On Getting Out in the World and Finding Inspiration
In our small town, here beside the sea, there is a castle on a hill. It’s not exactly a castle in the fairytale sense of the word. It doesn’t have turrets or towers or a drawbridge; but it does have a grand staircase, a ballroom, and gryphons guarding the back terrace. And, we have called it a castle for so long that it’s hard for us to think of it as anything else.
The Crane Estate was the summer home of a wealthy family who made their fortune in, of all things, plumbing fixtures. I have seen the Crane name stamped on porcelain commodes all the way across the country. It is, admittedly, a rather ignoble legacy, but a legacy nonetheless. And, here in Ipswich, we think less about how the family acquired their wealth and more about how they gifted so much of it to the town. Crane’s castle is now a property of the Trustees of Reservations, a conservation group that has restored the grand home and is continuously working on additional restoration projects throughout the surrounding 165 acres of gardens, bridle paths, and out buildings. Best of all, the castle and its impressive grounds are open to the public and host to all kinds of events including live music, historical tours, and art classes. For a writer, the place is a wellspring of inspiration.
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When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a company that designed and manufactured promotional products – t-shirts, gym bags, keychains, etc. – for brands like M&M Mars, Coca-Cola, Co., and McDonald’s. Our design department included more than twenty full-time designers who cranked out hundreds of graphics and product designs each quarter. The artists worked in corporate cubicles – six-foot square “studios” – lined up in orderly rows under fluorescent lights. Day after day, these caged creatives managed to produce a steady stream of on-demand commercial art.
I always wondered how they were able to continuously come up with new ideas. I mean, here they were, stuck in these tiny, gray boxes – hemmed in by four walls with nothing but a blank screen, a stylus, and an assignment to deliver something that would wow the client. I always thought how taxing it must have been for them to have to create something from nothing, and always on a tight deadline. I always wondered why their process didn’t include more time out in the world, collecting inspiration.
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This past Thursday, my family attended an orchestra performance at Crane’s castle. The program was a series of concertos featuring various solos on oboe, violin, piccolo trumpet, harpsichord, and a somewhat fantastical instrument called a euphonium. Though I know little about Baroque music, I was swept up by the tempo of these lively pieces. Inspired by the location and the music, my storyteller’s mind whirred to life. Here, away from my desk, I felt my imagination leap free from the invisible shackles of my usual writing routine. Characters and story ideas emerged like spirits to dance across my mind’s eye. It was all I could do to keep myself from pulling out a notebook and scribbling.
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I remember a business trip I made out to San Francisco while I was working for the promotional products company. I can’t recall the reason for the trip, but I have a very clear memory of what it felt like to write in that unfamiliar place. I had brought a journal with me, and during a free hour in the evening, I sat by the window in my hotel room and wrote. Though I was still me, and the notebook I was writing in was the same notebook I’d been writing in for weeks, the words that tumbled onto the page seemed to come from the mind of a stranger. Where I’d previously felt like I was writing in tighter and tighter circles, getting nowhere, my thoughts suddenly unwound themselves and shot in several directions at once, illuminating a whole new range of perspectives and possibilities like a burst of internal fireworks.
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Listening to classical music in a setting like Crane’s castle, I wonder if places can hold the energy of their stories. I know I am not the only person (and, certainly not the only writer) who has felt a narrative presence stirring in the rooms of a house or moving like a wave across a landscape. I do not think of this presence as ghostly, but more as a kind of alchemical reaction between the essence of a place and the essence of the visitor, combining history, memory, dreams, and perceptions. It’s like each unique meeting of place and person acts as a catalyst in the creation of an equally unique series of thoughts and ideas.
And, perhaps we can temporarily drain the story energy of our usual haunts – our own homes and work spaces. Maybe familiarity can rob us of our inspiration. But, even if that’s the case, perhaps we can reinvigorate our creativity by going out into the world and capturing the ideas that come to us in unfamiliar places. The excursion doesn’t have to take you far and the destination doesn’t have to be grand. A quiet room in a library can serve as well as the ballroom in a castle. A subway car, coffee shop, or public park can serve up stories as rich and intriguing as those found in a seaside cave, museum, or faerie wood. It’s all about how we open up to a place, how we listen and let the energy of the space mingle with our own experience and memory.
Where will you go to find the spark of your next story?
