Last week I talked about my process. This week, I’m going to talk about the kind of things that I do when that process needs a little extra help. Sometimes a step outside of my comfort zone is exactly what a piece needs, and the change in perspective can itself inspire even more ideas that I never would have considered any other way.
Keep in mind that my definition of “unconventional,” for the purposes of this list, simply is that it wasn’t (or still isn’t) a normal part of my writing routine and the fact I tried it and it worked came as a pleasant surprise. You might do one or more of these things all the time, in which case you might be wondering why it’s weird for me, and that’s awesome. But here are my top five cases of out-of-the-box thinking that led to creative success:
- Theme music.
I’ve been a musician for over half my life (and counting), so the fact that music overlaps with writing for me is probably not surprising. Likely to the chagrin of whoever is around me at the time, I have a tendency to hum or whistle when I’m thinking, and sometimes these are my own melodies: I’m not a composer by any stretch of the word, but somehow getting my mind in the act of creation in that sense is enough to kick-start my writing. That I listen to music while I write is probably not a surprise, either, but it has to be instrumental music: I become distracted by anything with lyrics, especially if they’re in English.
The exception to that last rule, though, is when I find a piece that reminds me of one of my characters so much that it becomes their leitmotif, if you will: for instance, the protagonist of my paranormal romance and “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel are so intrinsically linked in my mind that I need to consciously prevent him from popping up whenever the song plays. Not every song grabs me quite like that, and I’ll often write entire pieces that don’t end up having a theme, but it’s extremely useful when it happens because it gives me an instant door into a piece.
- The Bible.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not religious: my immediate family didn’t go to church frequently, but I was raised according to things like the Golden Rule and other ethical codes that could be found in the Bible. Despite the fact that I grew up in a predominantly Christian and conservative area and that we had a Bible around the house, I wasn’t familiar with the particulars. I knew the things that, as a young child, I figured were the important parts—Noah’s ark, that whole Adam and Eve thing, Jesus was someone important and his birthday was on Christmas (but he wasn’t Santa), heaven was where you went if you were good—and Sodom and Gomorrah, which I recall being the very first story that ever scared me out of reading the rest of a book (I was probably a bit young to be trying to comprehend that one, but that clearly didn’t stop me from trying).
Then, my senior year of college, I took a religious studies class: to be more specific, it was an intro-level class that focused on the Old Testament and viewed it through sociological, artistic, and historical lenses rather than theological ones. It was the ultimate in liberal arts experiences, and if you have an opportunity to take a class of that nature I highly recommend it. Getting intimately familiar with the text enriched my writing as well as my reading experiences and opened up an entirely new world of possible allusions and inspiration for entire stories and characters. I am not any more or less religious than I was before taking the class, but I still found the experience of engaging more directly and objectively with the text extremely valuable. In moving out of my parents’ house earlier this year I ended up leaving the NRSV Study Bible I used for that class behind, and I’ve been kicking myself for it ever since, especially during NaNoWriMo prep season. There are some things that just aren’t the same when you’re looking at them on a computer screen.
When I tell people that I’m a writer and a musician, one of the follow-up questions they tend to pose is “Do you also draw? You seem very right-brained.” I usually mutter my way through a “No, not really,” but the truth of the matter is that I do and can draw… I just don’t draw well. I can doodle like a champ, but actually illustrating something? No way. Still, I decided that I was going to take a 2D art class and a costume design one at college at the same time. The art class ended up being a semester-long struggle against color theory and getting gouache to spread evenly as well as opaquely on paper: I ultimately fared much better in costume design, where, while my art and sewing skills were lacking, my background in writing gave me an edge when it came to interpreting and rendering narratives and characters. After I graduated, though, I put the art supplies away for several months.
For whatever reason, I was inspired to dig them back out for November 2014’s NaNoWriMo. That story and character were really prominent in my mind, and I figured that drawing and painting a picture of the protagonist would somehow make me that much more intimately familiar with him and therefore easier to write. The illustration leaves a lot to be desired—I knew how to draw human figures, not how to draw people—but it worked. Being able to see him made him that much more real in my mind. I still have the picture around somewhere, and I plan to dig it out again as I go into revising his story. Maybe I’ll even try to paint him again.
- Method acting.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m referring to all of the techniques under the umbrella term “method acting,” even though technically Stanislavski’s system was distinct from what we call “method acting.” It’s been a while since I took the class, so I can’t write you a very nuanced description, but the long short of it is that actors dig into their sensory and emotional memories to more accurately play a character. This translates quite well into writing: If I need to replicate the body language of someone who’s angry or cold, I pace around the apartment imagining that I’m angry or cold and observing my impulses more acutely. I’ve used a similar train of thought when trying to figure out what my range of motion would be if my wrists and ankles were tied up, and I’ve been taking more careful notes on how my body feels if I’m sick or exercising, just in case I need that information for a piece.
