On the Virtues of Beautiful Places

A carpet of narcissi & tulipsI hope you will not mistake me for one of those people who feels that it’s always necessary to surround yourself with beauty and inspiration if you want to produce a high-quality work. I’ve composed poetry in front of an industrial sink and written novels in crowded airports. However, I’ll readily admit that going or being someplace beautiful – or better yet, making someplace beautiful – is a good idea if you like to devote yourself to creative endeavors.

The most important thing about beautiful places is that they encourage us to relax, to let our minds wander, and to forget about the things we’re worrying about. We all need to do this, especially when we’re trying to compose a piece of writing. Drafting a story or novel is a stressful, tiring task, and there’s a lot to be said for going on a break now and then and taking a walk in a nearby park. Taking some time to briefly distance yourself from your work – even if you only go upstairs to make some coffee – is a good way to relax, refresh, and reorganize before delving back into it.

Just as they help us distract ourselves when we need it, beautiful places can also help us focus on our own sense of what is beautiful. This is a very important understanding for a writer to have, as it will guide many of your creative choices and contribute to the higher themes of your narratives. I’ve always found it worthwhile to take a few moments and write about what makes your favorite place beautiful. Different people find beauty in different areas for different reasons, and the simple task of articulating these reasons can be a truly inspiring task.

Whether it’s the quiet of a mountainside or the cheerful bustle of a city park, almost all writers and artists find it helpful to spend some time in a beautiful place. You can use them to relax, to contemplate, or to find inspiration for your work – and they make bad places to sit down for a picnic, either.

How Does Your Inspiration Grow?

Irish fleabaneAny conversation about the art of writing will eventually turn to the topic of inspiration. Finding something compelling to write about can be almost as hard as writing about it compellingly. Many writers dread the day when they’ll wake up and find that they have nothing, nothing whatsoever to write about. Although this is a frightening fantasy, the reality is that inspiration doesn’t always have to occur spontaneously.

I like to think of inspiration as coming in two basic varieties. The kind we think about most frequently (and covet the most when we have it) is the kind that pops up on you when you’re thinking of something else. Many writers pick hobbies or activities that give them plenty of opportunities to be struck by this information; part of the reason I like to garden, for example, is because it gives me a chance to sit and think in a pretty place.

However, just because you can give yourself more chances at this kind of inspiration doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to come up with a good idea. If you want to count on getting an idea you can work with, you’ll need to put some work into your inspiration process. Compile a set of resources you can depend on to give you ideas (I use tumblr tags, searches on pinterest, and certain books in my library), and then use it. Write down ideas that appeal to you, and write down little bits of development until you have something you can start a story from. Develop a system that works for you, and stick as closely to it as you can. It’s not the most glamorous way of coming up with an idea, but it’s been a steadfast friend to me when life doesn’t sprout inspiration from its ears.

The quest for inspiration is one of the most romanticized and poorly understood parts of the writing profession. It is true that writers are occasionally randomly struck by inspiration that seems to grow wild. However, you’ll find yourself inspired more easily if you learn to use your resources to systematically find and develop your ideas.

Looking around you

The stuff of nightmare

The stuff of nightmare

This photo shows a cricket eating a small, dainty paper wasp.

The paper wasp was already dead, so no murder was committed.

Now think of the wasp being a hornet which, given we’ve recently suffered a hornets’ nest near the house, would be cause for rejoicing.

Scale up the cricket accordingly and the skull-like head and stringy limbs are something from a nightmare.

It’s not that much more of a stretch to imagine it munching on a human being; now you’ve got the monster for a blockbuster horror movie.

My point is that inspiration of all sorts is there if you just look around you, and observe the small things.



Insects as inspiration for horror fiction

A potter wasp - the last thing you want to see if you're a grub

A potter wasp – the last thing you want to see if you’re a grub

Insects, or creepy-crawlies generally, can be quite scary. Especially en masse. Think of cockroaches, or locusts, or bees. It’s something about the bittiness of them, the impersonal nature of their advance, their unstoppability even when you kill some of them.

