Writing Inspiration: Nature

Nature is a necessity.

Humans have some basic needs. Food, water, and shelter are the fundamental biological needs without which we will die. But to go beyond mere survival, to be whole, there are some psychological needs that must be fulfilled. Nature is one of these. It may be one of the most important and it is also one of the most neglected.

In his essay Wordsworth in the Tropics, Aldous Huxley distinguishes between the tame, cultivated Nature of the English country garden (the virtues of which are extolled by Wordsworth) and true Wilderness which, although "marvelous, fantastic, beautiful", can also be "foreign, appalling, fundamentally and utterly inimical to intruding man". It is "alien to the human spirit and hostile to it."

At minimum, I believe access to Nature is a requirement for a worthwhile, healthy, sane life. The thought of living in an urban highrise with a view of only other skyscrapers is hellish to me. To only allow my feet to touch concrete and never dirt, moss, fallen leaves, or sand; to only be exposed to fluorescent lighting and climate-controlled air and never feel sun or rain or breeze on my skin; to see only manmade shapes with everything at right angles and never to let my eyes wander among the intricacies of bark on tree limbs or rest in the symmetry of leaves; to constantly be exposed to the din of human life and enterprise and never the tranquil lull of birdsong or the near-silent hush of an empty field at night is to become malnourished, deformed, and demented.

One can live a life in the city and fall into a pattern in which there is almost never a chance to be exposed to Nature. Or one can find small ways to incorporate Nature into even an urban lifestyle (Lyanda Lynn Haupt wrote a good book about this called The Urban Bestiary). The key is finding the right balance; the ideal being to live in a place that is suffused with Nature while providing the necessary infrastructure for our modern lives and also having relatively fast and easy access to Wilderness.  

Even when I have access to Nature, I still crave Wilderness. Wilderness may be, as Huxley says, alien and hostile to the human spirit, but that may be exactly what makes it inspiring. It pushes us to a realm of non-human concerns and forces us outside of ourselves, making room inside of us for the transcendent. Wilderness seems to be where what is left of the magic in the world still resides. Yes, it is wild and dark and uncontrollable. But belonging to a culture in which we have sanitized and motorized and categorized everything into marketing verticals, we need to expose ourselves to the wild to remind ourselves that we are animals, too. We must not neglect that animal part of ourselves because it is part of what makes us human. Without it, we become frighteningly like robots.

A hike in the woods, a kayak trip down a river, or an afternoon on a lake in a canoe. These are essential escapes for me as a writer because they are necessary for me as a human being. Without them, my life becomes unbalanced in ways that nullify any efforts at creation. You can't make something when you are empty.  In Nature and in Wilderness, I find endless inspiration. Describing the beauty and capacity for solace as well as the vast, irrational, frightful quality that inspires terror and dread is probably the main subject and theme of most of what I write. Writing and storytelling are how humans make sense of our lives and our place in the universe. That exploration is inseparable from Nature and requires the perspective upheaval caused by encountering Wilderness.

For further reading on the importance of our connection to Nature and Wilderness, I highly recommend the writings of John Muir and Rachel Carson. You can also find other books on the subject on my Goodreads Wilderness shelf.

Writing Inspiration: Fairy Tales

I have always been drawn to fairy tales.

Their simplicity and symmetry have an appeal that seems innate, like the shape and symbol of a circle. I love stories of all kinds, but the enjoyment of fairy and folk tales seems to reside on a different, deeper level of consciousness.

Of course, that's a very Jungian outlook. It's a very comforting idea that there could be a collective unconscious that we all have access to and through which certain, fundamental aspects of life and humanity--the archetypes--are expressed across cultures worldwide. That despite the intense alienation and loneliness one may feel in times of strife (and I suspect that at all times in history, the denizens of each time period have always felt that theirs is the worst, most contentious time), there is something unifying at the heart of the human experience. Your anger at that person who cut you off on the freeway; your disgust at the people whose demented, anxiety-driven priorities perpetuate a vapid and senseless consumerism that torpedoes any hope for honest, productive discourse about how to make life better for as many people as possible; your utter, hopelessly frustrated rage at the childish and greedy behavior of this country's and the world's "leaders" as they destroy the lives of countless people to secure their own power and wealth--perhaps you can, through the shared tradition of stories, folktales, and myth, find a bridge from these isolating feelings back to what may be worthwhile in humanity.

