Yesterday, I took part in a local literary festival. Originally, I had been invited to read a short set of poetry during one of the sessions; then one of the speakers was ill so she dropped out, and, at the last minute, I was asked to step in and give a talk. And I do mean the last minute. I got a text message on Friday afternoon to give me advance warning that my help might be needed: maybe I could give a short talk on poetry or translation? I duly rustled up some old notes on the latter and thought about changes I’d need to make so it would suit the audience.
In the evening, a few more texts were exchanged and I mentioned that there were other topics I could offer if preferred, including something on Creative Inspirations. But I went to bed thinking that translation was still the chosen topic and that was what I had in mind until I arrived at the event and had a chat with the organiser.
At about 10:00am on Saturday, we decided I would be leading a 2:30pm session on Creative Inspirations.
This wasn’t as tough as it might sound. I was the one who’d mentioned it as a possibility and I do mean it when I say, “we decided”. I’d also been aware that there was a faint chance this would be the decision, so had thought to print out the module summary of my online course on the same subject. So at least I had the bare bones ready.
I think the session went reasonably well. The pieces I had chosen for my poetry set had centred around the subject of the blank page, writer’s block and writing workshops, so the talk followed on well thematically.
A quick aside, here, to include one of the poems I read yesterday. All the pieces were from many years ago, the giveaway phrase in this piece being, “the green lawns/ of forty summers”. I’ve seen considerably more than 40 now, but no matter.
Where are the words
Like a spendthrift
I have squandered them,
scattering them on the green lawns
of forty summers,
I look in books,
in dictionaries and lexicons,
but they are blank as my notebook:
empty of inspiration.
The wind has carried away
all the words,
borne them on the warm air,
like so many seagulls.
Like a prodigal,
I am left destitute,
my tongue, dry,
licking at stale crusts.
So, after the poetry, I got back up on stage to lead the next session. I gave some suggestions for writing activities, and then we got into a more general discussion. At this point, one of the participants referred back to my suggestion of looking at any scene from different perspectives. I know I am guilty of framing most of my writing from the point of view of an observer; and for me, almost always, that observer is human. But I’m also very aware that every scene has the potential for a whole range of perspectives and a range of participants. I mentioned U. A. Fanthorpe’s poem “Not my best side”, where each of the three stanzas is written from a different perspective: the dragon, the maiden and St George each have their view of the situation.
But in a nature poem – there do seem to be a whole lot of nature poems and I, too am guilty of adding to their number – there may be no human actor. So I suggested taking the perspective of a bush, a rock, a pebble, a dry-stone wall… And then, as I said, someone in the audience asked how you can do that. His point was that it’s relatively easy to write from another point of view if you only need to think like another person, because we know that other people do think. You can get ideas of what other people think from what they say, and from their body language and from their facial expressions, so it’s not impossible to extrapolate this to create another person and imagine what they might think.
Even animals – or some animals – have enough similarity to humans to make it possible to extrapolate from our knowledge of human thought and imagine what they might think. But plants and pebbles and other inanimate objects don’t think and therefore it’s impossible to step inside their minds and see a scene from their perspective.
I found this incredibly interesting, as it had never occurred to me before. As a copywriter, I regularly write in the voice of a range of organisations. (I admit I find some a lot easier than others.) And I’ve read plenty of science fiction where the author has created a whole new species that has a different view because of their particular physical attributes or because of the physical conditions of the planet they inhabit. It doesn’t seem a far step from this to start to think as a plant, and from there, why not a step further to a natural or man-made object?
And then, after someone else in the audience had made a further comment, I was reminded of an occasion many years ago when I was living in California and a group of us were going, I think, to the Ramona Pageant. We drove along the Ortega Highway, past Lake Elsinore. Somewhere along the route I remember there was a great roundish rock that had split open and a part of it had fallen away; someone had painted it so it look like a huge apple with a slice cut out and lying alongside. Some of us were admiring the graffiti when we were pulled up short by a comment by one of the Native Americans in the group, who said it should never have been done: “The rocks are people, too.” I repeated this anecdote yesterday, and pointed out that it’s our own traditions and cultural limitations that attribute conscious thought to humans alone.
Over the years, I have gathered lots of prompts and activities for when inspiration fails, but, to be honest, I seldom use them myself. Mostly, this kind of exercise just isn’t for me. But now I’m thinking about those different perspectives.
How would a rock think? Would it be ponderous, slow and deliberate? Self-sufficient, deep-voiced and calm? Would it have an affinity for other rocks, or for the moss that covered it and the bugs and creatures that lived on it and under it? And would it have any concept of the world around it? What about time? Would the world we see pass in a blur? Would the rock have such a long-term, big-picture view that the small changes that disrupt our lives would seem insignificant? Or would it be so embedded and set in its ways that the least little change would bother it?
Most of us pride ourselves on our originality and individuality; we know that sweeping generalisations about groups, nations and races often fail completely to portray our own beliefs and attitudes. Even in a family or small group of friends, opinions can be radically different. How different would one rock be from the next? Or a granite rock from obsidian? Would they, as igneous rocks, have more in common with each other than with a sedimentary rock such as anthracite or a metamorphic rock such as marble? Would a rock by the sea have a different perspective from that of one half way up a mountain or one in heart of a forest?
Whatever I decide about the rocks and how they think, I may be entirely wrong, of course. But I may also be entirely wrong about what someone else is thinking. If I create a character to play a role in my writing, I think I have the right to invent one who will work for whatever I need for that particular piece writing. Their thoughts and actions will reveal what I need them to reveal to move the story forward or put across the point of view I want to communicate. I guess the same holds true for any rock that I give a voice to: in some respects, the voice will simply be a vehicle for my own thoughts and ideas, but it may allow me to say things I might not say if I were to do so through the voice of a different character or actor in the scene.
Incidentally, writing this post has set me thinking about other things, too, and I’m wondering if I might find it easier to get inside the thoughts of a rock than to understand the thoughts of a human who wonders how such a thing is possible.
Also, it seems that yesterday’s Creative Inspirations session inspired me to write a blog post for the first time in months. So I guess it served for something.