I lead a monthly writing workshop called SHARPENING THE QUILL, details of which you can find elsewhere on this website. I named the workshops that because a long time ago I heard an anecdote about John Ruskin (at least I think it was John Ruskin) (NOTE — as you can see from the comments below, apparently it wasn’t Ruskin. Drat. However, I’m leaving the painting because, heck, I really like it!) who was out rambling and shooting pheasant or grouse or something — you know, as one does — about the hills in his native England when an idea popped into his head. Knowing it was an important idea, and also knowing he was bound to forget it by the time he trudged back to his desk if he didn’t write it down now, he scrambled in his pockets for writing implements, but had none. He did, however, have a gun, so he shot the first bird he saw, a crow, plucked a quill from its wing, sharpened it with his handy pocket knife, dipped it in the crow’s blood and scribbled the idea on the hem of his shirt.
Somehow, calling a writing workshop SHOOTING THE CROW, didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
This anecdote implies, to me, (regardless of who said it!) that you never know when you’re going to get a great idea and you should always carry a pen and paper with you. It also implies walking is good not only for the body, but for the creative soul as well.
Sometimes you have to approach inspiration obliquely. I’ve found one of the best ways to come up with a new idea, or to work through a block in my writing, is to head out for a bracing walk. Sitting at my desk and staring at the blank page is necessary, but if that’s truly not working after say, an hour or so, it’s time for more draconian measures. So, with my delighted dog by my side, I head out of the house and off for a walk, while keeping my mind actively receptive. By this I mean nothing more magical than thinking about things as I walk, turning a narrative problem over in the mind, or, if I have no ideas at all, simply saying, “I’m open to a new idea,” and paying attention to my thoughts.
Jack London once said, you have to “light out after inspiration with a club.”
Well, I’ll leave shooting and clubbing to the boys, but I do understand what London meant. As creative people, courting inspiration is our JOB, and we have to actively work for it. Ideas arrive when we’re both open to them and ready for them, but alas, there is no little shop in Poughkeepsie from which you can order them by mail. Thus, ready, in this instance, means turning our intention toward our writing, and always having pen and paper ready.
I jot things down as they come to me, without judgment (editing comes later). When I come back from my walk, the first thing I do is transcribe the new ideas into either a notebook, or directly onto my computer. I fiddle with them, expand, brainstorm. . . play. Then I leave them alone for a while, perhaps a day or so, letting them compost into something rich and fecund.
When I go back to them I always — I repeat — ALWAYS find something I can use, some new direction, some solution.
So, next time you’re stuck, or in search of inspiration, apply shoe leather to walking path and you might just be surprised what pops out of the gorse.