Feeding the Beast: Keeping Creativity Fed

Feeding the Beast: Keeping Creativity Fed

Welcome back, loyal listeners! A quick disclaimer: we faced quite a few technical difficulties this week. The content is still top-notch, but the quality of recording was spotty (mainly on Aaron’s end at the beginning). Stick with us, though. The quality improves further in. It’s good stuff, and next week we’ll have the difficulties ironed out.






NOVEL SPOTLIGHT (Molly Jo): I recently discovered Steven James’s The Pawn. So, first, I admit I “read” it through Audible.com, which may or may not have influenced my experience. The narration was wonderful and not overly dramatic. I will get the print version soon so Steven can autograph it for me at the Blue Ridge conference this May. It’s the first in his Patrick Bowers series. Patrick is an FBI agent who is tasked with finding a serial killer, while still reeling from the death of his wife, and trying to take care of his teenage stepdaughter who wants nothing to do with him. The writing is superb, of course. I read it as a study to learn how to write better grit. Steven definitely has that. It’s dark, and at times ugly, but it’s also fascinating and compelling. He pushes the envelope of evil right to the edge, without exposing details. He says it all without saying it all, if that makes sense. Now, a sidebar here: I read it because I was struggling with developing NOLA at the rewrite. People were telling me it had too much darkness for this market, or not enough for that market. So I messaged Steven and asked how does he reconcile being a Christian writer who wins Christian awards, while his books aren’t overtly Christian? I asked because I thought it might help me figure out how to progress with NOLA. He basically said they’re not mutually exclusive. So, to any of you out there who are struggling between your beliefs and your books, I highly encourage you to keep writing. And reading.

Firsts in Fiction

Feeding the Beast: Keeping Creativity Fed

Writing a novel is a marathon. A pastor told me once of his experience running a marathon. His preparation for this grueling event consisted of reading blogs. Come race day, he was more than in over his head. Somewhere around mile 13, he saw a half-eaten Snickers bar that someone had dropped in the gutter. He prayed earnestly, “Dear Jesus, help me to not eat trash. Dear Jesus, help me not to eat trash.” If you want to finish your novel, you’re going to need some high-octane fuel of creativity–something to stimulate your mind and keep your passion for the project going. Here are some ways we draw inspiration to feed our creativity.

  • Movies
      • Movies can be very visually stimulating, but I like to look beyond just the explosions at the way the films craft dialog and character. I like to notice how the characters present themselves, their nervous twitches, their quirks. I like to see how they show the change in the characters. These can be great for studying minutiae of unique characters. And while some blockbusters do a great job of this (I love the Marvel movies), often times, it’s the smaller, more artistic films where you get some of the best writing/acting/directing. Also, popcorn.
      • I agree. Movies are a great source for imagination. I will often do a media search on my Roku for New Orleans and have found all sorts of movies. From atmosphere to dialect, I find them very helpful. But I also will often watch movies I “know by heart” because then I’m free to pay less attention and let my mind wander. I’ll think of how my written characters would behave in these situations. As a character building exercise, I’ll ask my characters what their favorite movies are. That’s pretty revealing, too. My favorites for inspiration are The Godfather Trilogy, the Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and of course, Gone With the Wind.
      • (Al) Movies feed creativity because they are an immersive experiences. The theater is dark. The movie screen large and looming. The stories–essentially short stories–play before our eyes. Sounds and dialogue fill our ears. That’s enough bait to lure out the creative creature living in our brains.
      • Being surrounded by story can open the floodgate of ideas. I have solved plot problems and nurtured story ideas while watching a movie. Those ideas have nothing to do with movie’s plot. Consuming story breeds more story.
  • Reading (but especially reading poetry)
      • I’ve harped on this before. There are few forms that demonstrate the beauty of what language can do more than poetry. Poetry concerns itself with imagery and figurative language, with imagination and emotion. It’s as much an auditory experience as it is a visual experience. Some of my favorites (who really play with language and rhythm and sound) are e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich, and Aimee Nez.
      • Mark Twain said, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” In poetry, one can find proof that tight writing can communicate with great and memorable power. The key is to know which words to cut. Even more, which words must stay. Poets develop a sixth sense about rhythm and meter and visually charged phrasing. Consider Walt Whitman’s “Captain, My Captain” a funerary poem about the assassination of Lincoln. Or Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” A good way to appreciate this is to listen to a fine actor read these poems (or other poems). You can find such readings on YouTube.
      • But let’s not forget reading prose in your genre. Find the very best and study how they put things together. Type passages from some of your favorite authors and you’ll get a sense of what good writing “feels” like. Read passages aloud and you’ll find new nuances.
      • Examining the creativity of others will stimulate your own creativing. Don’t be intimidated. Trust me, they’ve spent a good deal of time doing the same thing.
      • Let’s not forget craft books that do more than educate. Books like Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing has very little to do with technique or craft and everything to with the love of writing.
  • Art (specifically museums)
      • I recently went to the museum Reina Sofia in Madrid, where I saw a handful of works by Picasso and Dali. They do with images what we seek to do in words: to convey an emotional experience. I love the imaginative use of colors and how shapes are arranged together to suggest an emotional perspective.
      • We’re not all able to travel to visit such great museums. In this case, I recommend coffee table books, the local library, a park (nature’s art!), and the Smithsonian Channel Aerial America. This is one of my favorite TV shows. The footage is shot from either a small plane or drones, as the narrator tells the history of the area. To see the world from a different perspective while learning about its history is a unique experience.
      • Aaron is really onto something here: all creativity leads to more creativity. A sculpture, a painting, architecture, music (as we’ll see), even industrial design can jumpstart, enliven, or strengthen creativity.
  • Music
      • This goes along with poetry for me. Not all music is to my taste, but I recognize what it takes to create music. As a former musician, I like to think of the composition of a piece–how the melodies and harmonies work together with the words, and at what points the are at odds. Sometimes, discord in music can create a sense of conflict and unease in the listener that is later resolved by the reunion of the the notes. Some of the best music doesn’t even have words, but it still moves the listener. That’s what we’re wanting–we want that swell of emotion, that appreciation of art and beauty in any form so that we can harness it and use it in our own works.
      • Again, I agree. I find when I’m writing, it’s best to have themed music in the background. I’ll listen to CDs, my iTunes, or stream music through the internet. Orchestral music is very inspiring. I also created a New Orleans-based channel through the Pandora music streaming app, and selected great artists like Louis Armstrong, Otis Redding, Harry Connick, Jr and Frank Sinatra. There are several songs especially that became very integral to helping me finish the first draft of NOLA, either through inspiring the characters, or actually being written into the storyline.
      • Music has been shown to improve concentration and imagination. You have to learn what works for you. Sometimes you can set the mood you need to coax more out of your creativity. Need something dark and ominous? Consider Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Need something light and contemporary, listen to the Beatles. Sometimes all you need is nature sounds like falling rain.
  • Podcasts
      • I’m a sucker for a good podcast. One of my favorites is Radiolab and Invisibilia. It’s not fiction, but it covers some of the stories that feel like fiction–strange, ethically gray stories, morally complex, from around the world. Unbelievable story ideas. Every time I listen, I think, “I need to write a story like that.”
      • Yes. Early on with NOLA, I “discovered” that one of the characters is an adult with autism. Aaron, we discussed what that meant for the book and the character, and you shared the radiolab podcast Juicervose with me. I remember listening to it that evening and just getting this overwhelming feeling. Because it was an affirmation that I was writing the character perfectly. But it also, I admit, made me very, very sad because I have such a heart for people with autism. I was able to use that as I wrote how autism affected both the character and those around him.
        Another podcast I listen to often is Novel Marketing. It’s the marketing side of things, but as a writer that also inspires me. Because we’ve all heard how we need to do our own marketing, yes? Jim Rubart and Thomas Umstattd have been doing this for years. They have great podcast episodes with guests, and their brand is fantastic. Tools and plugins and downloads to help authors with their marketing. I highly recommend it because it helps keep the business side of things in perspective; and from my perspective, if you’re serious about writing, you need to be just as serious about the marketing.
      • I get inspiration from science and history documentaries, even though they may have no direct bearing on my work. But also listen for information, research, and learning something new recharges my creativity.
  • Food
      • It’s no secret I love being in the kitchen. I have people come over just so I can cook for them. And because even our characters have to eat, I love exploring the flavors they enjoy. There are restaurants I’ve experienced, recipes I’ve tried. I take those moments and write them out. A well-rounded character will have foods they like, grimace when they taste something they dislike, etc. I like to immerse myself in the experience of eating so I can translate it into my characters’ lives.
  • Social Gatherings
      • Whether I’m in a coffee house alone, or out with friends, just being in a place with other people often spurs my imagination. People-watching is a great treat. An ex-boyfriend and I used to play a game where we would watch people and ask ourselves, “What’s their story?” We’d come up with who they are, why they were there, what drama they had to overcome and what problem was about to attack them.
  • Accountability
    • This one sounds more like a responsibility, but for me it really is inspiring. I find when I’m struggling with writer’s block, or just not “feeling it,” one of the best things I can do is pour a glass of wine and make a phone call or send a text. There’s a small group of people I will talk it over with, and whether it’s a five-minute or two-hour conversation, at the end I usually feel directed and excited about moving forward. Sometimes I forgo the conversation and just drink the wine.

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