On a recent trip to Canada, I noticed a woman painting along the shore of the lake. She had her easel set up and was capturing the snow-capped mountains rising up out of the water. I noticed how she would look at the scene in front of her as if memorizing a detail, then bow her head to canvas and work on a section for several minutes before raising her head to memorize another detail of the setting.
This reminded me of advice I once read from author and poet Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. To learn how to write body language in your scenes, she suggests the following exercise: Go to a public place like a coffee shop and observe two people as they talk to each other. Notice their body language. Write in your notebook all the body language you see. Read more
You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club. Jack London
Inspiration comes from many places. Sometimes, it’s a visual image—fog settling over the bay, a blue jay teetering on a phone wire, a dead leaf swirling on the wind. Sometimes, inspiration comes in the form of sound—a phrase overheard, the sound of water rushing over rocks, silence when the power goes out. But too often, inspiration doesn’t just come out of the blue—I have to go hunting for it.
One of my favorite ways to find inspiration is to read the work of others—poetry, fiction, nonfiction. As a writer, we train ourselves while reading to have different levels of awareness running at the same time. Kind of like having multiple computer programs running at once.
On one level, we’re fully immersed in the story or poem, but on another level we’re noticing language, syntax, the arrangement of words, metaphors, rhythm. We notice how the author or poet uses concretes and abstractions, how she presents her characters or builds suspense.
As you read, notice if the piece grabs you. And, if it does, where does that happen? Be on the lookout for what inspires your muse.
Sometimes, an idea or inspiration will come in the form of one word. One wild word that sparks your muse into action. Read more
Writing a poem or a paragraph is like solving a puzzle. I seek the perfect word not just for its meaning but also for sound and rhythm. In the process, I stumble upon other words that draw my attention and, before I know it, I’m off on an adventure. Words are like gems, sparkly and seductive in their power.
Priscilla Long, in her book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, says she knows writers who have worked hard for years that do “pretty good work” but have never made the transition to great writing. The reason? Often, these writers—though hard workers—approach language passively. They only use words they grew up with or use in everyday language. Long doesn’t mean that we should suddenly spout elongated Latinate words but that we should become word gatherers, seeking out words that call to us with their sound, texture, rhythm, or meaning. Read more