So an insect attack is quite a good subject or device in a horror story.

But better still is to think yourself, as an author, into the insect world itself.

I’m not a great one for reading horror stories; they elicit emotions in me that I prefer not to exercise. But I did read a story a long time ago that had someone waking up suspended by a butcher’s hook and lacking limbs. It gave me the heebee-geebees and still does.

And yet that’s more-or-less exactly what happens to grubs paralysed and imprisoned in clay ‘pots’ by certain wasps (potter wasps) in order to feed their young.

If you think about it, even the loss of individuality within a swarm (or flock or colony) is scary in itself. Imagine sacrificing yourself totally to the greater good of your hive, as a bee, to the extent that you deny your own reproductive capabilities and work your fingers to the bone only to be cast out when you’re past your best.

Come to think of it, this could be the inspiration for more than just a horror story …

From the tool store

The 'tool store'

The ‘tool store’

This is a photo of where I write from – a ‘tool store’ attached to a farmhouse in Umbria, Italy. The shadow is of a big oak tree. Through the big window you can just see a white dog.

I can’t say it’s necessarily my first choice of a place to provide inspiration.  A tiny tower reached by a spiral stone staircase and with a 360 degree view of the sea would do nicely. I once had a College room whose window gave right onto a river and that wasn’t bad…

I have this idea that total peace and quiet is most conducive to writing but it’s not always the case, not even for me. Silence can be intimidating, sterile even. On the other hand a hubbub of traffic or children or uncongenial music can stop you hearing yourself think.

It’s really a matter of each writer finding ‘their own bag’.

Is it, for example, helpful to have bare walls and a clear desk, or a clutter of nick-nacks and photos? Do you work best in bed? Does solitude foster your productivity or do you get more done surrounded by the life and movement of strangers in a café?

It’s quite brilliant that modern technology allows such choices, so where circumstances allow, we should throw away preconceived ideas and create, to the best of our ability, the ideal environment.

What’s your favourite space to write? Please tell us on Twitter (@anysubjectbooks) or Like us on Facebook and leave us a comment!

What helps you concentrate?

There are days when absolutely everything is a distraction. Despite all the ideas and inspiration you may have, there will inevitably be times where you find it more than a little difficult to just sit at your desk/computer/spot and write. This can be for many reasons; noise outside, a cluttered brain, or simple lack of motivation.


Sometimes something as simple as a cup of tea can help

Here are some simple tips to help you concentrate better and get your writing done.

  1. Clear your desk. You’ll be amazed how much a clear working space can improve your concentration.
  2. Get rid of those distractions – or if you can’t, find ways to ignore them. If it’s noisy outside, close all the windows. If music helps you concentrate, put some on to drown out off-putting background noise.
  3. Clear your head. Easier said than done maybe, but a simple way to at least begin doing this is to perform a menial task, like washing up. It’s something that doesn’t require any brain power, freeing up your mind to return to your current piece of creative work. Don’t force the ideas, though; just make sure your work is on your mind and they should flow naturally.
  4. Inspire yourself. Sometimes you sit down to write with the best of intentions, but find that as soon as you get ready to work your motivation has suddenly evaporated. Your mind wanders; you check Facebook five times before you write one word; you just can’t concentrate. Close your laptop, put your notebook back in the drawer and go and do something to inspire yourself. Watch a recording of your favourite band/musician in concert; read a little by an author you admire; even go for a walk. You’ll soon find your motivation is back.

The final and most important tip is to not beat yourself up for not getting anything done. Sylvia Plath once said ‘the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’ If you are hard on yourself for your lack of productivity and begin to doubt your abilities, you’ll find you won’t be getting very far any time soon. See a minor hurdle for what it is: a day where you found it hard to concentrate. There are going to be better, more productive days in your future.

Is an Ivory Tower a des res?

Ivory Tower - 1It’s an evocative image, a tower made out of milky white ivory, too high and too slippery to assail and with a distant and distorted view of the world below it. A great many writers have inhabited one or perhaps, more to the point, been accused of inhabiting one. But what effect does residence in an ivory tower have on a writer’s output?