I’m going to get serious for a paragraph because I have a disclaimer: I am a hobbyist at best when it comes to theater performance and therefore should not be taken as an authority on acting techniques. The catch with using emotional memory is that you need to be really, really careful. Digging up traumatic or unresolved emotions, especially doing so repeatedly, in an attempt to use them isn’t psychologically healthy. I added the technique to the list because I was trained (but likely nowhere near long enough), feel mostly comfortable doing it, use it sparingly, and never use it to relive anything that could hurt me. Having practiced the technique and having experienced the good and bad things it can do, I respect the courage and fortitude of actors even more, but there is a way to do this correctly. If you think you need professional help, please seek it.
- Tarot reading.
In the way that I’m not particularly religious, I’m also a skeptic when it comes to all things that fall under the “occult” or “paranormal” banners. I enjoy seeing them when they appear in fiction because they can be really creative and interesting when applied the right way, but I’m personally not convinced that there are supernatural forces acting on everyday life. I’m also someone who would rather eat a bowl of spiders than spend money on myself, and I agonize over every purchase greater than $5 USD. This combination of things makes me the least likely candidate to take up tarot. So how did that happen?
My husband (boyfriend at the time) and I ended up getting a short couple’s reading a few years ago, largely as an “Eh, why not?” kind of thing. We talked to our reader for a little bit afterward, who explained that he got into tarot through psychology, which surprised me but still made sense. The idea of someone of the sciences who practiced something that has such a strong association with the paranormal stuck with me and eventually evolved into the protagonist of my paranormal romance, who is himself a student of psychology that uses tarot as a means of meditation and as a source of extra income. I ended up writing the first draft of his story, not quite caring if I did it right because it was just an early draft, but realized that I would need to do more research. Reading about it online wasn’t quite working, so, completely on a whim, I ended up buying a deck and practicing with it. It turns out that I actually really like it, both creatively and personally.
I’m not someone who can meditate in the “empty your mind” kind of way because, as a creative person, I need to have ideas constantly swirling around. Having cards with very specific meanings that are randomly chosen gives me a way to direct those thoughts and force me to think about things I might not have considered. I’ve also used them as a creative exercise: there are 78 different cards (79 in the case of my deck, which included a nameless card with much less straightforward symbolism, and 156 if you read inverted and count those as completely different cards) with many, many different interpretations and associations. Lay those out in any spread you want and you can come up with anything from a psychological profile of a character to an entire plot. Even drawing a single card and using it to figure out how to write myself out of a corner is extremely helpful.
No, I’m not quite at the level where I can do readings for other people. Thanks for asking, though.
So that’s my collection of unusual, non-writing things that I’ve done for the sake of my writing. Maybe they surprised you as much as they surprised me at first. As far as things that I haven’t done or would like to do go, there are three pretty major ones:
- Learn Latin (but ancient Greek would be fine, too).
Learning languages hasn’t been easy for me, but this is something I’ve always kind of wanted to do, both as a fan of words and someone that hopes to write some fantasy. For entirely superficial reasons, spells sound better to me if they’re in a language that I don’t speak, and I’d like to be able to have some linguistic authority if I’m going to be developing magical systems.
- Hands-on learning.
Whether in the form of something like Writer’s Police Academy, taking a few classes, or job shadowing, I love learning and would like to broaden my personal and creative horizons. I tend to “collect” characters and experiences from doing things that are out of the ordinary for me, and maybe down the road I’ll have an easier time justifying the time and financial expense.
- A writing colony.
I’ve collaborated on writing before, and I’ve done workshops before, but only in the context of classes, where we were for the most part graded on how we critiqued our classmates’ work and how dramatically we changed our pieces in the next draft. I’m not suggesting that it’s not a valid way to do things in an academic setting, I’d just like to have the experience of getting feedback on work without needing to worry about not only coming up with praise as well as constructive criticism, but articulating them in a way that is likely to get a good grade, doing so within a week of getting the piece, and balancing that with creating my own material and doing my work for other classes. Basically, the idea of spending two weeks in the woods with other writers, doing nothing but reading and writing, and not getting graded for it? Sign me up as soon as I have the money for it.
How about you? Have you done anything completely different that led to some breakthroughs? Let’s hear about it in the comments!