Florilegia: Gathering from Your Literary Garden

October 5, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Signe Myers Hovem

As a writer I face the challenge of how to stay above cliché and contriteness; how to remain relevant and original. How to be authentic. And time after time, I find the unexplored parts of myself stimulated by the works of others, my feelings of unoriginality dispelled when I pick up a book, or look at art, or listen to music.

The role of the reader need not be limited to just consumer or reviewer. Reading is an opportunity to let the content lead you in your own creativity. When I finish a particularly stimulating book, I feel like I’ve been invited to a grand garden party with every memorable character or author I’ve read. “Who would I like to introduce to each other, or to another discipline, or to my own experience?” plays out in my writing as permission to mix, integrate and create new expressions from something that preexisted.

From a young age, my creative life sampled liberally from the books I took refuge in. I and my siblings were latchkey kids with a lot of unsupervised time that quickly devolved into its own land-locked Lord of the Flies. But everything I read formed a bridge out of my perceived trapped existence towards something expansive and extraordinary. The words, images, and music of others supported my own self-awareness and acceptance, starting my journey toward the writer’s task of conveying emotion with vivid immediacy.

As a ninth-grader grappling with the aftermath of my parent’s divorce, I grabbed the Theatre Arts class exam as my mouthpiece. Our final presentation was to interpret any subject of our choice. Perhaps I foresaw the multimedia presentations of the future, but in 1979, not wanting to utter more than a few sentences myself, I created a slide show, mashing up WWII battlefield and Holocaust photos to The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” I was in a lonely and painful place, and coupling an atrocity from history with an eerily succinct contemporary rock ballad helped me circulate the feelings that were stagnating and keeping me stuck.

This therapeutic outlet of sampling published bits to find my own voice continued into my journaling. I settled upon a hybrid form of being both reader and writer, blending inspiration and aspiration like an elixir that offered healing and served as an opportunity to express what felt forbidden. One entry came from borrowing two lines from The Kite Runner: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1976. I remember the precise moment, crouching down . . .” I, too, was twelve in 1976, and had a precise moment of crouching down behind a chair. After copying those sentences, I continued to describe my own precise moment in my journal, navigating into a slipstream behind Khaled Hosseini’s words, like popping the clutch in a moving car to start the engine. And once I could register the movement of my own voice coming forth, the prompt receded and what was ultimately expressed became fully my story to tell.

My process of gathering and combining passages is not unique or original, but it did manifest organically in my young mind as a way to connect and expand to something greater both inside and outside of myself. Maria Popova of BrainPickings.org refers to this fusion as networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity. Popova traces this method as far back as the 14th century when it was known as florilegia, from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.”

…florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, essentially mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to illuminate a specific topic or doctrine or idea. The florilegium is commonly considered one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture.

On my blog, Passages, I feature inspiring lines from books, connected with my own awareness, sensibilities, and curiosity. I’ve coupled Susan Tweit’s recent memoir of grief and loss, Bless the Birds, with interdisciplinary artist Melissa McGill’s project on collecting bird calls. Tweit’s connection to her dying husband, whose first symptoms of brain cancer appeared with a vision of thousands of birds, resembled to me the call and response of birds.

I’ve entertained poet Simon Armitage and the homeless experience of Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path in order to talk about the mystery of happenstance and how we can unknowingly be the benefactors of the prior interactions of strangers. 

Other authors are also creatively primed by other works. Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers functions as a remix of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”and Ted Hughes’ “Crow.” Reading Porter’s book during the pandemic helped me examine the role of collective grief.

Explore something new in your own morning pages or journaling; play with florilegia, or erasure, or using a random sentence from a book you’re reading to prime your own expression. For me, it’s captivating and energizing to gather deep thoughts and beautiful prose, tying them together lightly with my own ponderings and experiences. Bold and fresh, like a garden bouquet.

The Space in Between: An Empath’s Field Guide is now available.

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Signe Myers Hovem has created homes on five continents over twenty years, raised four uniquely sensitive children, pursued a special education lawsuit appealed to the US Supreme Court, volunteered in a hospice in Texas and an orphanage in Azerbaijan. Signe works as a spiritual counselor, and teaches workshops and trainings in the art of being an empath and the power of language in many countries around the world. Subscribe to Signe’s monthly newsletter at www.smhovem.com, or find her on Instagram @smhovem

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