In terms of creating new material during a pandemic, poetry is where I turn for inspiration. What about you?
According to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor of English, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, 1976–90. Poet Laureate of the U.S., 1988–90, Poetry is literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.
Do you find reading and writing poetry right now is how you are able to express yourself during a troubling time?
Phyllis Klein from Women’s Therapy Services puts it this way: “Turning to poetry, poetry gives rhythm to silence, light to darkness. In poetry we find the magic of metaphor, compactness of expression, use of the five senses, and simplicity or complexity of meaning in a few lines.”
This is my pre-pandemic poem ‘Taste‘ first published in Quadrant magazine May 2019. Have a read. Hope you enjoy it.
I rather like poems about minor calamities, bursts of tiny delights, the sun warming the tender skin of the elderly. Also, the way palm fronds conduct themselves during a southerly, dishevelled, exposing the softness of their billowing arms. Pastries in display cases do something for me too. Even cupcakes iced in gelato colours, adorned with miniature decorations … Can you see my preference for the words ‘miniature’ and ‘tiny’, an inclination towards the distilled in a world favouring often the big and the overwhelming? People with the patience to follow a complex recipe – well, that’s not me, but I like to taste what they cook. Babies in prams kicking chubby legs make me hover – how difficult not to take a bite. If you write something about a paper straw, I will be fascinated. You could try a ladybird, a pocket-size umbrella. The generalised angst of the human condition, however, may be hard for me to get a handle on. Watch that man with the disabled daughter moisten his finger after her cupcake is eaten and relish the last crumbs. Consider the rainbow-coloured wristband tied to a letterbox on the way to the park or the miniature plastic bucket and spade we found half-hidden on the beach at Bronte and packed with us for years on every visit to the sea.
“Talking is the first voice of a writer. I always heard it, I just didn’t know you could write it. I write the voices you hear every day—it’s just that people don’t recognize how wonderfully people talk. I think every time a person tells the truth, that person is speaking beautifully.” – Grace Paley
As a writer you’re probably always on red alert looking for story ideas. Maybe you use the world around you, seeking locations and characters and situations, listening in to conversations on buses or trains or in cafes. Changing your daily routine is a way to stimulate the imagination. Drive or walk to a different part of your suburb or home town and look for different places to write. Writing in cafes is my thing. Challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone in order to find new ideas. It helps to stay out of routine’s boring rut. I need to be physically comfortable and relaxed when I call on the muse. Early in my writing career, I wrote sitting up in bed. The ultimate cosy comfort zone. Now a comfy couch in a cafe is my preferred relax place. And when I sit in a cafe to write I always have a printout beside me of the previous day’s writing session. So I’m never staring at a blank page. Helps with the panic, What the hell will I write next?
There’s no better way to find out where to get our story ideas than by hearing from the experts. Check out some of my favorite authorial quotes below:
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”— Virginia Woolf
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”― Sylvia Plath
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” – Orson Scott
“I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way – what happens to somebody – but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing – not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.” –– Alice Munro
“If you haven’t got an idea, write a story anyway.” – William Campbell Gault
Some people keep a container filled with single words and draw out a word each day and write from it. That’s a good way to exercise the writing muscle and to get into the right (rather than left) side of the brain.
Good luck on your search for story ideas. I like to tell people I use anything that moves or makes a noise 🙂
Every once in a while, when I’m scratching around for something new to write, I make a list of the things I obsess about. Thankfully, some of them change over time, but there are always new ones to fill the gap.
It’s true that writers write about what they think about most of the time. Things they can’t let go; things that plague them; stories they carry around in their heads waiting to be heard.
I used to get my creative writing groups to make a list of the topics they obsess about so they could see what occupies their thoughts during their waking hours. After you write them down, you can use them for spontaneous writing before crafting them into stories. They have much power. This is where the juice is for writing. They are probably driving your life, whether you realize it or not, so you may as well use them rather than waste your energy trying to push them away. And you can come back to them repeatedly.
One of the things I’m always obsessing about is relationships: in families, with friends, with lovers. That’s what I tend to write about. I think to myself, Why not? Rather than repress my obsessions, explore them, go with the flow. And life is always changing, so new material keeps presenting itself.
