Last week, I had a chance to go to my local independent book shop and see John Scalzi read from his new book, The Human Division. He did a Q and A as well, and after that, he graciously sat and signed books for several hundred people. I had brought my kindle to be signed, but I knew it was going to be an incredibly long wait, so I browsed the shelves for an hour before getting into line. As much as I enjoyed getting to see one of my favorite authors speak, the best part of the night was looking at books. I so rarely go into shops (in part because when I do, I usually come out with eight or ten books that I could have gotten cheaper elsewhere) that it was a treat to wander around and get lost in the shelves.
As an added bonus, when I finally got up to the head of the line (I waited for half an hour once I made my purchase, which was great because I was finishing Lost in Clover and the time flew by), I was holding a book by China Mieville, and it prompted a conversation with Scalzi about how unfair it was that Mieville was not only a great writer but also a cool guy and incredibly fit (Scalzi may have used the phrase “pink granite” to describe him, and it might have been amazing).
In that same stack, I had what I considered to be sort of an outlier for my interests, a book called How To Be An Explorer Of The World. Now, when I’m book shopping, I always open any potential purchase and read the first chapter or so; that’s usually enough for me to know whether it’s going to languish on the “to-read” shelf or be picked up and devoured immediately. This one was a little different. It’s a collection of exercises and quotes intended to open the mind up to appreciating the “ordinary” things all around us. In the back, it has a field journal so that a reader could take this book and make notes about experiments and projects being conducted. It actually seemed like something my husband would really like, and when I bought it, I fully intended to give it to him.
Then I read it, and I changed my mind. This wasn’t a book I could give away. Instead, it was a book I wanted to take on all my vacations. I wanted to pull it out when I go to visit people. I want to have it for the day when I have children who are bored. After I read this book, I knew it wanted to be a living object, and I wanted to be the one to bring it to life.
In a 1960s IBM film about the computer there is a good description of the creative process…
The narrator states that the artist is never bored. She looks at everything and stores it all up. She rejects nothing. She is completely uncritical. When a problem confronts her she goes through all the stuff she has collected, sorts out what seems to be helpful in this situation, and relates it in a new way, making a new solution. She prepares for leaps by taking in everything. – Corita Kent (p38)
When I was in the first grade, in the winter, we would collect our jackets for recess, and then we would go back and sit at our desks until we were called to line up at the door. Because some children still needed help getting into mittens and hats and boots, this process could take quite a long time, and I began to create a little play world for myself by spreading out my coat on top of the desk. I would rest my chin on the desk and imagine these little stories that took place in the sleeves and collar and along the zipper. I would do this every day, and it got to the point when I looked forward to those five minutes at my desk more than I did the recess that came afterward. Ten years later, I wrote a monster mystery story for my English class, and it was inspired by that coat and the world I had created there.
I’m telling you about that because this book reminded me of why so many of stories start out with a tiny moment and grow from there. I get inspired by close observation of ordinary things. My first novel for NaNoWriMo started out with a man, who had just lost a very important briefcase, walking home in the rain; his attention is caught by a flooding sewer drain and the leaves snagged in the vortex of water. I started there because even though I didn’t know what story I wanted to write, I knew I could describe that scene. I figured it wouldn’t be so overwhelming to start a novel with something I knew this well, and it wasn’t.
Whenever I get stuck, this is my go-to writer’s block breaker. I call upon a memory of observation and I step back into that moment; then, once the juices are flowing, it’s easier to jump into unknown territory. I can’t help but be excited when I read a book like this that encourages that type of thinking and has a slew of new ideas for me. I can already imagine how much fun some of these “Explorations” could be with my husband or mother or friends. It’s easy to get caught up in my routines, even when I know that my brain explodes creatively when I try something out of the ordinary.
When I think about how easy I found it to play in huge, imaginary worlds when I was a child, I get jealous of my former self. I want to crawl on my belly through the forest playing spies and have a detective agency to run from the neighbor’s swing set. I want the magic I so effortlessly knew existed then to exist now, and Keri Smith has managed to give me a road map back to that kind of joyful living.
To learn more about Keri Smith, go to her awesome site here.