What I’m Writing – A Gratitude Journal
I’ve been working at a rather hectic pace for the past month or so. Though I appreciate the work, the weight of the workload has been a bit much to bear. There has been an almost unbroken string of working mornings, nights, and weekends. Though I have enjoyed a few respites here and there, The Grind has been particularly grind-y lately.
Sometimes, when I find myself in this kind of cycle, it’s easy to forget how much I have to be thankful for. It’s easy to get cranky and even bitter, grousing about having no time off and feeling sorry for myself. It seems especially unfair to be so tied so tightly to my desk at this time of year when the end-of-school energy is tugging at my sleeve along with my daughter. And I’m all out of sorts because work demands have taken over my life so completely, that I have been unable to keep up with my grounding routines: morning pages, yoga, solitary walks, and healthy smoothies.
At times like these, gratitude journaling provides a life raft.
It doesn’t matter how you do it. I’ve used pen and notebook as well as a bevy of digital apps. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed sharing what I’m grateful for with writer friends via a Facebook group. Sharing the things that have made me happy helps me cultivate a thankful mindset, and helping celebrate the things that have made my friends happy extends my sense of gratitude beyond my own life. Like a pebble dropped into a lake, each moment of gratitude creates ripples that spread good feelings.
I may have to work again this weekend, but I’m grateful for the work, for time to spend with my family, and for the beautiful day. I’m grateful for two cats who keep me company as I work, for a boyfriend who cooks delicious dinners (and patiently listens to all my war stories), and for the privilege of spending with my daughter.
What are you grateful for this week?
What I’m Reading – The Girl in the Road
Have you ever come away from reading a book and found it difficult to articulate the experience? That’s how I feel about The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne. Described by many as science fiction and/or dystopian fiction, this debut novel seems to me to be so much more. Byrne weaves science and myth, religion and sexuality, politics and personal histories into a complex and multi-layered tale that is disorienting, but mesmerizing.
I picked this book up after reading Neil Gaiman’s blurb,
“It’s transfixing to watch Monica Byrne become a major player in sci-fi with her debut novel: so sharp, so focused and so human. Beautifully drawn people in a future that feels so close you can touch it, blended with the lush language and concerns of myth. It builds a bridge from past to future, from East to West. Glorious stuff.”
I began reading without really knowing what the story was about (my favorite way to read a book), and was immediately drawn in by Byrne’s deeply poetic use of language. If I had not borrowed my copy from the library, I would have underlined passages on almost every page of this book. Byrne has the ability to create an entire world in a single sentence. There is a musical quality to her writing that is almost hypnotic.
The beauty of her prose is a sharp counterpoint to the often difficult and sometimes violent subjects this story tackles. There are many discomfiting elements to the story including sexual abuse and deviance, abandonment, slavery, natural disasters, and madness. Different passages made me cringe for different reasons, but it is a testament to Byrne’s vision that despite all the pain and ugliness in the story, I came away from the story with a sense of hope.
This is not an easy read. It is a story that challenges the reader on multiple levels. It is a story that plunges the reader into a tumultuous and multicultural world full of unfamiliar sights, sounds, tastes, customs, ideas, and possibilities. And yet, as Gaiman mentioned in his blurb, it is all so well rendered that it seems as real as the world outside your own window.
I am still working out how I feel about this book. I have a feeling it may take me a while. In the meantime, I do recommend it with the caveat that it explores some of the darker parts of human nature.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
- A Book that Changed My Life by Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Case of the Disappearing Editor by Martha Nichols via @talkingwriting
- The Power of the Long Walk by @AllisonStadd
- Boost Your Creativity: 7 Ways to Be Insanely Creative on Demand by @angiedixonwho via @writetodone
- 5 Ways Successful Bloggers See the Blogosphere Differently by @adamsconsulting via @melissaonline
- Vlog: On Scotland, How I Write, Whether or Not I Have a Time-Turner, and Other Inquiries by @veschwab
- Authors: 6 Reasons You Need to Be on Goodreads by David Kudlar
- The Morning Routine That Enables Me to Keep Writing Novels by Warren Adler
Finally, a quote for the week:
And, now, for a slightly different take on gratitude …
Here’s to discovering the stories in all the places you visit, and to remembering the power of gratitude to transform your world and give you a sense of hope.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.