We are driven by our passions. Am I the only one who thinks this? For me these compulsions contain the life force energy. We can exploit that energy. The same with writing itself. I’m always thinking and worrying about my writing, even when I’m on holidays. I’m driven.
But not all compulsions are a bad thing. Get involved with your passions, read about them, talk to other people about them and then they will naturally become ‘grist for the mill’.
What about you? Do you find yourself writing about the same situations over and over again? I hope these thoughts are useful. Do you have anything you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.
Another one of my short stories, first published in Quadrant magazine June 2015, inspired by visits to France. Each year, if possible, I rent a studio for a month in a little fishing village in the south of France. I refer to these periods of quiet time away as a Writing-Retreat-For-One. A great place to read and write and go for long walks and, hopefully, come up with story ideas.
Although she loved her nieces and nephews, it was when she turned thirty-nine that driving young children around in her car seemed to make her nervous—a tightening in the stomach. “Aunty Helen, would you like to take Naomi to see The Muppets? Are you free?” Always these requests from one of her sisters looking tired and desperate—one of her younger siblings, they used to be so close—and Helen would force herself to make the effort to be the good aunty. The responsibility of passengers in her car always made her anxious. She was anxious about one thing or the other most of the time, but wanted to appear selfless and generous-spirited. Her availability, or non-availability, was noted, itemised, either in her favour, or against her. She didn’t want to be labelled self-obsessed. She had entered an era when the nicest thing a person could say to her was, “You’re a fabulous aunty. The kids love you.” Continue reading →
‘Jean-Pierre’, first published in Quadrant magazine in July 2016, was inspired by my frequent visits to a small fishing village in the south of France. Basically, I am always looking for story ideas. I use anything that moves or makes a noise, is what I tend to tell people. And as I like to ground my stories in a strong sense of place, Villefranche-sur-Mer was my inspiration:
This was in a far distant land. There were Pilates classes but no surfing beaches or vegan restaurants. People said to hell with low-fat diets and tiny portions. Charles, who had wanted her to hire his friend Jean-Pierre as tour guide, had encouraged her in yoga class. ‘Look, Zina, you’re a facilitator—you’ve been running those groups—for what—thirty years?’
‘Only twenty, for goodness sake.’ She had turned forty-nine and frowned at him upside down between the legs of a downward facing dog. She had a face marked by the sun, a face left to wrinkle and form crevasses by years of smoking, a face made shiny by the application of six drops of jojoba oil, although the shop girl had recommended she use only three. ‘I love that word facilitator. It says so much.’
‘Twenty. All right. This guy’s not at all your type. He’s a numbers man. He shows tourists around in between Engineering contracts. He can show you how to buy a bus or a train ticket, how to withdraw money out of the wall—get your bearings. You can hire him for half a day. Or, in your case, half a day and half the night.’
‘Very funny,’ she said, stifling a laugh. Now they were on all fours arching their backs like cats, then flattening their spines to warm up the discs. Indian chanting music took your mind off the fact that the person behind you was confronted with your broad derriere. ‘So what’s the story with Jean-Pierre?’ Continue reading →
Some consider a hammam to be the ultimate Moroccan experience.
A hammam is a steam bath where you wash yourself down, sweat out the dirt of the day and then scrub, with an optional massage afterwards.
Because I’d heard the scrubbing can be a bit too strong for fair sensitive skins like mine, I chose the massage-only option. I’d had a good scrub under the shower back at my riad.
My massage at La Maison Arabe in Marrakech (pictured above) was the most luxurious massage I’ve ever experienced. A big strong woman used scented oil to massage every inch of my body (apart from the privates) – around the stomach, around the breasts, all over the place. It was SOOO relaxing and very sensual.
‘In past centuries hammams were the only source of hot water in the medina. Traditionally they are built of mudbrick, lined with tadelakt (satiny hand-polished limestone plaster that traps moisture) and capped with a some with star-studded vents to let steam escape.’ – Lonely Planet
For many Moroccans hammams are as much a social occasion (particularly for women) as they are about bathing. In some of the public hammams non-Muslims are not accepted. Or you can go to a private hammam.
