Feeding the Compost Pile: Finding Sources of Inspiration that Expand Our Writing World
January 17, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Jaye Viner
I recently finished Paul Tremblay’s collection of short stories, Growing Things. In the back matter, he talks about how he envies writers who always have more ideas than they have time to write. After graduate school, I was anxious about keeping my idea trough full. Neil Gaiman calls it the ‘compost heap,’ which is still stinky but has more positive associations with growing things than with pigs overeating in the mud. For four years prior to graduation, writing classes and the community of teachers and fellow students had provided that constant idea stream that Tremblay so envies. I didn’t have money to spend on more tuition and I had no idea what a writer does to feed themselves. What follows is a list of inexpensive ways I learned to add fuel to my compost heap after school.
The first thing I did was what every writer is always being told to do: read. ‘Best of’ lists, recs from everyone I’d ever met, every source listed in an article I liked. I tried to read about things I didn’t know. But it’s hard to find books when your only search parameter is ‘what I don’t know.’ It was easy to get overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities.
The second thing I did was pay for a year of Masterclass. This was cheaper than getting my hair done and it gave me access to the expertise of people I would never have thought to learn from like Jane Goodall, and Natalie Portman. Not only have these classes broadened my understanding of the world, they’ve given me specialized vocabulary and access into their worlds. Each class comes with a workbook and references, your own curated reading list on a topic you’ve just begun to explore. One caveat, the nonfiction writing experts on Masterclass are limited. But for school addicts like me, it can be a playground of new craft tools and new concepts.
The third thing I did was dedicated time to being online. Note: I do not mean procrastination or floating aimlessly on a newsfeed. This was a strategic, ten minutes in the morning, ten at night to do specific things. I followed the people whose books I read and set alerts so I would know when they texted, because otherwise you never see what you want to see, especially on Twitter. I also joined several Binders groups on Facebook to expand my network of writer friends. Binders groups are a great way to see what a diverse cross-section of people are doing and draw from their successes and stories of common struggle.
The fourth thing I did was download the Duolingo app and commit to studying Mandarin for fifteen minutes as a daily mental practice. Those fifteen minutes take me out of my reality. They give me access to means of expression that are fresh and vibrant. I come back to English seeing it differently.
The Fifth thing I did was take classes on Coursera. Many are free, college-like classes you complete at your own pace. I took a class on Transmedia Storytelling which transformed how I think about author branding online. I’m about to start an entry-level programming class. I’m terrified, but I’m also thrilled.
Obviously, sources of inspiration can come from anywhere. I might be the only person on the planet who worries about where my ideas will come from next. Well, me and Paul Tremblay. Maybe this list isn’t something to inspire so much as broaden. Another book I read recently, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David J. Epstein, argues that the most successful people got that way by doing more than the specific thing they’re famous for. In grad school, I believed that specializing in one genre, and studying only writing, would equate with success. These last two years have been about giving myself permission to generalize and trust that the broad can be just a valuable as the specific.
Jaye Viner is a dabbler in language and color and narrative. She likes cohabitation with walking fur bombs of the feline variety and eating the food. All of the food. She knows just enough about a wide variety of things to embarrass herself at the parties she never attends. Find her on Twitter @JayeViner or Instagram @Jaye_Viner