Let it Snow


It’s been a snowy winter in Washington, and a cold one. I often think of the relative connection/disconnection modern people have with nature, but winters like this remind me that no matter how disconnected we think we are, the natural world still makes itself heard – and loudly. And I’m not even talking about all the global-warming-induced weather disasters we’ve had lately, but just something as simple as a big snow.

As a science fiction fanatic when I was a kid, I loved reading Isaac Asimov, and in particular days like this remind me of his Caves of Steel, in which Earth has turned into a warren of underground life, so overpopulated that it’s just a series of giant cities in which everything is connected through tubes and tunnels. The main character in that book is a detective who’s almost never been outside, and suffers as a result from severe agoraphobia.  Part of the fascination of that particular novel was the horror it inspired in me when I thought of living without access to sunlight and the outdoors. Another, much more recent book that takes this on for kids is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau. In that one, an entire society lives underground, unaware that there is such a thing as outside.

Part of the genius of those books is taking a facet of modern society (how much time we spend indoors) and expanding it until it becomes something overwhelming and strange. While Asimov made me imagine the future, he also turned my attention to the conventions of my own society, and helped me see those with a new eye. This doubling of vision that science fiction and fantasy gives readers is one of the reasons I’ve always loved those genres. Which takes me back to all this snow, and to being in the midst of yet another snow day.  One thing I love about days like this is that they let your mind wander. The kids are home from school, the schedule is wrecked, and no one’s going anywhere. On my particular street, which is always one of the last to see a plow, we have this sense of the world having shrunk to block size. Everyone else feels miles away and mostly inaccessible. If they call in, it’s like a missive from another world. Meanwhile, the neighbors are all outside, shoveling or just enjoying the pristine view of bushes turned into plush toys and trees that have become charcoal drawings. Last big storm, I fell backward into a huge cushion of snow while talking to my friend across the street. There I was, lying on my back in the center of the road, not at all worried about anything but how long my coat would hold out against the damp. A few snow days a year, I would say, can be good for the soul. 

The Lily and the Beetle

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Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Sometimes inspiration is so feather-light you don’t really know you’ve had a solid idea unless you catch it. It could come as a passing thought, or a what if that drifts into mind, or the intriguing sound of someone’s voice. Years ago, when I was teaching business writing, I was often asked about the role of brainstorming in writing. Most people seem to understand that brainstorming is a big part of the writing process, and they know it is somehow related to inspiration, they just don’t exactly know how the two connect and how one can stimulate the other.At the time, the focus of my teaching wasn’t on either one. I was trying to show people how to gain a different skill they frequently lacked — that of organizing and giving force to ideas. Writing structure was my favorite topic.

But of course there’s always a place for brainstorming, because before you can organize your thoughts, you have to have one or two of them to work with. So here’s what I wrote, back then, about brainstorming:

Twyla Tharp, the master choreographer, has a wonderful book on creativity called The Creative Habit. One of my favorite pieces of advice in it is her discussion of how to start anything – a dance, a book, or a piece of music. To begin, she says, you don’t have to start at the actual opening of the piece. Dive into a part that interests you, begin brainstorming there, and you can build the piece outward, in any direction. This is a good piece of advice for writers in the earliest part of the process, long before it’s time to structure a piece of writing, when you’re only just developing the idea of what to write about. If a topic interests you, begin brainstorming about what caught your attention. The initial idea should blossom from there – leading outward to other topics, into greater detail or out, into the broader context of your topic. Either direction works.

Say you’re interested in the topic of symbiosis in the rainforest. You read about a certain water lily – bright white – that attracts a very specific beetle. At night, it closes, trapping the beetle and covering it in pollen. In the morning, it frees the beetle to go pollinate other lilies, and changes color – to pink – to avoid attracting the same beetle over again. Interesting topic, right? How could you work from there? You could either choose to move more deeply into the topic – examining the beetle, the flower, and their mutual life cycles, or you could move outward – out into other symbiotic relationships in the rainforest, to the algae that grows on the sloth’s fur to get closer to the sunlight, for example. You could even move out to the rainforest itself and other topics relevant to it. Either way, the initial idea – the lily and the beetle – doesn’t have to be the beginning of the piece you eventually write. If it turns out to be a wonderful hook into the piece – great. But in the end, it may become merely a footnote. It doesn’t matter. The lily and the beetle worked, because they were the spark that started the brainstorming engine.

Brainstorming is obviously a big part of writing fiction, and that’s so because brainstorming is what gives some weight to that initial moment of inspiration. People often ask me now how I start a story, or how I started a particular story. The answer is pretty much back to the lily and the beetle, because work on a piece begins with whatever inspired me, and that’s a different thing each time. Sometimes it’s the voice that gets me. I hear something in my head, and I like the sound of it, and then I find a story to put it in. Sometimes I’m fascinated with an idea, and wonder how it would look in the world if it were to play out. What would a world without gender look like, for example? Or a world where people didn’t age? Or could record their dreams and then step in and live inside them?

So I play that inspired moment out on paper in a brainstorming session or two. That means asking myself question after question about the initial idea, building it into something that has some weight, some reality. When it does, I begin working on the pieces I’ve missed – if I’ve got character, that means plot, and setting. If I’ve got plot, that means character. And those questions keep getting asked at every stage: what kind of place is this, and what kind of culture does it produce? What kind of person is this and where would he or she get the ideas/way of speaking/difficulties he or she has?

When I think of this messy, unpredictable process, all of it flowing out of that initial, fleeting moment of inspiration, I think the lily and beetle metaphor becomes that much more apt. The moment of inspiration comes out of nowhere. But if you open up your hand (or petals) to catch it, a process begins. Coat the thing with pollen, hold it there, until you know it will help you grow. And then, when you do let it go, you’re changed. No more white lily, now it’s pink, and looking for the next thing it will need, to continue to be fertile. Inspiration is nothing without brainstorming to build on that initial, easy-come idea. But of course first you have to catch the beetle. 

Creativity Abounds

"Coffee Cup On Wood Shelf" by nuttakit, photo courtesty of freedigitalphotos.net.

“Coffee Cup On Wood Shelf” by nuttakit. Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

My good friend Giliah, a talented artist (http://www.giliah.com/), once told me that art is everywhere. You can see it in product design from clocks on the wall to benches in the park. After she pointed that out, I started to look at the world with a new eye, and discovered that modern society really does teem with innovation. It’s not just in art, either. A few months ago, I got a good laugh reading product reviews on Amazon. (See some of the best ones here and here.) People take every opportunity to exercise their creativity, even in the most unexpected places.

Living just outside Washington, D.C. (otherwise known these past couple weeks as The Land That Time Forgot), I sometimes get discouraged about humanity, thinking of all those who seem interested only in pulling the world backward, in fighting the future. But then I think about art, and innovation, and the way human creativity seems to burst out all over the place, and it cheers me up. I know that creativity in government isn’t the same as it is in design, and that human beings have notoriously used their creativity for evil, as well as good. And yet, still, the human drive to create makes me happy. Maybe it’s because I think that ultimately, slowly, and yes, with setbacks, we do move forward. That may be a strange lesson to take from ballpoint pen reviews and the bright dinnerware sets on the shelves at Target, but what I mean is that people tend to want to make things, and often, that means make them better. Here’s hoping the desire to innovate will be at least as powerful a motivator on Capitol Hill as it is in your local variety store.