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Fueling the Fires

When your work involves being creative, it can be hard to come up with new ideas day after day, hour after hour. To maintain a creative life, you need to feed your creativity. Visit new places, look at new works of art, eavesdrop on new conversations, read new
books/articles/posts, try your hand at a new kind of project … the list is endless.

But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we get stuck. We need a little help to keep that  creative fire burning. I use three million and ten different tricks to help myself out of fire-buring-public-domain
sticky situations. Okay, that might not be the exact number. But as I’ve mentioned before, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve. In fact, I stuff them into every pocket, hat, bag, and even undergarment that I own! The one I’m about to share may seem strange at first. You might wonder how what results will possibly work with your particular project. That’s okay. Let it sit and simmer for a while. Keep it on the back burner because I promise that at some point when you’re stuck (which happens to the best of us) it’ll be ready and waiting for you to turn up the heat.

journal-public-domainSo what is this different little trick? It’s called “On This Day…” and its inception came from my many years of homeschooling and teaching writing to children. When my girls were in grade school, I made it a habit of having them start each day with a journal entry. Young children almost always benefit from a prompt to help focus their wide-ranging thoughts. Heck, many adults do, too. During school hours, at least once per week I used the “On This Day”-prompt where I took an event (or offered a list of events and let them choose one) and asked the girls to use it to write creatively in their journals. Being a writer, I always joined in during journal time and wrote my own entry. I found that sometimes the historical event filled in a blank spot in a story or essay I was writing. I didn’t necessarily use the event itself, but rather the idea it sparked.public-domain-women-and-history

Because it was so helpful, I’ve returned to this trick whenever I’m stuck in a story and need a little help lighting the creative fires again. During NaNoWriMo last year, I used my “On This Day”-technique when considering what might be going on in the world around my characters. It helps me to have a picture of possible events in their lives, even if they don’t all make it into the story. I also use it to spark questions and thoughts for my characters – where might this or that lead? And, I’ve used this trick to inspire drawings and encaustic paintings. For example, reading about an event in history during Prohibition led to a wax painting involving wine and dancing.

Finding information for “On This Day” is extremely fast and easy. I have several daily journal books I used when homeschooling that had interesting and different kinds of information for the day (e.g., Today Hershey produced its first chocolate bar!), and sometimes I still pull them out. But more often, I use the internet because it is simple to gather additional information on a topic if it strikes a chord. I can see this being especially helpful for historical fiction writers who might want specific historical details.

So where do you look? I like History.com‘s This Day in History page, but there are many to peruse when looking for the day’s events. Here is a brief and very incomplete list:

Once you have the list, how does it work? Let’s take today. October 10th. Many things porgy-and-besshappened on this day throughout human history. I like to look at a long list of possible events because usually something strikes me and my brain is off and running. Today, the event that jumps off the page at me is that on October 10, 1935 Porgy and Bess, “the first great American opera,” premiered on Broadway.

Whoa. I love this opera. I used to sing songs from this opera in middle school concert choir. How did I forget that today was the day it premiered? Okay, I probably never actually knew what day it premiered, but nonetheless… reading about this event triggers a host of thoughts and creative avenues for me – even though on the surface it is not at all related to my current writing project.

As I follow the thoughts, I jot notes to myself. Many don’t get used, but I write down – without judgment or too much thought – everything that comes to mind for 5-10 minutes. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote for today:

  • In middle school, I learned “Summertime” (song from P&B) for concert choir – I then got into the opera and insisted on seeing it in person; led to trip to the city where we got lost – what if the main character does similar… what happens when she’s lost?
  • What if the main character wants to play Bess in the high school production but she isn’t black? Or maybe it’s not P&B but some other show … What happens? How does she go about getting the part? How do others react?
  • What if the main character is trying to write an American opera and uses P&B as the basis/inspiration – what could this be about? What is relevant today from P&B? What has changed? How can I change the opera to be new? How does impact the M.C.’s life? 

You get the idea.

I think everyone can benefit from trying this technique at least once. It may not find its way into your story or art the first time, but the brainstorming process that results from looking at “On This Day” forces your brain into creative mode. And in creative mode is always a good place be.

