Writing Snippets

It isn’t possible to jot down everything that might come in handy one day in a writerly sense. There are some things which seem momentous, and are recorded, but when rediscovered at a later date there is some head scratching at context or simply general bewilderment about what was so important about a snatched phrase or idea. Other isolated thoughts, sometimes as simple as a word or two, seem to resonate with possibilities.

Whilst flicking through my latest writing notebook, I have come across some odd scratchings. Sometimes it is testing out an idea, or gathering notes on something I have listened to. The following was recorded after listening to how phrases from some obsolete (for the most part) occupations still appear today. One of the phrases was ‘a whale in the bay’, which was popular during the decades of whaling, and indicated someone with money to spend, a captive audience. The fluke is the tail fin of a whale, and is used when a whale lifts its tail before diving, usually after arching its back.

There are patches of word association: circuit breaker, mindfulness, visualisation techniques, creativity, calm, relaxation, invigorating, breath, breathing. These words helped to shape a post on mindfulness.

Then there are the random bits. Build the life you want in the time you’ve got. Not sure if I read this or heard it, but it captured my attention long enough to ensure it was recorded. There are bits from other people’s blogs. Comfort zone: a place where boredom lives and fear dominates. This was spotted on Susans130 in January this year.  And lots of things like this. Tuxedo: what a funny word. Where does it come from? Answer: named after a country club at Tuxedo Park, New York.

Writing notebooks are there to capture moments which otherwise might be lost. One last example below from March this year.

One of the reasons why I go out is to experience life – the essence of surprise. The lift door opened to let in another lady and an amazing burst of German opera. A man in black pants, white dress shirt and a stunning voice. Just magic, really.

How do you keep track of odd moments in your writing life?

[Photo: wren spotted scratching about at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mt Tomah]

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Notes On A Writing Retreat

I see distant mountain ranges framed by trees, a spider speeding along a railing. Birds are swooping and swaying overhead, and distant sounds carry on a warm breeze. I am in a space where there is scope to let the words fall where they may.

It is true that you cannot schedule inspiration, but you can create an environment which is conducive to it. Space to let thoughts eddy and swirl, where incomplete projects can be nurtured back into life or new projects commenced. Pockets of time in which the usual miscellany of life is held in abatement – it can and will wait for a few hours. There is freedom and wistfulness and the possibility of the exploration and creation of other times and places.

Time is passed in a casual routine of writing together, sharing what is written, and writing solo. There is something both industrious and intimate in creating in a group environment. Solitary yet not alone.

Giving yourself permission to create: it seems like something so simple but I find it is somehow harder than I expect. I know how fortunate I am to have a home where there is space to write yet these occasional days of being in a supportive and collaborative space is something else entirely, bringing a different element to what I write.

I strongly recommend participation and creation in such a space. Create it yourself if you need to!

Have you ever been on a writing retreat?

[Photo: some writing journals]

Ekphrasis: a writing technique

This Greek word relates to writing that is effectively triggered in response to art or music. I came across the word by chance in a Writer’s Digest article and discovered that it is an ancient concept with many adaptations and interpretations.

As a tourist in Edinburgh years ago I came across a book of poems and stories inspired by works in the National Galleries of Scotland. The book contained beautiful replicas of various artworks along with pieces that had been inspired by art. It was a glorious mix, providing a variety of viewpoints into what can be interpreted or instigated by taking the time to look at art and engage your imagination. The book is one of a number of works published following a competition originally devised to raise awareness of the various collections “to encourage writers to find imaginative links, from the personal to the universal, between art and the written word”. You can find out more about the competition here.

Years ago I used to regularly visit the Art Gallery of NSW. How I loved entering the grand building after walking through the lush green lawns of the Domain, taking shade from the gracious old trees. The tiled entrance to the gallery, skirting past the information desk and heading into the permanent collection, looking for old favourites before discovering new installations. There were many that I loved, and can still imagine them clearly years later. These included Cymon and Iphigenia by Lord Frederic Leighton, Across the Blacksoil Plains by George W Lambert and The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon by Sir Edward John Poynter. I also enjoyed the Australian gallery, becoming increasingly familiar with the styles of John Brack, Margaret Preston, Brett Whiteley and others.

What I am going to do now, though, is take the time to look through my collection of books from the works of galleries that I have visited and use them as the basis for writing prompts. Some of these may grow legs and expand into short stories or something even larger. They offer a window into another time and place, an alternative reality.

Have you ever used a piece of art as the source of creative inspiration?

[Photo: spent jacaranda blossoms on stairs at Old Buttery, Bellingen]

Books to Die For … crime and thriller writing uncovered @ Springwood Library

Last weekend this event (Books to Die For … crime and thriller writing uncovered …) was held at the Springwood Library. I have been a fan of detective stories for a long time, and enjoy thrillers too, so there was little hesitation to go along and listen to five Australian writers in this field.

