Category Archives: Finding Inspiration

Just keep swimming

Via She Started It, this column is a fun and inspiring read: Rats with Islands.


Tiptoeing outside the perimeter of my comfort zone

I have a narrow comfort zone. It has enough room for my couch with an annex for my office (preferably with the door closed). I like to spend a lot of time in this zone. But being comfortable is not inspiring. Every once in a while, when the well is dry and I have nothing to write about other than my high score on Mario Kart, I’ll get brave enough to try something uncomfortable.

For you, trying something uncomfortable might mean jumping out of an airplane or traveling to a foreign country by yourself. For me, uncomfortable is never that far away. I consider shopping at an unfamiliar Trader Joe’s to be uncomfortable.

My husband is less chicken when it comes to trying things or going places that he’s never been. He’s climbed two of the tallest peaks in Northern California with only a few pints of water and a peanut butter sandwich in his backpack. He once danced with our daughter on stage in front of the school during a class concert. He thinks nothing of going to a foreign Trader Joes.

Through him, I am sometimes encouraged to push the limits of comfort. I never intend to climb a mountain, but I have kayaked, skiied, hiked, and attended social events that took place way outside of the zone.

Obviously, the positive side effect of being uncomfortable is having something to write about. That’s why I am sort of, kind of doing Script Frenzy (so uncomfortable! it burns!). That’s why sometimes I volunteer to work at the food bank with a group of strangers or offer to host a dinner despite my hosting anxiety or agree to walk in a parade with a bunch of baton-twirling second graders (wow, that hurts just to think about). Trivial things, but any departure from the ho-hum revs up the creativity that has gone dormant during those weeks in the zone.

Maybe this weekend I’ll check out the Trader Joe’s in Mountan View. Dare me?

Frenzy Trial Run

I gave script-writing a try last night. I used Zhura to write a scene taken from real life: sitting in a waiting room during my kids’ guitar lessons.

As an aside, the building where they have lessons seems to be a former doctor’s office, with a corresponding waiting room. Weird. So rather than explain this weirdness in my script, I just called it a doctor’s office. This meant I had to omit the soundtrack of the 4-year-old singing class in the room to my right: one hour of preschoolers wielding umbrellas, belting out “I’m SIIINNNNGGGGGGGIN’ IN THE RAIN!”

My script-writing experiment was almost as painful as that hour in the waiting room. The scene was so clear in my head, but the process of designating every paragraph as dialogue, parenthetical, or action wore thin. And since I am a rule-follower, I was distracted from my vision by wondering if I was doing something wrong: “Is it OK to put action here? Is that parenthetical too long? Do I need to be so specific about what WOMAN 1 is doing with her hands?”

I’ll try again. But I feel like I am in over my head.

That’s really all you need to know

My friend Jeff, who worked with me at my first technical writing gig 10 years ago, and with whom I still correspond regularly, just published a guest post about writing fiction. I love his witty conclusion:

“So when someone asks you how you write stories, you can tell them there are only three things you have to really work on: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Other than that, storytelling is easy.”

Is reading crap better than not reading at all?

I don’t have the answer to this. I have read my share of crap. I have also read my share of “important” literature. As an English major, I was assigned everything from Invisible Man (at least 4 different times) to The Female Quixote to Paradise Lost to The Color Purple. I did not enjoy all of these. And as an unrefined college student who drank boxed wine and had an old couch on my front porch, I didn’t really even appreciate why I was assigned these books. I may have done some serious skimming of the works I found less compelling (I’m talking to you, Invisible Man).

As an adult who need not adhere to a list of required reading material, I find myself choosing books that I hope to be meaningful, to add something to my mental inventory of great writing – but not necessarily books that my English Lit professors would have assigned. I don’t usually read fluff, not because I’m a snob who is above Nicholas Sparks, but because it’s much easier to play Mario Kart than wade through crap.

That being said, yesterday I finished reading an extremely fluffy book, Confessions of a Shopaholic, which I bought in an attempt to recover from the very depressing Sarah’s Key, followed by Revolutionary Road. (Both great books that I will keep on my “read again” shelf, but both major downers.) I thought some chick lit would lighten my mood. And maybe if Confessions hadn’t been such a terrible book, it might’ve served that purpose. Would my time have been better spent playing Yahtzee on my iPod than reading that book? Was reading that book better than reading nothing at all?

On a related note, a friend sent me this list today, the BBC’s Top 100 Books. I’d read maybe 30 of them, and I have several of them on my shelf that I’ve never opened. A lot of these books are considered classics. Some are just entertaining reads (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). The list reminded me of a number of books that I’ve meant to pick up over the years that I have never gotten around to reading. I think that the next time I’m tempted to select a paperback from the Shopaholic series, I’ll consult the list instead.

The Artist’s Life

Is a writer an artist? I am not sure. But the life of someone who paints, for example, and the life of someone who writes, is not so different. I am qualified to say this because my mother is a watercolor artist.

When we were growing up, my mom wasn’t an artist only after my brother and I went to bed or while we were in school. She was – and is – an artist all the time. We would go on vacation and she would bring her sketchbook and her mini palette and her camera. She’d sketch or paint whatever she saw, wherever we were. She’d take photos of barns and gardens and whatever else she wanted to sketch or paint later. She wore her artist hat no matter where she went (and sometimes it was kind of annoying, but I am more understanding now as a parent myself).

Even though I’ve always considered myself a writer, I am a little disappointed to realize that I haven’t followed my mom’s example. I don’t have the equivalent of a sketchbook that I carry around with me. While sightseeing, I’ve never dragged my family down a side street so I can take a picture of a particularly odd house to use in my next novel. In other words, I don’t live and breathe writing the way my mom lives and breathes painting.

I think I may have trained myself to ignore the semi-manic voices in my head, those voices that might compel me to write whenever and wherever. I am not sure why. Maybe because my career as a technical writer isn’t terribly creative and I don’t get paid to listen to my inner monologue. My mom’s livelihood depends on her ability to keep finding subjects to paint, to keep being inspired to produce art.

It’s not too late, though, for me to start living the artist’s life. Sure, I am stuck (by choice) in an office 32 hours a week. The days blend together into one big gray blob broken up only by the eagerly-awaited day that I treat myself to an eggplant panini at the cafeteria. But even that environment is full of characters who are sometimes stranger than fiction, should I choose to see them. For example, I’ve been dying to write about the guy who does Tai Chi by the bathrooms every morning in his Spandex. And I love to talk about my favorite sous chef, the Italian cook who makes heavily-accented small-talk while he grills my panini.* So there’s no reason not to carry a notebook, to let these characters and surroundings compel me to write and to go with it.

On a related note, Victoria writes about observing what is around you and recording details to use when developing characters. Her post is what made me start thinking about living the artist’s life and finding material in my surroundings.

*Not a euphemism.