Through the wonders of the internet, Leslie Bohem and I connected when I was guest editor for Midnight Echo. I loved his story, and discovered that he used to be in a band called Sparks. I love Sparks!
Leslie writes movies and TV shows (Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Dante’s Peak, Daylight) and his insight into the writing process has helped me with mine. There is a practicality about some elements of what Leslie does that I reckon works across all realms of writing.
First he said, “Short answer: What seems to work best for me is to stop thinking about it.”
Then he followed up!
“The Creative Well – let me think. My day job as a writer is in the bowels of Hollywood where for the most part, the well is full of tropes and cliches, not creativity. Often the jobs are rewrites, or writing to order, so that I have to look no farther than the paycheck, Having said that, there are days, even in this artistically bankrupt universe, when I’ve got nothing. In that world, when I’m blank, i simply write the simplest, most direct version of what it is I have to do – in the movies and television, we use outlines and cards – and while these take all the fun and discovery out of the actual writing, they do provide achievable goals. “I just have to do cards three and four today.’
There’s a great interview with Leslie here , and check out his IMDB page for all his TV and movie work.
I first met L. M. Merrington when she came to a writing course I ran at the ACT Writers Centre. I was struck during the few hours we spent together by the clarity of her vision, and by the creative and instinctive way she responded to the writing activities.
At the end of the course, she approached me to ask if I’d launch her first novel. She said, “If you like the book,” and thrust a copy into my hands.
I read “Greythorne” that night and enjoyed it immensely. Thank Goodness!
Here she is, talking about the endless story prospects ahead of her and more.
“I think about inspiration as being in a few stages. First there’s the daydreaming stage, when the endless story prospects swirl all around you, just waiting to be plucked out of the air. I love asking ‘What if…?’ or ‘Why…?’ because I find that opens up a whole bunch of possibilities. It could be about historical events, or the life of a random person I pass in the street. People-watching is great inspiration. I have to travel quite a bit for work, and it’s one of the few good things about having to sit round in airports.
I also love hanging out in libraries or second-hand bookshops. Back when I was at uni, I had a part-time job in a public library, and my two favourite tasks were shelving and covering books. They were both repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, but while my hands worked I could read the blurbs and start to develop my own stories. Just being around so many books all the time was in itself an inspiration, and large collections of books still give me a thrill. I’ve also found that similar boring tasks, like housework, can be a great way of refreshing the mind – if you keep your hands busy, your mind is free to wander where it will.
Museums and art galleries are also places I go when I need initial inspiration. I’m particularly fascinated by the nineteenth century, but any sort of historical museum stirs me up, especially historical sites that have been turned into museums, like Sydney’s old quarantine station at Manly. My current novel, The Iron Line, was inspired by a visit to the Trainworks museum in Picton, which is all about the history of the New South Wales railways. I love thinking about how people lived in different eras, and their joys and hardships. I write very loose historical mysteries (which are more about the mysteries than the history), and I’m also really into steampunk (alternative Victoriana) so I like to take historical facts and make them my own. One of the most inspiring places I’ve been is Venice, because the whole city is an open-air museum. I went there when I was in the midst of a terrible creative drought, and being hit with so much art, history and music was like discovering an oasis in the middle of the desert.
The daydreaming stage is, I think, the bit I love most about writing. I keep a notebook full of story ideas that I add to as the inspiration strikes. Many of them may never see the light of day, but I hope it’ll act as a bit of an insurance policy against that time when (heaven forbid) I don’t know what to write next.
Unfortunately, after that initial rush of inspiration comes the hard work. Like many beginning writers, in my early years I thought I had to wait for the muse to strike before I could start writing. It meant I had a lot of story ideas but generally didn’t finish anything.
Oddly enough, it was a stint in academia that taught me the discipline I needed to complete major projects. I realised that you just have to keep turning up at the desk, day after day, whether you feel like it or not, and that even 100 words written is better than nothing (even if they’re terrible). So I’ve become less reliant on inspiration as a driving force, and consequently I now have one published novel and another on the way. So I guess my first instinct when I hit an inspiration drought now in the middle of a draft is to push through it and see if it’s just a reaction to other stresses in my life or if it’s really a problem.
Sometimes, of course, that doesn’t work. My first attempt at my second novel fell in a screaming heap because it had plenty of initial inspiration but not enough story to push it along. I ended up abandoning it (all two chapters), taking the best bits of the original idea and reimagining it into something different. It was a long conversation with my husband that eventually helped it coalesce into its current form, and it’s not the first time he’s pulled me out of a creative rut.