Rachel Franks, Coordinator of Education & Scholarship at the State Library of NSW, started off the proceedings with an entertaining and informative overview of the genre. This included a handout which was effectively a literary genealogical tree, tracing the development and expansion of detective stories in particular, as well as highlighting some of the best examples in each category.

Chilling suspense novels are the speciality of Jaye Ford, a former news and sports journalist. Ford explained how she came to writing psychological thrillers featuring ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Many of the crimes that she writes about are intimate and personal, and they are triggered by news stories, personal experiences and that rich vein of writerly inspiration – ‘what if?’.

I have recently come across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle, Associate Professor of Media at Macquarie University. It is one of two books by Doyle based on research into the Forensic Photography Archive at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney. The photos featured in the books come from a collection of 50,000 plus photos found by chance, with no labels and little in the way of identifiable information. During Doyle’s talk, some were shown in a slide show montage of mug shots, bullets embedded in walls and photos of police standing around in various poses at crime scenes. Doyle has also written several fiction books.

Next was Candice Fox, a crime author who has won consecutive Ned Kelly Awards for her novels. She has recently released Never Never in collaboration with James Patterson. Fox gave a humourous overview of her journey to publication, and outlined the impact of a strange childhood in western Sydney on her world view as a writer. Fox was recently interviewed on the podcast, So You Want To Be A Writer, and the link to the episode is here.

The final speaker was Chris Allen, a writer of action fiction. He provided a literary roadmap to his emergence as a writer. This trajectory was supported by his career in the armed services, law enforcement agencies, security operations for an aid agency in East Timor as well as appointment as Sheriff of NSW in 2008. Allen writes action thrillers with a theme, such as corruption and corporate greed in developing nations.

This series of talks opened up not only more books to read and authors to follow, but made me think about the writing process and the many influences that come into play.

Have you been inspired by author talks?

[Photo: apple blossoms]

My I Spy: something beginning with ‘I’

Imagine being here already! It has been great to feel more present as I keep an eye out for objects and images each week. I have come across some interesting things that I probably would have missed in my usual distracted and daydreaming state. This is what I’ve spied beginning with I.

cropped-img_1684.jpgImagine

This is a recycled photo, originally used as a writing prompt for a blog post a couple of months back. I happened upon this on a Sunday afternoon meander down to Mona Vale on the northern beaches. There is a bookshop there which I had passed by and was keen to explore further – Berkelouw Books – and this was across the road and up a flight of stairs. I couldn’t resist as it is one of my favourite starting points for daydreams and writing prompts. And it reminds me of Scrabble. Imagine if …

Indian Pacific

Indian Pacific, Central Station

Indian Pacific

I was lucky enough to travel from Sydney to Adelaide earlier this year on the Indian Pacific. The weekly service from Sydney travels all the way to Perth and back, and it took roughly a day to wend its way from Central Station in Sydney through to Adelaide. I really loved the dawn stop in Broken Hill, and the second photo is taken from the mining museum which overlooks the town. In the foreground the silver streak is the train.

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View of Broken Hill with Indian Pacific in the foreground

On my trip there were 27 carriages with two locomotives pulling the 230 tonnes of rolling stock stretching over 640 metres. There were 28 crew members taking care of 165 passengers with another 50 or so being collected at Broken Hill.

It was a great trip and it took a little while once I arrived in Adelaide to get my land legs back. Some Wednesdays I pass the train snaking its way through the upper mountains and I give it a cheery salute and smile. It just makes me happy to see it.

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Inspiration

A broad term, it’s true, but when I came across the collection of miniature paintings in Lithgow I was struck how each of them had the potential for the starting point for a story or musing. The paintings are a display in Secret Lane and they celebrate the creativity of new and established local artists. I love coming across visual treats like this.

Have you come across anything this week that has inspired your imagination?

Earlier alphabet blogs can be found here: A, B, C, D, E, F, G & H. You can find lots of great I Spy posts on Autumn’s blog, and I was originally inspired to start this through one of Pip Lincolne’s posts. Happy spying!

Creativity On Hold

Lately I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to, and it’s been bothering me. There have been external factors which have pushed their way into the time I usually have to daydream and scribble and think up new stories or ideas. There are times when I need to be a responsible adult, which is fine, but there is a feeling of restlessness and irritation at this incursion. As if I’m existing rather than living.

So what to do? I’m sure that normal transmission will resume sometime soon, but there will be other times where what makes me feel most alive – the daydreaming, creative side of me – will be jostled aside. I don’t want to feel like I’m going through the motions so I need to have a strategy for when this creative time is only available in small sips, rather than big gulps.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had on how to make the most of the available time.

Snatch Time. The little bursts of minutes when you’re waiting for someone or something, leave the mobile alone for a moment and look around. Take in what is going on, or spot something that you wouldn’t normally see and look, really look. There might be the trigger for a character or short story idea, or you might overhear the perfect phrasing for some dialogue.

Be Spontaneous. More challenging for a methodical mind such as mine. One of my highlights in the past week involved just stopping my usual point A to point B routine to take a photo for the #MyISpy game that I have been writing blog posts about. It was less than a handful of minutes in my day but there was the exhilaration of doing something out of the ordinary, and it still makes me smile days later.

Turn Up. I’ve been tired and grumpy and yawny and generally not in the mood to do anything creative at my usual time. But I know that if I get up and write the morning pages I can shoehorn at least a bit of creativity into my day, even if it is a jumble of thoughts that I can unwind at a later date when I have a bit more time.

Accept Limitations. Things happen. Great plans become unstuck. Guilting myself won’t help but understanding that I have to focus my attention elsewhere for a while makes it easier to endure, and I know that if I jot down bits and pieces when I can, there will be something that I can work with when my time is more my own.

What do you do when life gets in the way of your creative output?

[Photo: old postal and telephone switchboard equipment at the Wyalong Museum]

 

 

Don’t ask, don’t get.

Something that never ceases to amaze me is the power and capability of the mind. Whilst I’m quietly confident that I seriously under utilise my mind’s capacity, there is comfort in knowing that I can call upon it to help me out and that it will usually deliver. This is particularly true in relation to creativity.

A little while ago I was walking my dog late one night after a long day. I was really tired and although it was frosty outside, it seemed like every fascinating scent was out and my dog insisted on careful inspection of all that was on offer. We finally turned the corner for home and an idea popped into my head for a short story. It was incomplete but with enough shape and structure to get started. We made it home and I shrugged off my weariness to capture the words and images that were tumbling through my mind.

Recently I reviewed the rough draft, tweaking it and making some changes. The two main characters were really clear to me, but I hadn’t named them in my haste to get the story down. What to call them? I left my brain to work on that problem overnight and woke up  with a handful of possibilities. The characters now have names and that tricky ending that I was worried about has been replaced with something better.

There is another short story idea that I have simmering away in the back of my mind. The images are clear and I’ve jotted down some notes for when the time is right to start it, but again I was thinking about the name of the main character. There were a couple of secondary characters who were easy to identify, but I wanted the main character to have a surname that could be mispronounced by a child and end up as one of those abbreviations that becomes a nickname which ends up as the main form of address for someone. A name with a couple of levels of meaning or significance in the story. I was driving recently when there was a discussion on the local radio and one word literally rang a bell for me. It was the perfect fit.

Putting it out there may not always be entirely reliable or a quick solution, but if you have a bit of time and space to let your mind sort through the possibilities, or listen out for solutions, the results can be pleasantly surprising. Don’t ask, don’t get.

How do you find solutions for your creative challenges?

[Photo: part of a phrenology head spotted at a local market]

Why write?

There are as many reasons to ask this question as there are ways to answer it. For many, writing is a uniquely personal form of expression, offering a way of creating another world or trying to make sense of the world in which they live. It can be a compulsion, or something that feels as though it is dragged, kicking and screaming, into existence. Writing means different things to different people, and its meaning can change over time.

I was thinking about this recently following an invitation to participate in a creative project which was a bit outside of my normal scope. As evidenced on this blog and in my stories and journal entries and letters and the like, I love words. I like to play with them, test out their mettle, carefully select the ones which suit my current purpose and help me to express the sometimes apparently inexplicable. I don’t always know where I’m going when I start to create something, and quite often I finish in a location that is unexpected, but for me that is part of the joy of creation.

The creative endeavour is the Deep Red Scarlet Pen project. This project is orchestrated by the artistically talented Emma Kay Inks, and it began with an accidental over-ordering of scarlet red pens for drawing. What to do with them? Offer to send them out to interested people to participate in creating something with pen and paper. This came to my attention through a mutual writing friend and I thought I’d give it a go. It seemed like a good theory until the package arrived by post and I had to give serious consideration to what I could do with it. Drawing would be an option for some, but my artistic endeavors with pens and pencils are crude at best. Then it occurred to me. What would I normally do with such a brilliant pen? Write, of course. This is what I came up with, captured in a spiral with a scarlet red pen.

Why write? To find out what I really think. To make stuff up. To create new worlds, give life to characters who inhabit my head in places both real and imagined. To test out what it’s like to be what I know I’m not. To create new stories. To entertain. To encourage. To record in some small way the awe and wonder of life as I experience it. To quest, to search for a deeper layer of meaning. To be playful. To show a different way of seeing and being. To be heard. To surprise. To make myself laugh. To take another viewpoint. To exact revenge in a literary style. To capture snapshot moments and snatches of eavesdropped conversations. To create empathy for people and situations. To make sense of it all. To be. 

