If I’m struggling to figure out a character’s personality or a new story idea won’t come together, I will set my pages aside, at least for a little while. Solutions to my story problem often come when my mind is focused on other creative pursuits.
But those solutions don’t announce themselves with a lot of pomp and circumstance. There is no bolt of lightning, no choir of angels heralding the epiphany. Usually it is a quiet “quarter of an inch” turn that Elizabeth Gilbert describes so perfectly:
Curiosity only ever asks one simple question: Is there anything you’re interested in? Anything? Even a tiny bit? No matter how mundane or small? The answer need not set your life on fire…; it just has to capture your attention for a moment. But in that moment, if you can pause and identify even one tiny speck of interest in something, then curiosity will ask you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look at the thing a wee bit closer. Do it. It’s a clue. It might seem like nothing, but it’s a clue. Follow that clue. Trust it. See where curiosity will lead you next.” ~Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
These clues are usually so subtle I used to miss them, until I started paying attention. We’re rarely paying attention to what captures our attention. Think about that for a moment. Why do we notice this and not that? Why do we prefer one thing over another? I invite you to use that attention to find a way into a character or a new story.
Here are eight ways to explore your curiosity and give inspiration a helping hand.
1. Music What songs do you come back to over and over? Is there an artist or genre that “speaks” to you? Have you ever gotten lost in a song? Is there a song you associate with a specific occasion or time in your life? (This week’s newsletter has more details about how my curiosity in a song led me to write a short story that was published in a literary journal. Don’t get my newsletter? Sign up here and automagically receive Five Days of Writing Inspiration—a free program to help you on your writing journey.)
2. Nature. Have you been enjoying the outdoors? I mean, not just from your house to the car or sitting on the sidelines at your kid’s softball game. Whether you’re walking around your block or having a picnic at your local park, take time to observe your surroundings. Go beyond thinking, Oh the clematis is in bloom. Notice the color, the shape of the petals, the tiny bee moving from flower to flower. What is the texture of the petals? Is there a scent? If so, what does it smell like?
3. Food. It’s easy to gravitate toward the same foods day after day, especially if you have small children, but the next time you have the opportunity—lunch with friends or co-workers, a dinner date with your partner—try a different cuisine. Then, let your senses take over. We often give short shrift to taste in our descriptions. Consider the texture, spice, and sensation (salty, sweet, bitter, sour). Don’t forget smell of course. Who knows, you may find that your character ends up loving Korean bulgogi.
4. Route. Similar to the above, we often walk or drive the same route every day. Find a new way to work or school or the grocery store. Walk your dog down a different block. You won’t be operating on autopilot and your attention will shift. You may notice a clever wall mural on the side of a building or the way the light filters through a cluster of trees. If you’re walking with someone, each of you can record what captures your attention, then compare notes.
5. Art. I’ve been fascinated by the painters of the Hudson River School. At first I had no idea why, but I indulged that interest. When The Met had an exhibit on Thomas Cole’s work, I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t long before one of my characters admired these painters as much as I did. How long has it been since you went to an art museum in your city? If you’re not able to get there, many of the world’s great museums have images of their collections online.
6. Magazines. Here, I mean the good old glossy page-turners. I let my eyes skim the racks with no agenda, and I pick up whatever captures my attention, even if it’s something far outside the boundaries of my experience. I have thumbed through pages of Fine Woodworking, Crochet World, and Golf Magazine. Hmm…what is the difference between a putter and a driver? This helps me craft a character who is unique and less like a mini-me.
7. Re-purpose. Flea markets and second-hand shops are treasure troves of interesting stuff. Ransom Riggs often talks about his hobby of collecting old photos at flea markets. Many of those photos inspired his book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. What are you drawn to at a second-hand shop? Do you want to find out more?
8. Wordless pursuit. Put your curiosity and creativity to use in a different medium. Dance, paint, garden, play an instrument. This doesn’t have to be official or elaborate or even very good. You can dance in your living room or pull out your kid’s watercolors. As writers we are intensely focused on words and language, and sometimes we need a break. My subconscious often works on my story problem while I’m concentrating on a task that allows me to disengage from language for a while.
What are some ways you follow your curiosity? Let us know in the comments.
Need some support to stay on track with your story this summer? My 1:1 writing coaching will help keep you engaged and moving forward. I’ve put together a special summer program from mid-June to mid-August. Come Labor Day, you’ll make a smooth transition back into your regular routine. More information can be found here.