It would be tempting just to look at the negative. A writer in an ivory tower is out of touch with the real world; he or she doesn’t walk the streets and talk the talk; they’re devoid of passion; their work is out of date and ultimately irrelevant.

So what do they actually write about? The answer is: all kinds of things. The human imagination is immensely fertile and some of the best works of literature have very little to do with mundane reality. No writer, not even one whose writing desk is behind ivory crenellations, is devoid of experience, feelings and opinions. If he or she writes about lofty matters it may not be that they’re incapable of understanding the current concerns of fellow humanity.

Writing isn’t necessarily a newspaper. Very often inspiration springs from cold, pure sources and is subsequently crafted to aesthetic perfection. This is particularly true of poetry, one of whose functions is to be uplifting.

It’s probably true to say that the smaller, sharper and least wide-reaching of works are the easiest to produce from an ivory tower. A great sprawling novel, depicting the best and worst of humanity and the setting within which they interact, is of its very essence an excrescence from the world’s surface.

But what about fantasy novels? Inventing a whole world in all its details is a cerebral activity, well suited to a state of isolation. But as soon as it has red-blooded, human characters, the walls of the tower begin to crumble.

Labelling someone as living in an ivory tower is usually an insult. But there is certainly a place, and a hallowed place, for works written in such circumstances. Sometimes writing ought not to reflect reality but instead should imitate the ideals for which we strive with our most exalted faculties.

When you least need Writer’s Block

Sink Plunger

A useful for tool for unblocking

Writing, in its broadest sense, is probably the last civilized tool to abandon a human being. I’m picturing here the educated prisoner holed up for decades in a dungeon, scratching poetry on the damp walls with a chip of stone.

Writing liberates; it gives a window beyond the present situation. It also gives substance to transient feelings, like love or despair. It’s the way the human mind gives shape to its thoughts, tracks them and gives them a certain permanence. It can stop people going mad and bring them back from madness, or sometimes it’s the outward manifestation of madness.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a prisoner, deprived even of scratchable walls, who composes pieces in his head and commits them to memory. I would love to know how it works. Would each morning consist of a review of all the finished material followed by creating new work? Or would there be some compartment in the brain where the finished parts were stored so as to be retrievable at a later date?

There’s a Spanish poet called Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer whose volume of poetry, finished and submitted to a publisher, was lost in a political revolution. Not something which ought to happen these days if things are backed up properly! Anyway, he wrote out all his poems from memory. I don’t think many poets these days, when set rhythms and rhyme schemes are unfashionable, would be able to do the same.  (The original function of rhyme was in fact to make sagas memorable.)

People can achieve extraordinary things when they’re pushed into it. Like writing by batting an eyelid when the rest of you is paralysed. Or telling yourself stories when you’re supposedly brain-dead but in fact still very much alive in your coma and just not able to communicate.

The worst scourge to afflict anyone whose circumstances were so reduced would have to be Writer’s Block. There would be no alternative activity; nothing to distract. A person would surely go mad in such a situation.

But Writer’s Block in my experience is a mixture of boredom with the task at hand and self-generating demoralisation at lack of inspiration or success. It isn’t even because the job is too difficult; without the handicap of Writer’s Block multiple ways of circumventing the problems would present themselves.

To return to our prisoner, inspiration is like the plant which blooms in an adverse climate (for very sound biological reasons – the plant hopes its progeny will experience better times). Discomfort, loneliness, misery of every kind, can squeeze the best out of us. The important thing is to keep a spark alive because depression and dehumanisation are powerful enemies.

There’s another piece of Spanish literature – a medieval ballad supposedly written and sung by a prisoner who “doesn’t even know when night and day are except for a little bird which sang to him at dawn”. The bird has been killed by an archer; the ballad finishes by cursing him. There may be symbolism behind that bird and that archer, but I prefer to interpret them literally. Out of terrible, bleak circumstances has arisen the most beautifully poignant of poems which has survived down the ages and which must have accompanied many people through dark times.