My husband is a rare breed – a creative engineer. He loves science fiction and storytelling, especially through graphic novels, films and video games, but he’s also highly logical and his brain works very differently to mine. It means that we can have really in-depth conversations about plot and structure – what if the main character did this? But why would the antagonist need to do that? What’s her motivation? – but he’ll often see things quite differently to me, which is a huge asset. He forces me to pick up my story, turn it around and look at it from a different angle, which I think is one of the best things you can do when you’re stuck. He’s my alpha reader – the only person I trust to read my first drafts in all their grotty glory.
I often fall into these creative ruts around the middle of the novel. I’m great at beginnings and ends, but middles are a real struggle. I think of inspiration in this stage as a bit different to the initial daydreaming stage. When you’re daydreaming, what you want is a big idea. It’s quite a creative endeavour. When you’re stuck in a rut in the middle of your novel, what you need is a solution to a problem. For me, at least, it’s less creative and more analytical. How am I going to get my heroine out of this mess? How can I increase the conflict here? Do I need to speed up or slow down the pace? Why would she do this? It’s a technical exercise, very much about the craft of writing.
I generally prefer to write in first person, and I originally trained as a journalist, so one of the things I like to do when I get stuck is interview my characters. I literally imagine myself sitting down with them and asking them questions about the events in the story and what happened next. It sounds mad, but it really works for me. I think it’s something about giving agency to the character and feeling like it’s them telling the story rather than me.
I’ve also had to learn to be a bit kinder to myself. I’ve realised that bashing your head against the wall until the ideas fall out isn’t really the best way to do it. Sometimes life gets busy and it’s harder to write – it’s not the end of the world if you have a few days off. Sometimes you need to keep getting the words out no matter how terrible they are – editing can absolve most sins. Sometimes you just need to go for a long walk, stop worrying and let your subconscious do the work. I also love Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which is all about unblocking your creativity. Some of the activities she suggests include ‘morning pages’, where you write three notebook pages every morning about whatever you want, and ‘artist’s dates’, where you take yourself off alone regularly (she recommends weekly) to do something that refreshes you. This book was instrumental in unblocking me enough to write my first novel, and I’ve learned a lot from it about how to function creatively in a healthy way.
For now, I’m feeling in a better place creatively than I have for years. I finally have a job with enough flexibility to give me a decent amount of writing time, I’m two-thirds of the way through my second novel, and I have a notebook bursting with ideas for the next one. I’m also realising how much hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness is required to turn inspiration into books, but that’s half the fun! Now, I’m off to the museum…”
P.S. Cottier is a marvellous poet. Funny, run through deep with horror at times, she has a way of capturing character in story, and of making me laugh out loud. I published her poem The Fruit of Her Hands in the issue of Midnight Echo I guest edited.
You can find more of her work here, and you should.
“When my writing well has been poisoned by evil naiads, I follow the following detox program:
- Stick to routine as much as possible. Sit down and stare at the computer. Torment editors about work sent out ages ago. Write lists of recent publications. Browse a dictionary.
- Read other poets, and even prose writers. A word or phrase may trigger something. If nothing else, you may be pleased to find a particularly bad poem by a very well known person and think Well at least I write better than that! It’s like hugging a big smelly teddy bear called Schadenfreude.
- Go to the gym. The theatre of grunt removes unnecessary thought, leaving space for new thoughts to breed like massive, rippling cane toads.
- Enter a competition, particularly one with a theme. Even better if the theme is outside your usual area of exploration. Do you invariably write haiku about water, frogs and loss? Try a competition about climate change. (True, that might involve water, frogs and loss…)
- Dabble in other art forms. After producing your fiftieth hideous pinch-pot, poetry will seem like a blessed relief.
- (This number sick is definitely not endorsed by the AMA.) Get totally drunk, until you begin to feel like you have jet lag. The feeling of disassociation can produce some nice new perspectives. Some people travel for the same reason, but I find that Planet Vodka requires no visas.
- Murder a naiad by drowning her in her own poisoned well, while reciting an original nursery rhyme. A dunking motion is the best, I find.
There I stand, looking at my own reflection, totally cured with a nice fresh well. Please fell free to adopt my seven step programme, should it appeal.”
Reading anything from Anna Tambour (her World-Fantasy award shortlisted novel Crandolin and her stunning short story collection The Finest Ass in The Universe to name just two) you are tranported to another world. She has a touch of pure magic with words, as you’ll see when you read how she refreshes her well.
“There is an unmentionable well—neither deep and therefore talked of with awe as for a sage (though the depths might be full of rubbish) nor shallow and beauteous as a mirrored cloud-frothed sky (or brainless butterfly).
This well is middling.
But being isn’t everything in this law-filled universe. Ever since the Law of Threes was passed, location location location trumps more than most. Even middling’s lack of notoriety.
