to fit seven sets of handouts plus accompanying instructions on the table, so jars it was!)
Switch around your entry points into writing (or art, or whatever creative practice is your thing). Try new writing activities and creative activities you haven’t tried before. Sometimes we’re reluctant to try out something we haven’t tried before – that’s normal, it’s called neophobia, it’s a standard-issue human thing, but we also have its arch-enemy and best friend, neophilia, the love of the new. That comes in when you remember this is playing, you’re just playing around. Have a play with some new approaches to writing.
The ideas-generating activites weren’t just the handouts in jars: I also had a stack of poetry books with some useful lines bookmarked, a pile of Symbolist paintings, and a little jar of music. Taking inspiration from another art form is called ekphrasis. Strictly speaking, ekphrasis is describing a painting or using a painting as a starting point for writing, but it can be used more widely to mean one art form taking inspiration from another art form.
For the paintings, I chose work from the Symbolists because their combination of unlikely things happening in realistic surroundings felt like the best match for magical realism. (Surrealism, on the other hand, tends to have dream-world surroundings.) Try paintings by Frida Kahlo, Marc Chagall, and Vladimir Kush. For the poems, I flicked through my own favourite anthologies, looking for metaphors that could provide story-ideas, if you took them literally: “My true love hath my heart and I have his” (Sir Philip Sydney), “Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair” (TS Eliot), “Our dreams / Poured into each other’s arms, like streams” (Stephen Spender), “If there were dreams to sell, / What would you buy?” (Thomas Lovell Beddoes). If you want to try freewriting to music, here’s a Spotify playlist – not quite the one from the workshop (not all the songs are available on Spotify) but a close match!
Using pictures, music, and other art forms doesn’t just give you new ideas: it also creates a richness of experience. The richer our experiences, the more creative we’re able to be.
To create your own ekphrasis, or just to enrich your experience, you can use the painting links, poem excerpts, and playlist above, as well as seeking out your own. Read poetry. Listen to new music. Visit museums, art galleries, and exhibitions. Even if you can’t afford the paintings, buy some postcards to put around your desk. And if you’re in Oxfordshire and like writing poetry, you can take part in the Ashmolean’s new poetry programme, Ekphrasis.
What’s around you
My students stare around the room, when they’re looking for ideas. (So do I. So do we all.) Often the ideas come from something they’re staring at, even if it’s only a lamp. So for a workshop where I want them to have as many ideas as possible, I suddenly thought, Why not fill the room with ideas? After all, I have enough random bits and bobs tucked about the place. If they’re staring round the room, give them plenty to look at! I gathered a multitude of random, interesting, potentially ideasy-things, and set about decorating the room. I was looking for three things, each of them vital to creativity: richness of experience, again; novelty; and incongruity.
Novelty is vital for creativity. In Iconoclast, Gregory Berns explains what a limited energy budget the brain has and how much energy it saves by following familiar habits, familiar choices, familiar pathways. That’s extremely useful, until it comes to creativity: we want to think new, unexpected, unfamiliar thoughts. “Novelty releases the perceptual process from the shackles of past experience and forces the brain to make new judgments” he writes. Incongruity has a similar effect: the easy automatic thinking you’d do for each thing individually doesn’t work when they’re juxtaposed. Your brain “wakes up” from its energy-saving trance and pays new, sharper attention. It sounds slightly alarming – that neophobia-neophilia dilemma again – so make it playful. Make it beautiful. Have fun.
Decorate your writing space. If you’d decorate your room or your house wildly and unsually for a party, why not decorate it just for fun, from time to time? Write somewhere different, a park, a coffee shop, a pub garden. Spend some time one Saturday charity-shop scavenging, finding new things to put around you.
If you’d like to see those pictures of the room in more detail, and use them as bouncing-off points for your own writing, I’ve put larger versions in an album on my Facebook page. (And if you “like” the page and want to actually see updates, hover over the “Liked” button and choose the “Get notifications” option. I don’t exactly flood the feed, so you’ll be safe!)
You can do anything with the alphabet. Have a play with some new approaches to writing. Fill your life (and your mind) with art, music, and poetry. Change up what’s around you, from time to time. And most of all, have fun. Enjoy the abundance of ideas.
The next Summer of Writing workshop is on Poetic Craft, on Sunday 29 August – click here to read more and to book. You can also arrange a workshop for your writing group or society, either in Oxford or further afield. More details on that here.