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