If you try this technique, let me know how it goes! And if you do something similar, please share! I’d love to read about it in the comments so I can tuck it up my sleeve or into a pocket when I need another trick! 

From the Bookshelf: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

**Don’t forget to enter my Giveaway for your chance to win a copy of What If? Writing Exercises. Ends 11/24!**

curious incident haddonI would love to give you a hot-off-the-presses book review, but instead I can only write about books I read in my actual life (I’m saving the made-up version for my next book).  And in my life, I’m often always behind.  This book review is no exception.  But stick with me. Pretty please with sugar and cherry on top!  This weekend, I re-read a book I’ve read three times before.  A book that has been out for years.  My daughter was assigned the book in her English class and asked me a question as she was preparing to write a response so to refresh my memory, I glanced at the first page … and didn’t look up again until I reached the end.

And here’s why: It’s amazing.

The book? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Which I guess is timely in some ways because Haddon has a short story this week (miracle that I’m not behind on something) in The New Yorker (check it out here). The short version is that Curious tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, who discovers the slain body of his neighbor’s poodle and sets out to uncover the murderer.  But it is so much more.  Through this book, we are called to question our perceptions about love, growing up, and the human mind.

It’s November.  I’m just starting Week Two of NaNoWriMo and NovPAD.  So this time when I read the book, I kept my writer’s hat firmly in place and paid special attention to Haddon’s writing tools and techniques.

One of the best features of Curious is, in my humble opinion, the voice.  In fact, it is so good let’s write that again but this time with capitals and a fancy font – The Voice.  Christopher is highly logical, excessively literal, and extremely detached, which can be at times hilarious and at times devastating. His voice is so real, so genuine that I felt like I was there in the book with him as the story unfolded. Part of this success comes from Haddon’s use of first-person POV, which allows us to see the events of the novel through the eyes of the narrator and places us deep inside Christopher’s mind, forcing us to see the world in his very limited way.  Haddon helps us understand Christopher by having him give us his opinions on the status quo.  Looking at things I take for granted through Christopher’s eyes caused me to question some of my assumptions about the world and the so-called “normal” way of thinking.

Amazingly, Christopher is a phenomenal narrator despite is inability to relate emotionally to others.  We still get our emotional fix, however, because Christopher is such a stickler for description (the book is full of vivid sensory imagery) and the facts.  We are called to read between the lines, and it is easy to fill in the emotional void based on how others react to Christopher and his actions.  Reading the book, I felt both wildly frustrated with and crazy mama-bear protective of Christopher as he tried to make his way in the world.

Haddon also manages to add depth and personality to secondary characters in creative ways.  For example, readers learn about Christopher’s mother from her letters.  Through the explanations she gives, the spelling errors she makes, even the way she recounts her job, we learn what makes her unique, some of her background, and how she will likely react to events in the story before she ever steps into a scene.

Lastly, the book is chock full of literary themes.  One major theme in the book – and one that is not unexpected with a teenager as the central character – is the struggle for independence.  Yawn. I know, it sounds trite. But in Curious, Haddon takes this common theme and gives it to us with a twist. Instead of the usual teen bucking the rules of mom & dad or society, Christopher is struggling to gain independence from his mental constraints.  He is a character who, because of a mental health disorder, can never be fully independent. On some level, he recognizes this. And yet he struggles against his destiny. Throughout the book, he takes step after step in a direction of his own choosing.  Starting with the search for dog murderer (against his father’s command to the contrary), through a solitary trip to London (challenging for a kid who can’t talk to strangers even to ask directions), and culminating in taking exams to move on to college (when he realizes he can now “do anything”), we bear witness to Christopher’s growing independence. At the same time, there is a nagging sense that the gap between Christopher and everyone else still exists – he hasn’t achieved independence.  And he won’t.  But he does change, and he manages to change the minds of some around him.  Personally, I like this variation on a (very) common topic.  There are only so many themes in the human story, and this book has inspired me to look for ways to twist them as I write my own stories.

What books have you read that inspire your writing? Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? I’d love to know what you think!