And so this middling well, being just up a bit and to the left of the mouth of the face of Earth, has been getting more and more noticeable to that planet who is faced, nowadays, with an unavoidable, bewildering array of reflections leering back from skies that were undeveloped as Cretacean airwaves only too short a time ago, Earthtime, to warrant ago.
You would know the feeling Earth feels if, in place of your eyelids, there descends a ‘funfair’ hall of distorting mirrors—that you never escape.
Earth, distraught, could not only see a plethora of goggle eyes, but myriad noses—peaked, sloped, caved, ridged and double-humped.
And as to skin . . . Skin! The smooth places are either dry as dust or shiny and slick. The rough—crags, canyons, crevasses: a great lined -scape.
Nothing bothered Earth as much, however, as the open pore beside the mouth Earth thought “distinguished and still mobile enough to be regarded as attractive” in the firmament of planets Earth would have wished heartily to disregard the judgments of, if only Earth knew who to wish to.
So this perfectly located-to-bother pore (our middling well) has just been filled with a “Miracle Moisturizing Camouflage” Earth saw on the air, in what Earth thought: a News report (for Earth is old old old; and being so, so so sooo naive).
Still, the well has now been filled.
And so now, in the nowest sense of now, in the myriad reflections:—Earth notices, and omg! sees with a myriad eyes wide-opened as if for the very first time, two myriad eyebrows desperately needing reshape.”
Karen Viggers is a vet and a writer. I haven’t taken my cats to her, but from what I hear, she’s equally as good in both jobs! Her novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife recently sold a bucketload in France (I’m talking over 100,000) so they’re clever readers over there! Here she talks about refreshing her wells in a gloriously evocative way:
“Two ingredients are needed for refreshing my wells: being outside and being alone. Even better if I can do both together. I need space and time to expand my mind and allow ideas to rise. With two teenage children, life is hectic, so opportunities are rare. Either I snatch space during the day, walking the dog in the local bush land. Or I wait until holidays when the usual daily demands fall away. Then I can park the family taxi, defer the cleaning, shelve the cooking, and take time out with my favourite companions: a notebook and pen.
The best places for me have big skies and horizons, and they’re high in the mountains or down near the sea. In alpine areas, I like to be above the tree-line, where wind moans around rocks and water trickles down gullies. I sit and listen to the air moving, smell the sweet scent of grass, gaze into distance and watch the changing light: shadows shifting over the land, clouds scudding, the silvery waters of streams reflecting the sky. Peace settles. I feel myself breathing, the warmth of happiness, and then a great openness awakens inside me. This is where my wells are refreshed and ideas are born.
The sea generates similar sensations for me: different but the same. I seek out a nook along the shore and some solitude, and there I sit, feeling the rhythm of waves, the thump and swish of dumpers on sand. I watch birds doing what they do. Oystercatchers poking out molluscs in rock pools. Cormorants poised on sea-stacks, airing their wings. Far out, a fishing gannet plummeting into the swell. A sea-eagle sailing over, wings spread wide, riding on the wind. These things cleanse me.
My stories come from Australian landscapes, so it’s not surprising that I find inspiration outdoors. Inside the house, it’s too easy to be distracted; all around I see tasks that need doing, whereas outside, I can breathe.
At home I walk with the dog. It works when I’m stuck, when something’s not working. Instead of beating my head against the keyboard, it’s better to run away. Up in the tangy woodland, the knots of frustration fall away and I see a way through, how to fix things.
Writing comes from deep within, so those creative wells do need replenishing. Sometimes, as writers, we work ourselves dry and run out of energy. We give everything to find the right words, to massage the plot, to create the right feeling. We peel ourselves back to fit into the skins of our characters and empathise with their pain: possibly a type of schizophrenia? Then we have to ground ourselves again. To carry on with normal life, when we are not really normal. Is anyone?”
I don’t think I need to post this picture of Karen in the wild, because she’s described it so well, but it’s too lovely not to share!
Lee Murray and I share a TOC in The Refuge Collection, a fascinating shared-world anthology. Lee won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for her story! Here’s her wonderful take on Refreshing the Wells:
“For a long time, years really, if the well were empty, I would put on my trainers, double knot my laces and go for long run. There is something marvellously refreshing about running: breathing new air, smelling the ozone, taking in the sky. When you’re running, if everything comes together, it’s almost spiritual. For me, inspiration would come on the back end of a long run, somewhere around 25km: I’d be in that zone where I’d simply be putting one foot in front of another, eating up the distance, and a solution would come to me. It would just be there. One minute I’d be listening to The Piano Man, and the next thing I knew whatever it was I needed would appear in my mind and I’d have no idea how it got there.