‘Public baths were first introduced to Morocco (and the rest of Africa) by the Romans and adapted to fit in with Islamic ablution rituals – foregoing the communal Roman bathing pool to use running water to wash under instead – after Islam gained a foothold across the region.’ – Lonely Planet
On my 5 day visit to Marrakech I stayed at Riad Daria in the Kasbah. A perfect calm retreat from the chaos of the souks. The souks are the medina’s market streets, criss-crossed with smaller streets lined with storerooms and cubby-hole-sized artisans’ studios.
Riad Daria is an authentic riad with a courtyard garden divided in four parts, with a fountain in the centre.
So here I am back in France on my month long writing-retreat-for-one after a short visit to Marrakech needing to concentrate on WIP again. Who knows? Maybe my trip to exotic Morocco will inspire me to write a book about loneliness, madness, love and existentalism like ‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles.
“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
“Paul Bowles masterpiece reminds me of some alternate, trippy, version of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, but instead we see the other side of the Mediterranean. Tangier and the deserts of North Africa take the place of the South of France. A different love triangle exposes different forms of loneliness, madness, love, and existential expats.
The thing I love about Bowles is he brings a composer’s mind to writing. His novel isn’t propelled forward by a strong plot (although it has plot) or attractive characters (none of the characters are very attractive), but the music of his language alone pushes and pulls, tugs and compels the reader page after page. It felt very much like I was floating limp and languid in Bowles prose as his hypnotic sentences washed over me and drifted me slowly toward the inevitable end.” – Darwin8u, Goodreads.
Hope you too get to travel to exotic places for inspiration and rejuvenation.
Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.” – Natalie Goldberg
So here I am on a month away from my Sydney home wanting to recharge the creative batteries. I’ve just had a 4 night visit to Marrakech, Morocco. I got back to Villefranche sur Mer, where I’m renting a writing studio, last night. It’s a 3 hour flight between Nice France and Marrakech. So seeing as I’d traveled all the way across the world, I thought it a good time to visit Marrakech. Wow! What a creative experience. All the senses are awakened. Maybe I’ll live life twice and write something set in Morocco.
For now I’m feeling grateful to be able to travel and experience other cultures. The Marrakech-born people I met have never left their country. In the photos you can see me and Morad, the night manager at Riad Daria in Marrakech, one of the very kind and welcoming Moroccon’s who helped me during my stay. We’re pictured on the terrace of the riad. After the chaos of Marrakech’s souks, there’s nothing like a calm retreat. Below us is a corner of the rooftop terrace.
The first pic is the famous Jardin Marjorelle, the beautiful garden once owned by Yves Saint Laurent and home to the Berber Museum. He gifted the garden to Marrakech, the city that adopted him in 1964. Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge bought the electric blue villa and its garden to preserve the vision of its original owner, landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and keep it open to the public. A memorial to the French fashion designer was built there. This year a new museum dedicated to him was opened next door to Jardin Marjorelle. I was lucky enough to visit. The museum retraces Saint Laurent’s forty years of creativity, the world of fashion he created, some designs influenced by his life in Marrakech. He too tasted life twice.
I’ve been living for two weeks now in Villefranche sur Mer a small fishing village on the French Riviera. This is the fourth year I’ve rented an apartment here and had a month to myself to read and to write and go for long walks around the stunning coastline of the Cote d’Azur.
I’ve had my ups and downs, but what’s new? I love being in this magnificent part of the world but find it challenging being alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. I have tried to learn French, but languages aren’t my forte. It’s certainly a good opportunity to dig deep in silence.
Check out this article in the Huffington Post on Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain.
As our internal and external environments become louder and louder, more people are beginning to seek out silence, whether through a practice of sitting quietly for 10 minutes every morning or heading off to a 10-day silent retreat.
It’s mild early winter here on the Mediterranean and on sunny days people still swim and sunbake on the beach. The Bay of Villefranche, reputed as one of the five most beautiful bays in the world, is anchored by two major cities – Nice and Monaco – on either side. Villefranche is still a traditional Nicoise fishing village, pedestrians-only in the Old Town.
Twice a week there is a fabulous fresh market in the garden square. I especially like the cheese man on a Saturday where I buy Roquefort and Camembert. On Wednesdays I buy Italian Parmesan from the Italian man. Villefranche is close to the border with Italy, so we are able to enjoy a few special Italian treats like pizza and capuccinos. The Wednesday Italian man sells charcuterie and fresh pasta too. Another man cooks and sells socca and pissaladiere, two traditonal favourites of this area. And then there’s the man selling tapinades. The black olive tapinade is my favourite. And, of course, being a fishing village, there’s the fish monger with his freshly caught catch of the day.