I'm currently reading Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman, the man who wrote the His Dark Materials Trilogy (the first book is The Golden Compass). Of the 211 tales included by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm through the seven editions of their collection, Children's and Household Tales, Pullman has chosen fifty of what he considers the "cream" and has retold them. I have read about half of them so far, and it seems that Pullman is showcasing the stories that highlight one of the major themes of fairy tales--the punishment of the wicked and the reward for the good. In so many stories, "Cinderella," "The Frog Prince," "The Three Little Men in the Woods," "Faithful Johannes," and "The Twelve Brothers," to name a few, those who scheme, lie, and hurt others are punished by either death or a life of unhappiness and those who are true to their word, selfless, and helpful are rewarded with riches and the proverbial "happily ever after." This common motif in fairy tales and folk tales across cultures not only makes them instructive and cathartic, it presupposes that these are common values that are desirable to us all.

__________

In the Introduction, there is a section that I find very interesting, entitled, "This Is Not a Text." Pullman makes the point that unlike literary works, which are primarily texts that are required to be consistent among different editions, fairy tales and folk tales are instead transcriptions of words that have been spoken by one of many tellers of the tale throughout time. As such, they can be altered by the teller. Different tellers of the tales may recount it according to their personal style; one may have a comedic approach, while another highlights the suspense and drama.

This made me consider my own way of storytelling. What do I highlight? What are the important parts of a story for me? I think my main focus is the psychological motivations of my characters and the implications of those motivations for their connections with each other. But looking at my writing through this lens I also recognize that I often focus on descriptions of the characters' relationships with nature. Thinking about my storytelling this way gives me some insight into what I'm trying to accomplish with my stories, that is, explore the relationships people have with each other and their place in the world, which makes sense since that's something I think about in my own life all the time. But as for the way of telling my stories, that's something I'll have to look into further. That's the fun part of finding your voice as a writer; trying different styles and ways of telling the story to see what suits you best.

But no matter the way in which you tell your stories, it is fairy tales and folktales, myth and legend, that are the raw material of storytelling--they are the elements we, as writers, have to work with. That's especially true within the realm of speculative fiction--fantasy and sci-fi--which is the genre I most often read and write. They are the source of inspiration for storytelling of all kinds; there are myriad examples of these stories being retold, reworked, re-imagined in different configurations, settings, and time periods across all genre and all media. Even the tabloids that I can't help but glance at in line at the supermarket seem to contain the same archetypal characters and story lines as the fickle, selfish gods of Greek myth and the wicked princes and evil stepmothers of the tales of the brothers Grimm.

Another great book to read on this subject, which focuses on fairy tales' role in developmental child psychology, is The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales by Bruno Bettelheim.

You can find that book and many others on the topic of myth, legend, fairy tales and folktales on my Goodreads shelf for the subject.

Writing Inspiration: Writing About Writing

There are about a zillion books out there containing writing about writing.

There seems to be an entire subgenre of the Self Help world devoted particularly to helping you become the writer (or artist of any kind) that you're meant to be. I've read a few of these and find them to be a mixed bag.

There seems to be a spectrum of focus in these books. At one end you have the nuts-and-bolts practical guides to writing, including style guides, do's-and-don'ts lists, and advice on navigating the more business-oriented aspects of trying to get published. At the other end are the cheerleaders of self-expression books, the ones that give you permission to really be you and exhort you to put yourself out there and give you idea prompts for taking yourself on self-indulgent little jaunts to find your creativity or whatever.

Wherever a book falls on this spectrum, there is usually some element of memoir involved where the writer of the book shares his or her experience of becoming a writer. This, too, can be helpful and relatable or totally solipsistic and pretty useless. There's the kind where authors shares their very particular way of going about things that works for them and might work for you, too. And then there's the kind where the authors describe all of their neuroses so you know how very special they are and how you, too, can be a super special important person if you cultivate your own stable of hang-ups and self-limiting problems. 

But when I do come across some writing on writing that clicks with me, it can be very inspiring. There are writers out there whom I admire and who I think have real wisdom to share. Lately I read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King and found it to be a perfect mix of all the things that a writer needs to read about. For my money, this book is in the ideal range of the spectra I described above. (You can read my Goodreads review by clicking on the link in the title.) 

Since reading it a couple weeks ago, I have been sitting down to write every day. I've started work again on that fantasy novel I've been writing in fits and starts for a couple of years now and have a renewed sense of purpose and confidence with telling the story. I have also gotten sidetracked from working on that because fiction (and world-building fantasy in particular) is a lot of work and sometimes it's easier to write blog posts about doing things I love, like this one. And that other one about horses. And an another one that I'm kicking around ideas for in my head lately.

