How do you solve your problems?

konik.jpg

Since the 1990’s, Britain has introduced Konik ponies to many of its wetland areas. Relocated from their natural habitat of marshy woodlands in Poland, as the animals graze they restore and sustain once-threatened ecosystems. They chomp their way through dense grass and reeds and create habitat for ground nesting birds and well as winter feeding grounds for wading birds.

Word count: 277                                                                       Reading time: about 1 minute

I wish those ponies would come and chew through some of my recent writing. It feels like I need a good habitat for new ideas and fresh expressions. Maybe what I really need is inspiration.  

You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club, according to Jack London. Where should a person look for it?

Obvious places are:

  • Books
  • Movies
  • TV
  • Eavesdropping
  • Blogs
  • Plays
  • Writing groups

The Konik ponies grazing habits had only an indirect relationship with the recovery of England’s degraded fens. Similarly, the sources of inspiration for writing often have an indirect relationship with writing itself. That means the writer should look past the obvious to:

  • Music
  • Physical labour
  • An afternoon at an amusement park
  • A walk in the forest
  • A game of chess
  • A bike ride
  • A run on a beach
  • A car race
  • Doing something new, out of a person’s comfort zone

Sometimes the fastest route to the prize isn’t a straight line. We have to walk around the problem, look over the horizon and see what’s there. Then we have to find those Konik ponies and create new habitat for our dormant ideas.

Where does your inspiration come from? Do you look across borders to find a special little pony to solve the problem of your deteriorating wetlands?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Konik mare and foal trotting by Roy van Wijk

What is staring you in the face?

Bright sunshine beckoned the other day and I tied on my runners and trotted outside. With my headset plugged into my iPhone, I hit the music button, ready for a brisk walk. Instead of Emeli Sandé, I got thundering silence. The bounce went out of my step and I stared at my phone dumfounded.

Word count: 334    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I punched buttons as if simple determination would make the songs magically reappear. When I pulled out the ear buds and stood there, I heard nothing more than the autumn leaves that rasped along the pavement. I resigned myself to a technology-free hour and moved on.

Without the cocoon of music to separate me from ambient buzz, I walked. Although it would be glorious to report that I heard something so significant that it inspired a brilliant short story or chapter, that didn’t happen. But I caught conversations from people’s yards. Jays scolded in a cedar tree. When a car drove past, the doughy sounds of its tires on the warm road reached me. A normal Sunday morning on the edge of Mt. Fromme.

My sharpened hearing changed to more focused looking and I saw, for the first time, the way the Steller jays’ wings appeared translucent against the sun. I breathed deep the rich humus smell rising from the earth. I touched the springy young needles on a hemlock tree.

Susan Sontag said, “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” When I plug into my tunes, I deny myself a chance to do just that.

When the latest iPhone 4 upgrade deleted my entire iTunes library it may have given me an inadvertent gift: I discovered that music piped directly to my brain doesn’t turn off only my ability to hear, it also dulls my senses of sight, touch, and smell. Maybe it sweeps me into what Jason Perlow calls the Sea of Stupid.

Do you have a habit, particularly one that is technology-dependent, one that diminishes your powers of observation? How do you overcome it?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Leaves in autumn, Tapis de feuilles en automne by hamon jp

Is your filter on?

Next week I’m going to a BBQ with a Western theme. The invitation arrived weeks ago and since then I’ve tramped through thrift stores and flea markets from North Vancouver to Packwood, Washington. I’ve assembled enough pieces to pass muster: a pale blue cowboy hat, a darker blue fringed jacket and a pair of black cowboy boots. In design, leatherwork and condition, my boots are very similar to this picture. Turn them upside down and they tell a different story: they have been re-soled and re-heeled many times.

Word count: 440                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve started wearing the boots around the house to get used to the feel of them. When I pull them on, a strange thing happens: I walk differently. I channel their former owner. I feel the way the arch of her foot shaped the vamp of the boot. I close my eyes and press down on the ball of the sole and see dusty paddocks, smell the sage-scent of horses, and feel the burn of the desert sun. My own filter turns off; I start taking photographs of her life.

Then I turn the tables and try to see my life as she would. When I boarded the Queen of Oak Bay ferry on Tuesday I imagined the previous owner of these well-worn boots clapping eyes on the huge car ferry for the first time. To me, BC Ferries are just part of the highway system: a route that connects BC’s islands to its mainland. To travellers unaccustomed to the busy-ness of the ferry terminal and the power of the ships, it’s an exciting part of the journey, fraught with joys and risks that habituated users often fail to see. Tuesday I looked the vessel with fresh eyes.

