I used to see things in the clouds. And then one day, I realized I didn’t anymore. I was hanging out with my daughter and she pointed into the sky and said, “Daddy, look! A bunny!” For the life of me, I had to strain to make it out; the puffy white water particles in the atmosphere were ‘just clouds’ and I felt a pang of loss. That realization prompted this poem.
“What do you see there in the clouds, my child?”
I could tell the imagination was running wild.
“A hawk that’s a-hunting, a ship with one mast,
Two hands clasped in prayer, a horse running fast,
A mandrake root that’s caught fire, and a giant sleeping,
There’s a dragon with two heads, and a princess weeping.”
The list was so boundless, I had little choice
But to listen to the lilt of my small child’s voice
As the dreams soon transformed to become moving shapes
Depicting new stories of snares and escapes.
The tales were all told with wide eyes and deft hands
And I learned of strange people from faraway lands.
I’ve committed to memory my child’s words and songs,
For to me, my dear youngster no longer belongs;
The wide world has called, with its whispers of secrets;
Led my young one away, left me home with regrets,
Of words left unspoken, of love shown too late,
So, alone I remember, and alone I still wait.
—Avril Montaigne, poet to the King of North Ka’anakar
from his work Family Matters
Nowadays, I have to work very diligently to be imaginative. Because it doesn’t come freely to me anymore. I have to depend on remembered snatches of dreams; I have to do little practice drills of “free association writing” to glean odd images and juxtaposed ideas; and I have a tendency to look around at what the rest of the writing world is doing. All this in order to prime the pump so my Muse will take a drink and ramble on about fantastical scenes, incredible creatures, and unforgettable characters.
Young writers, however, seem to come wired for the phantasmagorical. They seem to be the observant ones, the ones who absorb a wealth of knowledge about our world and then find ingenious ways to put a different spin on even mundane objects. They seem to view the universe as if from an altered plane of existence, glancing into the little chinks and cracks, coaxing out the pretty little creatures, and turning them into their personal pets.
It reminds me of the example of Kate Bush, who wrote, choreographed, and sang the song “Wuthering Heights,” based on the book by Emily Bronte. I watched a YouTube video wherein quite a few celebrities tried to pigeonhole Bush’s eclectic spirit and her wide-ranging talents. These two quotes resonated with me about Kate in particular, and young artists in general.
“I’d never heard anything like it before. It was like banshee music. This absolute other-worldly voice, singing about a book. And, as a bookish kid, I was always fascinated by anything…any music…that seemed to be about or inspired by books.” – Neil Gaiman, Author
“For that to have come out of someone’s brain—period—is a remarkable feat. For that to have come out of someone’s brain at seventeen years old… This incredible song…incredible song…” – Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, Composer, Singer, Actress, Director
Young Artists of every kind, and Writers in particular. I envy them. I wish I was still one of them. I’m doing my utmost to sneak back into their camp and pretend to be one of them. But how does an old dog relearn these new tricks?
- Just do it — Jump in and write, something, anything. Can’t edit what’s not written.
- Don’t filter — Whatever comes out of your pen / pencil / keyboard / voice recorder is your material. You’ll find a way to fashion the cloth into a usable garment.
- Go to extremes — You can always rein in the ideas after you’ve let them romp about for a while. Taming them to stay on the page is the revision work.
- Examine the sublime — Look for the minutest detail by turning up the magnification. You won’t necessarily use every bit, only the important stuff that adds flavor to the story so your Readers will savor it.
- Flip it opposite — Take the mundane and view it in a mirror. Looks different, doesn’t it? Now use a Fun House mirror on it to see how far from the original you go.
- Live there — Be an inhabitant in the world you’ve created. Wander around the landscape, stalk the critters in their natural habitat, corner some of the natives and ask them about their loves and hates. Take along a journal so you don’t miss anything.
- First time new — Pretend you’re non-native / alien / just born. How do you associate and describe the world with those ‘first time seeing it’ eyes?
If you are and ‘older’ Writer–like me–do yourself a favor: partner with, or at least hang around with, one or more of the next generation. You’ll be amazed at the variety, the beauty, the complexity, and the vitality they weave into the tales they tell. If you can add anything else to their efforts, perhaps it’s guidance and structure. But don’t ever try to fit them into any particular box, because they’re still growing and changing. They’re not yet finished discovering who they are as Writers. Neither should you be…