Surrounding Villefranche’s large bay are cliffs and steep hillsides, brimming with olive and citrus trees, Mediterranean pines, bougainvillea and flowering plants. The lush vegetation meets the water’s edge where the shades of blue are dazzling.
The stunning light levels here on the French Riviera have long attracted the artist and writer community (Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chanel, Cocteau and Nietzsche, to name a few).
I’ve gone a bit overboard on the sunrise and sunset shots as seen from my apartment Sur le Toit (under the roof), but the colours are so stunning they are one of the highlights of my time here. Inspirational.
‘In the neutral state of aloneness, the psychoemotional line between solitude and loneliness can be as thin as a razor’s edge and as lacerating to the soul. How to draw it skillfully in orienting ourselves to the world, exterior and interior, is what poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in a beautiful poem she penned ten days after her twenty-sixth birthday, decades before she came to contemplate solitude in stunning prose. Originally titled “Considerations,” the poem was slightly revised and published the following year as “Canticle 6” in Sarton’s second poetry collection, the altogether sublime Inner Landscape (public library).’ – Maria Popova
CANTICLE 6 by May Sarton
Alone one is never lonely: the spirit
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.
I’ve brought with me to France on this writing-retreat-for-one the first 40 pages of my novel-in-progress and am working on the story, line by line, to add depth and characterisation. Am having difficulty concentrating on my manuscript though as I struggle with the emotional rollercoaster of jetlag and then a leaking apartment. Feel more settled today since I moved out of Sur le Toit and down to the waterfront. A good night’s sleep helps.
I returned to my manuscript and wrote a new sentence 🙂
Am preparing for departure to my yearly Writing-Retreat-for-One in the south of France. I feel very privileged. A month to myself in Villefranche sur Mer, a little fishing village on the Cote d’Azur. I go to this beautiful part of the world to regenerate, to read and to write and to go for long walks along the coast to St Jean Cap Ferrat or up up up to Mont Boron. That is the view from the top of Mont Boron in my profile pic. Italy to the left and Nice, France to the right.
‘Overlooking one of the world’s loveliest natural quaysides, a privileged anchoring spot for the most prestigious cruise ships, Villefranche-sur-Mer has maintained its historic cachet with its port, the colorful façades of the Old Town and its Citadelle. Jean Cocteau, amongst other artists, fell under the spell of this enchanting site. Bathers and divers especially appreciate its beaches lapped by clear waters.’ – Cote d’Azur tourist information
I am able to fly directly to Nice from Sydney, Australia so I don’t have to pass through big airports like London and Paris. The small apartment I rent in the pedestrians-only fishing village of Villefranche sur Mer is a 20 minute cab ride from Nice. All very manageable considering it takes 24 hours sitting in a plane to fly across the world to get to Nice.
It will be early winter in France (summer time back home in Australia) so rents are slightly cheaper. Also, booking for one month gives a reduced price.
I will be seeking inspiration on the French Riviera just like the many artists who’ve been influenced by the sparkling blue waters and scenic streets, many of whom are now regarded as the world’s most influential and important. These include Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch. Cezanne was the first to arrive in the early 1880s.
‘Since the mid-19th century, the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) has been luring aristocrats, the rich and the famous, and esteemed artists to its picture perfect cliff-lined coastline. After France acquired this territory in 1859 and then with the arrival of the region’s first railway system, the Riviera rapidly evolved into a popular vacation locale. The Mediterranean seaboard’s mild climate appealed to socialites looking for a retreat away from the dreary winters elsewhere in Northern Europe, and this destination also captivated the hearts of numerous prominent painters. You too can experience the very same radiant sunlight, breathtaking countryside, and vibrant hues that inspired the great works of Cezanne, Monet, Munch, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.’ – auto Europe
We all need time out to regenerate. I’ll be taking with me a print out of the first draft of my novel ‘Lost In Cooper Park’. I hope to make some progress on the book at my Writing-Retreat-for-One in the south of France. The perfect place to call on the writing muse.