That made me realize I need to turn off my filter more often. I need to walk in other people’s boots more often. That can only help me find the excitement in everyday life that is necessary to improve as a writer. I need to be more like Edward Gorey and find the floor that opens:

I really think I write about everyday life. I don't think I'm quite as odd as others say I am. Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring.

Are you like Edward Gorey? Do you see the floor opening up underneath you, sweeping you into another world? Or is your filter on and all you see is the ferry line up and another delay between you and your destination?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Ealdgyth

What's in store?


Around 10:30 Monday morning I walked up to the line of carts outside the supermarket, quarter in hand. The next available trolley had two beer cartons in it. I hesitated. If I didn’t want that one, along with the job of removing someone else’s garbage, I would have to walk halfway across the parking lot to the next row of carts. I shoved my coin in the slot, the locking mechanism released, and I tugged the cart. It did not move with gentle effort.

Word count: 483                                           Reading time: about 2 minutes

The boxes were full. One carton held two dozen bottles of beer, the other two dozen cans. I looked over my shoulder for a hidden camera. I surveyed the parking lot to see if anyone was frantically tearing his hair looking for lost treasure. Then I pushed the cart into the store and ferried that heavy load around as I shopped.

That type of ordinary beer has a shelf life of 3-6 months and only a total collapse of the brewing, spirits and wine industry would induce us to drink so much of it so fast. So I wheeled my cart over to customer service and a smiling supervisor relieved me of the found fortune. She promised to take it to the staff picnic if it remained unclaimed.

Regardless of the fate of the beer, I had the reward of imagining who, how, and why it ended up in that shopping cart. My storylines, as always, started with questions:

  • Had someone decided impulsively to stop drinking?
  • Had someone decided for them and stolen and stashed their beer?
  • The Liquor Store* had opened only at 9:30. Was the purchase abandoned within an hour of being made?
  • Had people been partying near the shopping centre the night before and did they drunkenly forget their last brews? If so, who pushed the shopping cart up the small slope and locked into place? 
  • What were my rights of salvage if I decided to keep it? Did the losers-weepers rule apply?

From these I conjured a number of stories and resolutions. I imagined a grateful beer owner being handed back his or her prized bottles and cans. I imagined someone thanking me, then learning I’m about to have a book published. I imagined this person saying, “I’m a movie producer. I love your story! I must buy the rights to your book.”  

One of the joys of writing is the infinite number of stories in the universe. One of the frustrations of writing is the infinite number of stories in the universe. Some, like this one, appear like cottonwood seeds on the breeze. They blow in and out of view quickly. While they’re in our sight, they give our imaginations an intense five-minute workout.

Have you had a dull day brightened by an unexpected story recently? Has yours been transitory and forgotten or did it develop into something more lasting?


* this is BC after all and we cannot be trusted to buy our alcohol at a supermarket.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Reihe_Einkaufswagen by 4028mdk09 

So what's the big idea?

If you go to writers’ festivals and sit through enough Q&A sessions, it’s likely you’ll hear this question posed to author panels at some time: Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve heard answers that ranged from the vague to the slightly sarcastic, “Ideas 101.”

Word count: 315 Reading time 1-2 minutes

Where do ideas come from? Here are some places:

  • First hand experience
  • Visual images
  • Tactile experiences
  • Music
  • Dreams
  • Conversations overheard
  • Stories in the news (TV and the movie industry tap this resource constantly)

If the above fails you, here are some are fallback techniques to open the mind and spark the creative flow:

  • Retell an old story
  • Write fan fiction (it worked for EL James)
  • Use an idea generator like the Archetype Writing. This helpful site doesn’t just give story prompts, it also offers assistance on developing character depth, and breaking writer’s block.

Lynda Barry reminds us, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits.” We can use our digits along with the rest of our senses not just to infuse a story, but to deliver one.

Seven years ago my senses ganged up on me when I walked into an old farmhouse. The former owner had been moved suddenly to a nursing home and her threadbare socks still hung above the Aga stove. The room smelled of washing powder and neglect. The curling family photographs, the dull afternoon light, and the chilly air stirred something deep inside me. That night I wrote the story Constant Cravings which you can read here.

So I’d like to know – where do you get your inspiration? Do your ideas find and possess you until you’ve captured them on the page? Are you often bombarded with so many ideas that the real challenge is in selecting just one? Or are you like Samuel Johnson, turning over half a library to make one book?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons