Clouds billowed in from the north today, hiding the critical sun, with its nasty habit of shining a light on my housekeeping deficiencies. They are many, and the sun is far worse than my mother ever was at pointing out cobwebs in the corners, and streaks and smears all over the ranch-sliders.
On a dull day, the windows look quite clean enough. I can still see the neighbours’ bottlebrush tree, hanging over the fence with its spiky red flowers, and the blue-green flash of tui wings dive-bombing the flax bush for nectar. It’s only when the sun shines that there seems to be a thin film of gauze making outside the glass seem a bit blurred – smudged at the edges like a pastel drawing.
I spent quite a long time today, considering windows. The expanse of plate glass in ranch sliders with a view of our driveway seems wasteful – they should be the other side of the house, looking out over the garden. At least the neighbours’ bottlebrush draws attention away from the car. The panels in the dining-room windows make it look like 18 mini-windows – each with their own specialised view of the roses. The two skinny panels of frosted glass in the front door, carved into diamonds by black lead, cast impressive geometric shadows on the wall when the sun shines.
Amongst the smears on the windows in our house are two sets of small handprints. The grandchildren love to use the windows as a lightbox – draw a picture, then hold it face up against the window and draw its reverse image on the back of the paper. I love seeing their resourcefulness.
When I was a kid, our front door had a round window, and when the sun was in the right direction, a perfect gold disc appeared on the hall carpet – as if the sun had fallen to earth, and chosen our house to gift with itself.
Generations of British kids cut their television viewing teeth on what could be seen through the Playschool windows. My favourite was always the arched window.
One window thought led to another. None of them quite coalesced into anything productive – yet. I was thinking windows because I’d received an email about a writing competition that closes next month. I don’t know what I will write yet – if there is an idea forming, the curtains are still closed on it! But it has to be about windows. It’s the theme of the contest, and even if I don’t get a poem written in time, that’s OK, I’ve still got a fascinating subject with plenty of potential to explore. Even if I put it aside to focus on other current writing projects, I’ll put it in my ideas notebook for another time.
An ideas notebook has been one of the best writing tools I have ever used. Although ‘notebook’ is a bit of a misnomer – more accurate is several notebooks kept in strategic places throughout the house, plus another in the car glovebox. When I want to write, but my mind is wiped clean of inspiration, I excavate my notebooks and flip through the pages until something sparks up a connection.
Sometimes those ideas are single words, like windows. Keys. Gravity (that was inspired by my grandson when he was six and learning about space and gravity, and was so excited by the concept, he wrote a poem). Others are half-written poems, or first lines and last lines with nothing in between. On the laptop I also have a long list of links bookmarked in an ‘ideas’ folder.
But how do you fill the notebooks in the first place? Where do you gather ideas from? Here’s a few of the ideas I always find pay dividends:
Your own life
You might not want to write autobiographical poems or stories, but events in your life are a great starting point for creative writing. What if is a good question to ask – what if I’d had a twin, learned to play piano, witnessed a murder, got lost in the city. What are your wishes, lies and dreams?
Sleep. Food. Weather. Kitchen utensils. Look around the room you are sitting in and write down 5, 10, 20 objects. Keep the list in your notebook. What did you have for your dinner? What stories lie behind the ingredients that made it on to your plate?
Newspapers and Magazines
These are a great source for ideas. Not just for current affairs, but also social for comment and local interest stories. Some newspapers offices might let you in to see their archived collection. Last year I was fascinated with the hunger stones that appeared across Europe because of the extreme drought, and wrote a poem in response.
Photos, paintings, pictures from print media. Take a trip to an art gallery and write some potential poem/story titles in response to the paintings. Using a title as a launch point for a creative piece is an interesting exercise.
Listen to something you’ve never heard before, or a favourite piece. Close your eyes and let the music play round you, then write whatever comes into your head in response.
Lyrics can also be a good source of inspiration – take the first or last line of another poem or song, and use it as the first line of yours. When you’re finished, replace that line with a different one of your own.
Write a list of 100 or so words – the first ones that come to mind, or picked at random from the dictionary – on separate slips of paper. Store them in an envelope. When you want to write, take a few slips out of the envelope and write someting using those words.
Keep a list of people who interest you – family, famous, historical or mythical people. British poet Carol Ann Duffy wrote The World’s Wife, looking at histories, myths etc usually known for the men involved from the point of view of their wives. Fantastic poems – and the possibilities are pretty much endless. Jot down things you observe people doing as you move through your own day. What was in that red bag that man on the bus was clutching so tight to his chest? Who was the women behind you at the supermarket check-out talking to on her phone?
Open the atlas at a random page or spin a globe. Close your eyes and see where your finger lands. Even if you can’t afford to travel, you can always write about other countries – or other places in your own country. Find out where your grandparents were born and write about their birth places.
Re-tell fairy tales and old legends, either from your own culture, or research the stories of another. Tell them from a different angle – was the witch in Hansel and Gretel really as wicked as the story says? What would she say for herself?
Mix and Match
Write about a historical person from the country your finger lands on in the atlas. Use five of your random words in a re-telling of Beowulf. In this poem, I wrote a specific form, and mixed food and place.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, by any means, but it’s a good launch point. The thing I find with ideas is having one often generates many others. My daughter suggests apples as a topic and I end up writing one poem about crop circles and another about buying bread at a Danish bakery. It’s win-win – I get two new poems and I still have apples on my ideas list for another time!