The following blog post is a cross-post from Writespace.
Ever since childhood, I’ve been an art museum lover. I’m the person that gets to a new city and visits the art museum the very next day. I’ve been to museums in Israel, Portugal, Austin, Boston, New York, DC, Mexico, Maine, and more. It’s a ritual that helps me learn about the city. Different curators work in different ways. Museums have wide ranging collections – from Van Gogh in Dallas to Rothko in Houston. Galveston art museums feature works inspired by the ocean. Portuguese museums are rich in religious artifacts. The Boston art museum includes historical American pieces. Art is a way into a city.
Recently, I’ve noticed a subconscious illustrative quality to my own writing. My work tends to get accepted by Journals that feature art and innovative layouts. I published a poem in Vine Leaves, which is a beautiful magazine-sized journal, and a micro fiction in Literary Orphans, who boasts a collaborative platform between art and writing. My work is lyrical—visual even as it is words on paper. As I track this in my own work, I think about the influence of art. Art is a way into writing.
It’s not that I stare at paintings every day and write from them, although that can be a fun exercise. Part of it is that I am basically a failed visual artist. For a long time that was the career I thought I would follow, and then art classes destroyed my creative desire. Teachers forced me to draw something real. I rebelled--and dropped out of any formal teaching. I still draw, but most days my creative endeavors are applied to writing, where I don’t mind being told what to do. The other part is that I’ve always defined myself as an artist. I’ve written before about my creative inspiration: my aunt, artist Evelyn Peterson. Being the creative person in the family means you are either the black sheep, or the darling. I’ll let you guess which I turned out to be. As my work naturally finds its way into visual representation, I re-learn that art is a way into myself.
The juxtaposition of art and writing isn’t just about responsivity. In writing about art, or using art as inspiration, or having a background of visual art as writers, we’re not just responding to the art itself – to the way it looks on canvas, but something deeper. Visual artists work from the same creative spark of a writer--they find something in the world that disturbs their imagination, and they use it to create. Artists and writers cross over into their imagination, they come close to the disturbance, they bring it within themselves and push it out again, like a heartbeat. Art is a way through the darkness.
On February 13th, I’ll be hosting an art-based idea generator workshop at Writespace. The idea generator is a short workshop meant to give writers creative inspiration--to draw them close to the disturbance. It includes prompts, exercises, thought experiments, and a general fun atmosphere. The idea is not to count words, but to inspire them. We’ll explore different ways of approaching the visual through writing. We’ll also step into one of the artists’ studios, and talk to a visual artist about how they approach their work. For this workshop, art will be a way to generate new ideas.
As writers, how do we get inspired?
Poet David Biespiel advises that the entry to an idea starts with an irritation – something triggering our minds as writers and making us approach, even with caution. It could be a news story about a lost child, the opening of a flower to the sun, or the way the light looks in the afternoon. The fact that we keep returning to the same irritations means that while we become more successful, more accomplished, oft-published writers, within our dark hearts the artist-as-creature still resides.
I spent last weekend in my home town, Austin, Texas, at Poets & Writers Live. The event, hosted by Poets & Writers Magazine, carried the theme of “Inspiration.” I returned to my new city of Houston refreshed and reminded of how significant connecting with other writers is to my life as a writer. We are not solitary monsters, burrowed in our holes with our pincers clenched. We are vessels, waiting to be filled, waiting to overflow.
I was impressed by the variety of writers participating as speakers. I found several new names that I plan to follow down a rabbit hole (probably adding to my TBR pile, which is so high it threatens to smother me in my sleep, but hey, it’s not a bad way to go.) Among those names I include Elizabeth McCracken, the self-proclaimed “crabby” keynote speaker, whose words made me remember that not every writer is cut out of the same cloth. We are different, and that is magical. As McCracken proclaimed, “Cultivate your own universe.” This should be our theme for 2016 writers! As Chuck Wendig often says, “You do you.” I find this advice particularly vital for speculative writers. Many new spec lit writers I meet are daunted by the task of world-building. I say – build your own writing life alongside new worlds.
Other treats of discovery included Ben Percy, who sounds like a mix of Darth Vader and the guy who voices movie trailers, and read an essay about creating suspense that as my friend noted, did what it suggested (it managed to be suspenseful and also fulfilling). And oh yeah, he used a picture book as an example.
Naomi Shihab Nye, guardian of the daily poem, believes that as writers, we need to use what we have given our time. I’ll be posting more on this topic soon, as I am fascinated by the range of “techniques” and “practices” different writers employ.
Further writers I discovered include Saeed Jones of Buzzfeed, whose personal experience of finding the self in memoir gave me hope for the genre, and David Searcy, a CNF writer that I surprised myself by loving.
The event culminated in a reading by Texas Slam Poet, Ebony Stewart. I had the pleasure to share the stage with Stewart at Write About Now's recent ladies mic, where she hosted with grace and hilarity. The experience of seeing her read her work in front of a crowd of people who may have never heard spoken word performed live felt exhilarating. Electricity filled the room as a group of writers responded to her work with a standing ovation. It was a moment I will not forget. (Video of her reading at Write About Now below for your viewing pleasure.)
I was reminded that quotations are not just for Tumblr and cloud-background memes. The wellspring of quotes at this event, not just by the speakers, but also by their mentors and the writers that inspired them, dazzled me. Here are a few that stuck with me:
“I am really two poets: The writing poet, and the editing poet.”
“I am afraid I must insist upon desperation.”
“Each thing gives us something else.”
The more I visit writer’s conferences, the more ornaments of motivation I find within them. I think it’s an amalgamation of absorption within “the craft,” giving one’s self space to address writing as a career and a “thing I do,” but also the importance of relationship with the writing community. This idea of absorption brings me back to Biespiel’s thoughts on the approach to the creative process of writing. As a life practice, I’m trying to come closer to my imagination and inspiration. The closer you come to letting yourself live writing, the more clamorous the creative process will be. Listening to prosperous writers talk about their work reminded me that the process itself doesn’t get easier, but I believe that developing a writing identity can.
I develop customs for writing events: I take copious notes. I save whatever folder I’m given, and I keep any notes and mementos all in the same folder so I can return to them later. I make note of people that interest me. I try to be less of a wallflower, sometimes without success, bringing home new business cards and handing out a few of my own. My latest habit is live tweeting (you can find my live tweets in the previous blog post.) If all else fails, I have a beer at lunch to clear my mind. It works best if it’s a local tap.
Lastly, I try to approach the irritation with less caution. I tell myself that not every writer is the same. If my curiosity is peaked, I let myself plummet down the rabbit hole, with any luck dragging a few friends with me.
This weekend I attended Poets & Writers Live in Austin. The theme was "Inspiration". Below are my live tweets from the event in a handy-dandy list for your viewing pleasure. I will be posting a follow-up of my impressions of the event soon.
About the Author
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor and author of poetry, flash fiction, and short fiction. Find her on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath
Order my books:
I run a monthly e-newsletter with writing prompts, editing tips, writing music, and more. Click below to sign up!