Science friends will tell you it’s linked to a runner’s high, a chemical reaction in the brain described by Henning Boecker and his alia, who traced radioactive markers bound to endorphins in runners, measuring its absorption in the brain via 3D radioactive tracing ‒ as opposed to killing and sampling the subjects’ brain tissue ‒ and finding it to be inversely proportion to subjects’ feelings of euphoria. Hardly a romantic explanation and, for my liking, too perfectly inverse to be related to anything as ephemeral and elusive as a creative muse.
Did I pluck the idea out of the air? Inhale it? Could it have been in the energy transferred in the cadence of my footfalls, the puff of a fern spore on my ankle as I passed, or infused in the rain that seeped through my thermal? On those occasions, I wouldn’t ask questions: I’d come home, rinse off, and write it up.
That was my old process.
For past year and a half, I’ve been too injured to run. Yes, I could still walk ‒ and I do occasionally ‒ but I’m an impatient little madam, and the opiates, the raindrops, the magic isn’t there. So how have I been refreshing the well in the year since my injury?
I’ve tried looking for it in a packet of chocolate biscuits, or two, or three. It wasn’t in any of those packets, but it might have been a problem with the brand, so I’ve opened several more, just to be sure. I used to be an endurance athlete after all. Perhaps the trick is that you have to wash your Toffee Pops down with coffee. Large volumes of it. Magnums of coffee. Jeroboams. Methuselahs! In which case, my caffeine intake, or lack thereof, could be the issue ‒ I have a maximum of two cups per day and always before lunch, unless I’m prepared to safety pin my eyes closed at bed time. But all the evidence suggests that writers can turn caffeine into text in a process akin to carbon fixation in legumes. Or maybe it was the Kreb’s cycle? Something to do with pyruvic acid? I can’t remember. In any case, it hasn’t worked for me yet, but there are still a few jean sizes remaining before I top out, so I haven’t yet given up on the coffee and chocolate theory.
Reading is good for refreshing the soul. It isn’t so good for refreshing the well, though. Actually, that isn’t entirely true, because to my mind there is definitely a reader’s high that comes from losing oneself in a fabulously good story. But I’m mistrustful of ‘aha’ moments that I might have while reading a book in case it is someone else’s well I am drinking from. Yes, yes, I know there are no new ideas, but the thought of inadvertently stealing someone’s metaphor, subconsciously pinching a plot event, or lifting someone else’s concept bothers me. So instead I read for enjoyment, and to pay virtual visits to my writer friends while trying not to notice any proofing errors.
Travel is another way to refresh the well. Better writers than me have said as much:
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.”
– Anaïs Nin
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Oh the places you’ll go.”
– Dr. Seuss
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
– Ibn Battuta
And it is true that I have yet to return from a trip without a renewed sense of wonder and an urgent desire to write. It’s a pity more of those trips aren’t tax deductible.
Other mini quick-fire ways which help me to refresh the well:
Receiving lovely reviews and feedback from readers.
A hot bath with lavender soap.
Cuddles with my family, including my dog.
Taking the laundry out of the dryer and burying my face in the towels.
Raking leaves out of the garden.
Cheese, any kind, eaten gluttonously.
Long conversations with friends.
Day trips to the Wairarapa…
I’ll leave this thread here, because the everyday things I do to reset my mechanism amount to a long list. Sometimes, it can be as little as standing at the sink, watching the birds eat the persimmons off the tree outside my kitchen window.
I can spend a lot of time researching things ‒ a euphemism for wasting time on social media and news sites ‒ and then following up interesting snippets that take my fancy. But I also visit museums, attend lectures, and browse the library for ideas. And each time I uncover a piece of research which resonates with something I am writing, then the well is refreshed again. For example, while I was writing my novel Into the Mist, a military monster thriller, I did some research on the possibility of New Zealand having been home to the mighty theropods, which lead me to amateur New Zealand palaeontologist Joan Wiffen, who people ‒ mostly academics ‒ initially took to be a dotty old lady, but who found New Zealand’s first dinosaur evidence, a fossil toe bone… in the Urewera ranges! Exactly where I had set my story. I went back to my work with renewed vigour. Then, a year ago, our national museum, Te Papa, hosted an exhibition and lecture series on dinosaurs, entitled Tyrannosaurus: Met the Family, which showed me where Wiffen’s discoveries fit in terms of the worldwide explosion in dinosaur knowledge that has taken place over the past decade. And just this week, a story ran on news site Stuff about New Zealand government funding in support of a Te Urewera dinosaur hunt. Of course, I’m excited and motivated all over again. I’m delighted that the Tūhoe tribe have joined forces with GNS and Victoria University in the hunt for dinosaur fossils. You never know, they might just turn up my Sphenodon!
My current work has me in Fiordland. I’ve been chatting with my military advisor just this morning. Today, at least, the well feels nicely full…”
You can find Lee here.
T-Rex Shadow at Te Papa