Archive for March, 2010

I frequently read that the easiest part of creative writing is coming up with ideas.

‘Not so!’ I want to scream.

I have really struggled coming up with ideas from time to time. At the moment I’m blocked on a writing assignment, where I need to write a short story aimed at the 10 -12 age group. I don’t know any kids that age, so it’s pretty difficult. Time to pull out the bag of tricks to generate some ideas – and here are some of my favourites.

  1. Folk tales and fairy tales: My library wouldn’t be complete with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, the brothers Grimm, and the tales of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. Some of my favourite authors use this technique – Anne Rice and Sheri S. Tepper have turned the traditional tales upside down, and Juliet Marrillier is brilliant in reinterpreting these stories.
  2. Myth: The mythology of different cultures is littered with great ideas, especially for fantasy writers. Aside from information available on the Internet, I’ve found encyclopaedias of mythology in the bargain bins at discount bookstores. I based my current project on Old Norse myth, so I have copies of the Icelandic sagas and the Eddas to consult. Bibliomancy is the use of books in divination, but the technique can also be used to send the right brain off on a journey to story idea paradise.
  3. Poetry: I’m not a big reader of poetry, but I’ve been motivated to read poems which inspired books. Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’ is echoed in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. And an earlier medieval ballad inspired Browning’s poem.  I’ve also found the poetry of T.S. Eliot and W.B.Yeats features evocative imagery that is easily turned to story ideas.
  4. Images: This blog of a fellow How to Think Sideways student has links to some great image archives that I’m going to use in idea generation.  Holly Lisle suggested using the imagery on tarot cards and other story telling card decks to come up with ideas (see Holly’s Create a Plot clinic for heaps more techniques for developing your plot). I have about a dozen different card decks, including a couple which are specific to my Old Norse project – the Viking tarot and rune cards. Photographic collections and art exhibition catalogues can also inspire the writer within.
  5. Newspapers and magazines: I occasionally write science fiction, and my favourite sources of ideas for these stories is the popular science magazine New Scientist (or Scientific American). The ‘loony mags’ provide some off-the-wall story ideas (you know the ones – front covers with stories of alien abduction and half-human, half-gorilla babies…) I keep a scrapbook of interesting news and magazine articles that I think might provide the kernel of a story.
  6. History: Historical fiction is a genre all on its own. Diana Gabaldon takes Scottish and early American history to provide plotlines for her time-travelling romance novels, and Lindsey Davis uses ancient Rome for her detective series featuring Marcus Didius Falco.
  7. Dreams: A tried and true method for inspiration in all fields of endeavour, across science and art disciplines. I keep a dream journal and review it for possible plot twists or story concepts. Some writers communicate with their Muse in their dreams, asking a question about their story before sleep, or writing it down and putting it under their pillow. Hasn’t worked for me yet, but I’m going to keep trying!
  8. Journalling: Mind mapping, stream of consciousness associations, morning pages, traditional diary entries, journaling prompts – daily doses of this activity help keep my mind open to the Muse and new ideas.

It was technique #6 that gave me my story idea. In researching my family history, I came across an ancestor who, at 12 years old, was taken by Moroccan pirates and sold to the Sultan of Morocco. With some tweaking, his story is now the foundation for my juvenile fiction short story…


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I used to work for a boss who was known about the organisation as ‘Captain Nike’. Why? Because his favourite phrase was, Just do it. An ex-military man, he had no interest in why it couldn’t be done, or the obstacles, or (for that matter) the rules we’d break. His response was always the same – just do it.

While this sometimes made working for him very difficult (especially trying to find an ethical and legal way to ‘just do it’), things got done. And in the large bureaucratic organisation I worked in, that was a small miracle. So I thought that maybe there is some merit in applying his approach to the writing life.

Until very recently, I was the most non-writing aspiring writer I knew. There are over a hundred writing-related titles on my bookshelf, so I spent a lot of time reading about writing. And I subscribed to two writers magazines, so I could read about writing some more. I attended writing workshops that didn’t require me to actually write. And the books on writing usually recommended reading in the genre I wanted to write, which gave me permission to read as much fantasy and historical fiction as I wanted and call it development of my writing ambition. And when I decided on my idea for my historical novel? You guessed it, I spent weeks assembling a fifty book research library so I could research the era I wanted to write about.

The only thing I actually wrote in was my journal. And my shopping lists.

I said, oh, you know, I have this high pressure job that takes all this intellectual effort and there’s none left over for writing. Or, I’ll begin as soon as I finish reading this book about writing. Or I don’t have time this week, the lawn needs mowing, the dishes need doing, the cat needs walking, the goldfish needs brushing… or whatever would save me from actually having to sit down at the page and write. I didn’t want to write because I was afraid. Mostly afraid of not being any good.

And then I decided to just do it.

I enrolled in two writing courses – one on comprehensive fiction, the other an online writing creativity course run by Holly Lisle (How to Think Sideways). I joined the local writing centre. I’ve written several short stories or passages for the comprehensive fiction course, have just begun How to Think Sideways and I wrote the first two thousand words of my novel. I started this blog.

I have learned two important things.

