I was writing in a cafe this morning (anyone who knows me will have just have gone ‘Ha’ quite loudly: it would be news if I weren’t writing in a café this morning. Particularly if the writing’s finished). They were playing a cover of Let’s Dance, my beloved Bowie’s most lucrative hit. Say what you will about disco-era Bowie, this wasn’t a song you forgot: tune and lyrics that stick; crisp, eloquent refrains as individual as any published sentence should aim to be. Not my favourite, but the usual best-practice example: a distinctive, intelligent specimen of his chosen genre at the time. This cover kept all the words and the musical structure of the hit, yet still managed to be boring. If I hadn’t known the song well enough to identify the vulture-pecked remains of the original, I wouldn’t have noticed what the music was at all.
‘Brilliant!’ thought the theatre director in me. ‘If a successful song can be made immediately forgettable, interpretation really is everything in the end!’
‘Oh God,’ thought the writer in me. ‘If a successful song can be made immediately forgettable, interpretation really is everything in the end.’
We’re both right. For directors, producers, arrangers and – whisper it – editors, that’s just an empowering fact. For writers, it’s the great and terrible warning of what we’ll be up against if we’re sufficiently hard-working and lucky. What an agent or publisher is looking for from you is your distinctive voice. I don’t have to like what this cover version did to my beloved; somebody out there does. The soul (okay, disco) of it is there, even if the genre’s not for me. That’s why everything you write has to be as clear as possible (see week one) and why you should always carry a notebook.
Fascinating, I hear you not think. She got annoyed with the music in a café. My point is that had I not had my state-of-inspiration radar on, getting annoyed is all that would have happened. As it was, ‘writer brain’ joined the feeling up with my current project: that what I see, touch, hear, smell and taste will not be experienced the same by the person on the next table, or the next, and ninety-nine per cent of it will be forgotten fast. You can find inspiration anywhere but you can also miss it everywhere and lose it very easily.
Writing Touchstone 2: Inspiration
Everything is stimulus
When Nora Ephron discovered her husband was having an affair, she turned up at her mother’s door, in tears and several months pregnant. The first thing she got was not a hug, it was this advice: “Everything is copy”.
Everything that happens can be met with an open mind. Or, at least, a mind with an open notebook. Frustration, anger, grief and despair are hard to live let alone write through – but the fact that everybody you’ve ever met, will meet, have imagined or will imagine goes through them means that even at your worst moments, a corner of your brain is taking damn good notes.
Having said these are universal, it’s all the more important to acknowledge the reverse: everything that’s happening to you is happening to you in a different way and voice than it happens to everyone else. Your voice is individual because your experience of the world is individual. I’m not saying you need to be in “writer brain” every moment, but I’d postulate that “writer brain” is (or should be) an example of tautology – albeit one I’m allowing myself to use in my writing! Your status as a writer is your interpretation of the world. It’s going on all the time. As Nora Ephron adapts her mother’s words in the genre-defying, post-divorce treasure that is Heartburn, Take notes.
Exercises in inspiration: butterfly nets
1) Disrespect your notebook
It’s fine to buy something beautiful and expensive from a department store stationery department if that’s what really, really does work for you. Be careful, though. A lot of writers start trying to make the writing ‘worthy’ of said beautiful and expensive notebook. Stop that immediately. Art comes in the rewriting. You must get the life first: free yourself to set the ideas down bravely, boldly, brashly. Don’t sensor it before you understand what it really wants to say. A notebook is a net, not a butterfly.
2) Three images a day
A stimulus diary, if you will. Perhaps a phrase you hear, or overhear (“I never asked for animatronic geese!”), or see (a woman in – yes, another café – doing a crossword with a bag of pet shop hay perched on the chair beside her, the top of the bag bent as if it were reading along beside her) or a contradiction (journalist who is allergic to coffee).
3) The Commonplace book
In my teens I thought my friend Keith had invented The Quotes Book: the place you put all the things you thought “That’s funny/profound/cool, I’ll remember that” and promptly forget if you didn’t write it down. At university I showed it to my favourite lecturer and learned of The Commonplace Book, fashionable for centuries. It remains my favourite reinvented wheel.
Your Quotes Book (or Commonplace Book if you will; to Keith, me and everyone we converted it is forever The Quotes Book) might be the same as your main writing notebook. The upside of that is your rucksack will be lighter than mine. The downside is that Quotes Books are great fun to share while works in progress, if properly and freely splurged onto the page, will not always be ready to share. Whatever you do, pick the system that benefits your personality and writing. I find sharing quotes a community exercise that has mood benefits and creative benefits. Mind you, I also tend to have a really heavy rucksack.
Invest in place and time
The creative writing groups I have studied with, taught, invented and joined have all – and always – benefitted me and my writing. It’s not just the content and the connections. Crucially, it’s also the ritual. You had to commit to writing being a part of your life before you’d pay the money, carve out the time and space in your life. During the holidays, I encouraged myself (and now encourage my students) to carve out that same time when the class isn’t on. If you’ve proved to yourself that, say, 5pm-7pm on a Monday night being taken out of your life doesn’t make the world fall down, take yourself to a café (is anyone keeping a tally chart of how many times I mention cafes?) or a friend’s house or a library or a park or wander central London or a seaside town, whatever makes sense to you imaginatively. Keep that time and space. It’s found you and if it works, don’t let it go.
Inspiration comes from you, not to you
You can have all the technical input in the world from writing courses and degrees – which, by the way, I believe you should do as much of as possible – but inspiration comes from you not to you. My mental picture of it is of ideas coming down into my head and shooting out through my hand to the ink pen (purple – as I said, embrace what works for you) or keyboard but the truth is I’m not just the conduit – I’m the cause.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (Waterstones Piccadilly, Tuesday 18 October). She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. www.greeninkwritersgym.com