It's a hell of a lot easier to write about writing than it is to just write. Getting sucked into writing about it--or reading about it--too much can give you the false sense that you're getting the work done when you're really not. The only thing that can truly help you write is to sit down and write. But sometimes the encouraging words of someone who knows the joys and pains of the work that you do can be helpful to get you started. If you're looking for that, I highly recommend Mr. King's book. You can also click here for a list of some other books I've read on the topic and my reviews for them on Goodreads.

 

Writing Inspiration: Music

“Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.”   --Hunter S. Thompson

Writing and music are deeply entwined for me.

Since childhood, I've connected songs--their lyrics, their moods, the feelings they evoke in me--with stories and daydreams. It seems that there's something about listening to music that puts my mind in as especially associative state. Growing up as an only child who populated her lonely world with characters from books, movies, and TV, I wrote myself into their stories, joining them on their adventures, but also finding my self and my place in the world through my relationships to them. So much of this was expressed through song. The songs I'd sing and would be sung to me, the ones that would be happen to be playing on the radio at important moments...I would create soundtracks to the stories in my head. Even the ones I didn't write myself into, but merely consumed--I could relate a love song I heard on the radio with the love story of characters I had just read about or watched.

When I got a little bit older and started watching music videos--MTV is sixteen days my elder, but I don't believe I began watching videos prior to Vh1's arrival in 1985 at the very earliest--the associations among songs and stories only grew stronger. Early music videos were a mixed bag of live concert footage, random and chaotic concepts and images, and occasionally mini-movies that told either the story of the song or, inexplicably, a totally unrelated story. A vast store of images and tropes emerged from this (my favorite) art form, all made more essential and poignant by being delivered hand in hand with music.

Sound is the first sense I rely on. I have terrible vision and even with the benefit of corrective lenses, I am remarkably--almost alarmingly--visually unobservant. The tiniest noise, however, can hijack my entire awareness. I hear the first two thuds of a bass line in a noisy restaurant where no one else is even cognizant that there is music on and I have to, and almost always immediately can, identify the song. So it makes sense that sound would be the first inspiration for much of my writing. (I am intermittently working on a novel that was entirely inspired by a solo Robert Plant song from 1988. True story. It's strange and slightly embarrassing music, but the first time I heard it, it triggered a host of feelings and landscapes that felt so lovely to dwell in that I had to make up a story just to have an excuse to give them expression. I've ended up creating an entire playlist of songs for the different scenes I've written for the book and they all share that strange and nearly inexplicable feeling to them that keeps me trying to scratch the itch of articulating it. And, of course, the hope that there's anyone out there with whom this would click.)

Click. That's a word I use a lot. I find that pseudo-synesthetic sound descriptions crop up frequently in my writing, often to describe psychological 'sensations'--like with 'click', that intuitive feeling of rightness, truth, or clarity. I also find myself returning frequently to the idea of a 'tuning fork' to express the same idea...

Whenever I'm feeling stuck or bored or uninspired, not only as a writer but generally, as a person, music is the best recourse. It gives me life. It opens my worldview, opens my mind and my heart. It allows me to categorize feelings, ideas, and moods by non-verbal means and that is the key to the creativity that ensues: I may not be able to describe exactly what it is that something means to me, but I can associate it with other sensations, other feelings and thoughts and build a world of analogy. In the heart of every feature of this world beats the same rhythm of likeness, and what I hope to achieve with my writing is the equivalent of standing next to a reader in the middle of it all and gently touching his or her arm with my hand to draw their awareness. Standing so still, so quietly that we are holding our breath, we listen. My eyes ask, "Do you hear it?" and maybe at first they don't, but slowly a smile spreads across their formerly puzzled features and I know that they Get It.

Not so much to ask for, right? Sometimes I'm concerned that these ambitions are too high; that I stymy myself with the need for the writing to be on that level of connectivity. Sometimes I tell myself to just shut up and write a good story and not worry about if anyone knows what the hell I'm talking about on that level. But what pushes us to express ourselves if not the desire to be known and understood? To have the validation that someone else out there senses things or processes them in a similar way that you do? That you're both able to point to a common signifier (since that's all we've got) and say, "Yes, that! That's how I feel!"

Music is most often that signifier for me, making it extremely important to my writing. Music is the gateway to my imagination...