The second most important thing I’ve learned is that I’m not very good. I stalled at two thousand words on the novel because I realised I hadn’t properly plotted. I read other blogs and my efforts seemed pale and insipid in comparison. I struggled with some of the assignments, especially the ones that took me out my comfort zone (i.e., required me to actually produce a written piece of work).

The most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s ok I’m not very good. I’ve only just begun. I’ll get better as I go along, as I learn more about plotting (putting what I read in to practice) and I begin to see what it is that other blogs have that mine doesn’t. I will get better by doing instead of dreaming about doing, or talking about doing, or reading about doing. You see, I’ve decided to apply the Captain Nike approach to my writing life… and just do it.

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You know the signs. You think about the object of your affections all the time, you fail to recognise any flaw in said object, and you hang on their every word and gesture. A heady hormone high of serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine is circulating in your blood. You feel on top of the world and it takes only the slightest acknowledgement of your shared bond to send you spinning in joy. If you’re fortunate, this happy state of affairs will last a year, maybe two. If not so lucky, maybe it will be over within the week.

I thought when I married my significant other that such emotional extremes were lost to me. We’d had a long honeymoon phase in the first few years of our relationship, but we celebrated our tenth anniversary last year and while I love him dearly, that sort of pace is hard to sustain.  It seemed to me that the chemicals of infatuation, made for free by our own bodies and delivered direct to the bloodstream, were responsible for any number of office affairs. But I had pretty firm views on fidelity, so I embraced the comfort, warmth and happiness brought by a joyous partnership and accepted the absence of pure passion and intensity.

Or so I thought. It turned out life had one more card to play in this particular game. I had a child. Mothers reading this are nodding knowingly. When they say your hormones come into play once you become a mother, they ain’t kidding. Oxytocin (aka the hug hormone) is the big one, produced by your body to promote bonding with baby. It’s also released when you kiss or massage or hug the people you love (among other things!). And it’s released when you breastfeed. So for the last nine months, since Little Pearl was born, I’ve been on an oxytocin high. I’m in love all over again, obsessing over every little detail of her life with me, savouring every moment we spend together. A quiet moment at 3am, listening to the murmuring of the rain on the roof with a warm baby nursing in my arms in the dim glow of the night-light, has made it to my top ten list of happiest moments ever.

Given Little Pearl is almost certainly our last child (barring acts of destiny), I guess there probably won’t be another opportunity to experience these extraordinary highs. It’s fireworks and flowers, rainbows and sunstorms. I’m falling in love for the last time, and I’m not going to miss a minute.

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I intended to write in this post about how I use my journal. Then I realised that in addition to my personal journal, I also have an art journal. And a dream journal. And the more I thought about it, the more I recognised the many other journals in my life.

Our family journal: This is a 5 Year Diary There is a page for each date and five or six lines for each year, so you can look back and see what you were doing on the same day on previous years. This journal is kept on the bookshelf for anyone to read. It’s the only journal in which I make a daily entry and I record events such as Little Pearl’s first tooth, illnesses, family outings.

My personal journal: An exercise book filled with diary entries and newspaper clippings. It’s the first personal journal in twenty-four years that I’ve kept with an audience in mind. I’m thinking that one day my daughter may read it (preferably either after I’m dead or when she has kids of her own!) It does mean I censor myself a little, particularly when making comments about other family members. I usually write in this journal a couple of times a week, two to three pages at a time. This is a place for me to ‘get stuff out of my head and on to the page’. I write about the mundane events of my life, goals for the future, problems I’m trying to solve, decisions I need to make, ideas for writing and how grateful I am for the life I have. ‘Thanksgiving’ is actually a pretty big part of my personal journal.

An art journal: This journal is full of sketches, mind maps, collages and prints. It’s hard to find time for this journal, so it tends to only get entries a couple of times a month.

Scrapbooks: I recently bought a digital SLR and I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of Little Pearl – as a new parent does. I print my favourites to put in a scrapbook – one for each year of her life. (I’m not a very good scrapbooker though – I don’t have enough precision or attention to detail).

Dream Journals: I use a published dream journal (sadly now out of print) called Dreams and Waking Visions to record dreams. It’s a landscape A4 journal with space to draw diagrams and note recurring themes from dreams. I went on to Abebooks and bought as many blank copies as I could find.

Writers notebook: A black Moleskine notebook for jotting down those story ideas, plot twists and observations of life.

The Blog:  my first foray into the world of electronic journals! Up until now, I’ve always been pretty strict about handwriting my journals – it just hasn’t worked for me to try to write on my laptop. Thanks to this article, now I know why. But I always wrote my uni assignments and work reports on the PC, so I can treat my blog posts in the same way.

So that’s seven in all. And I haven’t even touched on my daily organiser, our family calendar or Little Pearl’s baby book! There’s just no hope for me. I’m an inveterate journaler. And the optimum number of journals? Well, I’m not planning on keeping any more… yet.

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This is my third attempt at composing a post about breastfeeding. For me, it’s been a really important part of becoming a mum; but it’s such a sensitive subject that I want to take a lot of care in telling my story.