Why do you write?

[Photo: a foggy road through the Hartley valley]

Writing Book Review: Still Life with Teapot by Brigid Lowry

I came across Still Life with Teapot by Brigid Lowry by chance. There was something about the byline: ‘on zen, writing and creativity’ that caught my interest. I downloaded the sample chapter and laughed and felt so comfortable with the writing style that I downloaded the book to travel along with me. Lowry is a New Zealand author who has been published in various genres and predominately in young adult fiction. She has taught writing extensively, lived in a Buddhist community for years and is a Zen practitioner. There is a link to more about her work here.

The book is divided into three sections: on zen and creativity, writing, and memoir. Each section offers a wealth of riches. The book has a conversational tone, an honesty and simplicity that resonated for me. Lowry is a journal keeper, and as my stash of books filled with words and thoughts continues to grow, I felt I was in good company. It was like reading a book written by a kindred spirit. Lowry writes of how truth, or our perception of it, isn’t always reliable:  ‘Our lives are not solid. They are stories that twist over time. Cobwebs, smoke, mirrors. Fictional accounts, not facts.’ 

I also loved how she collects random facts, amongst other things: ‘… I collect teacups, old postcards, neurotic friends, recipes, scarves and decent pens.’ These lists of facts were a delight, and Lowry paid homage to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, which in itself is an inspiration. I have a copy on my shelves and there is much to enjoy including lists of ‘nothing annoys me so much’ and ‘things that should be short’.  Lowry’s list of disappointing things: ‘Missing the train. Some haircuts. A phone that stops ringing just as you pick it up. Dry, tasteless mandarins.’

There is a depth to her writing, particularly in relation to zen as a way of life. This had echoes of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is noted in the reading list. The depth required by zen is identified: ‘Zen, like art, calls us to attention. It asks us to slow down, to allow, to be still.’

The portrayal of a writing life is given with grace and humour, but also with the reality of frustrations, doubts and loneliness that can come with the act of creating in isolation. The section on writers festivals was entertaining and informative to see what it is like from the other side. The art of creativity is illuminated in a myriad of ways, including the gathering of material in books and journals which will ferment and, if alchemy occurs, take form in stories, poems and narratives. Above all there is a deep respect for the process itself.

Memoir is the final section of the book and it is moving and emotional, devastating and uplifting. Stories and the act of invention are seen as the ‘creative road to healing’.

For me there was much to enjoy in this book as a writer and a person interested in creative pursuits, as well as looking for a life with a deeper sense of meaning. It is a book that has stayed in my thoughts in recent weeks, and will be one of the books that I return to when I need solace, some grounding, or to revel in pleasurable writing.

Have you read any books lately that have inspired your creativity?

[Photo: sculpture honouring Lithgow Pottery as part of Lithgow History Avenue]

The rhinoceros in the room

In interviews with published authors, one of the most frequently asked questions is ‘where do your ideas come from?’ It is the writing equivalent of a silver bullet, as if by being able to reliably generate ideas that are worthy of expanding into a poem, short story, novel, screen play or any other variation, life would be easier. Well, who wouldn’t like an infinite resource that generated ideas?

The source of creativity is as varied as the individuals who spend time and energy expanding thoughts, ideas and inspiration into something tangible that can be shared with other people. Some people keep track of the stray thoughts and ideas that they encounter in a book or online file that they can flick through when they are looking for inspiration at a later date. This can be a few scribbled words, images, or snatches of dialogue that can be expanded upon when ready. Sometimes these snippets form an integral part of a piece of work; other slivers may never be incorporated into something else, but unless you gather and retain this information, how would you know?

In writerly circles there are few things more discouraging than a blank page. By having something – anything – to refer back to can provide a starting point. It works in a similar way to prompts, but usually with a longer lead time. Both approaches can be used as a starting point or a mind-mapping exercise which results in something more solid.

Ideas for me sometimes come from simple acts of observation and imagination. It is often recommended that you spend time in a cafe, watching other people interact, imagining their back stories, making up what you can’t discern. I recently tapped out the following points whilst waiting in a restaurant. An older lady was also waiting:

  • Floral twin set, dark blue camisole, white sandals
  • Cameo necklace, tapestry handbag and matching tote
  • Permed hair, coloured
  • No rings, gold watch, blue stone bracelet, possible medical purposes
  • Looking people up and down, inspecting them, finding them wanting in some way
  • Tapping fingers in a silent rhythm, impatient but controlled

There was something about this woman at the time that made it worthy of recording, and I know that she will appear in my writing in some form (perhaps more than once) in time.

How do you keep track of your ideas?

[Photo was taken at the Japanese Gardens in Cowra, NSW]