Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Guest Post by Heather Wardell, author of "Planning to Live"

Please join me in welcoming Heather Wardell, author of the recently released Planning to Live (my review), to The Book Chick today. Today she shares with us some of her tips for assessing creativity:

"I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp." (W. Somerset Maugham)

I love this quote. Creativity isn't some mystical fairy dancing around tantalizingly out of my reach and refusing to alight on my work. Creativity shows up when I show up.

Still, sometimes it seems like I show up and show up and the creativity just doesn't, so I'll share a few creativity-enhancement ideas I've learned over my years of writing. They're not writing-specific, so try them out in whatever creative endeavor you choose.

(And don't tell me you're not creative. You are. We all are.)

1. Don't judge your ideas too soon.

The beginning of my writing process involves seventy or more pages of ramblings about how the book could work and what I like and don't like about the concept. For each of my last few books, this file contains
at least one statement like, "This isn't hanging together as well as the previous book did." Of course not. It was a gangly newborn. But once I gave the book the time it needed to gel, it ended up being the one that made the next book seem weak.

No judging right away, and definitely no comparing your baby idea to someone else's full-grown one. Your little misshapen idea might be brilliant, but you'll never know if you don't give it room to grow.

Yes, eventually you'll have to put aside the ideas that aren't working right now, but set them aside gently. Don't squish them. Even if they're not what you need at the moment, they're still tiny bits of creativity and deserve respect and care.
2. Trust the 'oogh'.

The 'oogh' is my term for a faintly sick feeling I get under my ribs if I'm heading in the wrong direction. I'll be typing away in my ramblings file about how, for example, the main character in my novel "Go Small or Go Home" is an artist who creates huge paintings, and the oogh will make an appearance. It's an immediate signal to reconsider where I'm headed. (I did, and the main character ended up making miniature scenes, which was a far better fit with her character traits.)

The oogh might well feel different for you, but no matter how it manifests I think it's always subtle. It doesn't shout. You can go off in the wrong direction if you choose, but I have never yet regretted following the oogh's suggestions.
There's some part of me that is creative beyond my wildest imagination. There's some part of YOU that is too. And I think that's the part that delivers the oogh when you're heading away from the best creative ideas. Listen to it. Trust it.
I even go so far as listening to it when I'm not writing. I reach for a blue shirt and get the oogh? I'll switch to purple if it prefers that. I'm aware this sounds insane (and might be insane) but it doesn't cause me any harm and if it lets my creativity be happy then I'll wear purple.

3. Fly free.

Especially while creating the first version, don't hold back or try to direct the path. This goes with trusting the oogh: do whatever seems to be the best thing at the time. If it's not going to work out, you'll know eventually and you can change direction, but don't try to fit your work into a neat little box at the beginning. I have, and I find that it needs far more air and space to breathe than it can find in a "painting using only blue" or "perfect sequel to book X" box.
4. Accept the unexpected.

I plan my books before writing them. I didn't, with the first one, but I've learned that pre-planning makes the first draft much easier for me. However, I don't plan every last detail, for two reasons: I did it once and found that I didn't want to write the book any more because I knew exactly what would happen, and one of the neatest things for me in writing is saying to myself, "Wow, I didn't see that coming."

In "Go Small or Go Home", my massage therapist main character and her hockey star client go out for dinner. A sports bar makes sense, right? That's what I'd planned. But when I got to that spot, I got the oogh. So I went off to the ramblings file to figure out why, then realized he'd be recognized there and hounded for his then-poor performance. No, he'd rather go to a classy restaurant.

The oogh vanished as I realized he wanted to go to the restaurant founded in "Life, Love, and a Polar Bear Tattoo". That one change had huge ripples through the book, as the sexy restaurant owner wound up creating a subplot for himself, and even into my future writing as all of those people met up again in a book I'm now planning to release next year.

I had no intent of doing any of that. But the oogh knew.

I have even, on occasion, planned for the unexpected. Again in "Go Small or Go Home", the main character is working on her art hobby after a particularly painful event. I knew the piece she made had to be dramatic and meaningful, but I couldn't figure out in the planning stages what it should be. I deliberately left it unplanned, and when I got there in the first draft I honestly feel like something inside me stepped up and created the piece for me.

I remember letting my mind go blank, just as the character lets hers, watching my fingers move across the keyboard as hers moved across the artwork. It was terrifying, but also utterly amazing, and that scene still stands out for me as a result.

Whatever's inside us that wants to create is so willing to help us. We need to get out of the way and let it do its thing.

5. Have fun.

Art and music and writing and drama and crafting and home decorating and anything else creative... these things are fun. Or they should be.

My most enjoyable writing experiences were five years ago during the first draft of my first book, "Life, Love, and a Polar Bear Tattoo". I'd come home from work, grab something for dinner (and I do mean
grab), and hurry out onto the balcony with my laptop to sit in the warm spring air and see what those crazy people in my book were going to do next. I knew nothing of outlining or planning a book, and that draft shows it. But it also has a lilt to it. You can almost hear me giggling at what poured out of my fingers and onto the keyboard.
I have come close since but have never matched the pure joy of those days. Deciding to sell my writing added some wonderful things to my life but it did take away that delight. Now I'm letting myself have fun again. Little things, like codenaming my books Aardvark or Dinosaur, and big things, like letting myself run with a strange but entertaining plot twist.

Take your creative pursuit seriously, certainly, but not so seriously that there's no fun in it. Play with it. You are your first and best audience, so entertain that audience until it cries from laughter!

I'd love to hear from you, readers. What's your favorite tip for awakening your creativity?


  1. Thanks so much for posting this, Jonita! And readers, I hope you comment... I'd love to know how you rev up your creativity!

  2. This is a great list. It could really apply to almost any endeavor - not just writing.

  3. I love these tips Heather! I like the gut feelings...I struggle with listening to myself. Great insight!

  4. Thanks, ladies! Debbie, most definitely, I think any endeavor could benefit from these. I apply them all over the place in my life and they do work! :)

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