When I first fell pregnant, I wasn’t sure about breastfeeding. (I also wasn’t sure about the whole natural birthing thing either, but that’s another story). I had a couple of friends whose breastfeeding stories were the stuff of nightmares: low milk supply, giant abscesses, and a situation where the mum’s relationship with the baby was beginning to suffer. So breastfeeding sounded painful and difficult, and I thought maybe it might be a bit too hard.

Nonetheless, I began to educate myself about why I might breastfeed. I read research reports and literature, my husband and I attended a breastfeeding education class run by the Australian Breastfeeding Association, numerous antenatal classes and we also went to a Calmbirth workshop (also known as hypnobirthing in other countries). By the time Little Pearl was  induced, we agreed that I would try to breastfeed her unless I was physically unable, or if breastfeeding was interfering with how I felt about our daughter. One of the main driving factors behind this was that I had Gestational Diabetes Mellitus, and breastfeeding would reduce the risk of both Little Pearl and I developed Type II Diabetes in the future.

I won’t go in to the breastfeeding experience in detail. Suffice to say Little Pearl was born with a tongue tie (which made it difficult for her to attach to the breast properly) and twelve weeks passed before we had a breastfeed where I didn’t experience any pain. But every time I thought about giving up, I wondered if I were passing a health sentence on my daughter to become diabetic in her adult life. I know now there are few forces more powerful than the one of maternal guilt – and it makes my heart ache for mums who couldn’t establish breastfeeding and feel guilty as a result. As mums, we are so much harder on ourselves than we need, and it’s so difficult to stop being hard on ourselves.

I’ve never breastfed in public – I just can’t bring myself to do it. Boobs are private! Instead, I make sure Little Pearl and I are somewhere private when a feed is due. I feel a little bit bad about this, because where I live (in Australia) it’s not unusual for a woman breastfeeding in public to be asked to move somewhere private, even though Australian law gives every woman the right to breastfeed in public. I feel like I should support a woman’s rights to feed in public by exercising that right… but I’m too shy.

It did surprise me when a friend said that she couldn’t decide whether she was going to breast feed or bottle feed her baby. As our discussion continued, it became clear that she didn’t know there were some benefits to breast milk, such as the transfer of immunity from mother to child in the early weeks. I feel awkward having these conversations because of a perception that some women have built as the ‘breastfeeding mafia’; but on the other hand I want to make sure that my friend is making an informed choice.

At nine months old, Little Pearl is still breastfeeding. She has been exploring other foods since five and a half months, and we occasionally supplement with formula as I have difficulty expressing enough milk for a full feed. I’m glad I was able to breastfeed and I strongly support initiatives that educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding and support women – in a positive way – to establish breastfeeding.

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I have a confession. I am a journaling addict. For more than twenty years I’ve filled exercise books, pre-printed diaries, lever arch files and electronic documents with writing, photographs, ephemera and news clippings. Over those two decades, I’ve come across some great journaling-related books. My favourites are:

The New Diary (Tristine Rainer): The first book I read about journal writing. Rainer’s book opened my mind to far greater possibilities for how I might use my journal beyond a record of daily events. It was after reading this book at seventeen that I abandoned the old day-to-a-page diaries and began keeping a freer journal in exercise books and loose-leaf files.
At a Journal Workshop (Ira Progoff) and The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron) are two other books in the same vein: journal as therapy. Cameron’s book contains excellent tools for annihilating those creative blocks; Progoff’s book is a bit dense but has some very intriguing journal exercises.

The Pillow Book (Sei Shonagon): I find it amazing that although separated by such great spans of time and distance, I find echoes of my journal entries in this book. Sei Shonagon was a court lady in tenth century Japan whose journal was widely read. I have Meredith McKinney’s Penguin translation and I love it. I sometimes use Sei Shonagon’s lists and entries to inspire my journal writing.  Who doesn’t like to read other people’s journals? For that reason, I also enjoyed Cringe (Sarah Brown) and Mortified (David Nadelberg). Then I realised that if I want to read pathetic angst-ridden teen poetry and self-centred maudlin ramblings, I have five diaries of my own filled with such rubbish – but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I’d love to see an Aussie version of these books.

Creative Journal Writing (Stephanie Dowrick): This is one of the best introductory journal writing books out there – and I’m not just saying that because it’s an Australian author. The book contains great ideas for journal exercises but also some thoughtful guidance on journaling itself, and what to do with a journal once you’ve ‘finished’ it. I love this book and it is the most dog-eared journaling book I have – except for my journal itself! Another book with sound journaling advice is The Many Faces of Journaling (Linda C. Senn). The book itself doesn’t look like much (self-published, along with many of her other books) but the content is easy to read and provides insight to a range of reasons why people might choose to journal, including dream journaling, scrapbooks, travel, creativity and gardening.

The Decorated Journal and The Decorated Page (Gwen Diehn): The sourcebooks and inspiration for my art journals. Beautiful pages with clear instructions – so it actually seems achievable even with my limited talents. These are full colour books that had me racing for my artist’s materials. Journal Bliss (Violette) also has advice on adding visual elements to your journal pages. This is a book well-suited to first time visual diarists.

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