I met Patricia Parsons, author of several non-fiction and fiction works, at my daughter and son-in-law’s wedding. In that strange process of serendipity, Patricia has now moved from Halifax to Toronto and become a friend. Her novel Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow is a compelling story with the premise that Hildegard of Bingen may not have written all the music attributed to her. Today, Patricia muses on the notion of creative cross-training.
Finding Writing Inspiration in Creative Cross-Training by Patricia (P.J.) Parsons.
A few years ago the magazine Fast Company published a piece by writer Jane Porter (who writes both fiction and non-fiction herself) called “Five Ways to be Inspired by Your Everyday Life.” Her suggestions about feeding our curiosity, learning to manage risks, un-programming our thinking, using creative exploration and scrutinizing the unfamiliar all carried within them a single thread of commonality: each of them suggests to us that inspiration is fired by doing something different. I could not agree more – and have thought this same thing for many years.
The idea is probably not original to me, but over the years, I’ve subscribed to the notion of what I call creativity cross-training. I’ve observed its positive inspirational outcomes; I’ve taught it to university students; I’ve practiced it myself.
Everyone knows what cross training is when it comes to athletic performance. For example, if runners want to improve their performance, they often take up other sports such as strength training or fitness classes. Each of these activities focuses on a different aspect of a runner’s physical prowess, and when practiced regularly, all work to improve performance in the athlete’s main activity – in this case running. Writers can use the same approach.
It’s been a long time now, but I first stumbled upon this when I signed up for a sketching course while I was in the middle of writing one of my first pieces of fiction. An abysmal visual artist – or so I thought – I diligently attended weekly classes with a local artist who patiently and painstakingly guided us through various exercises that were initially focused on really looking carefully at objects so that we could discern details – light, shadow, line – then commit those detailed visuals to paper. I thought I’d never be able to do it, but over the course of a few weeks, I found myself really looking at things in my own life very closely, trying to discern details. I had almost inadvertently begun to improve my observational skills that translated into better writing.
Just recently, I returned to an old artistic pursuit that I had given up years ago as a result of lack of time. I returned to designing and sewing clothes. This time, though, older and wiser, I decided to focus on learning new skills, skills that turned out to be just as painstaking as the sketching adventure. I decided to learn about couture sewing.
This focus on couture stemmed from my long-time fascination with the world of the French couturiers back in the days when the designers whose fashion houses bear their names to this day actually did the designing, and the most important one as far as I’m concerned, was Chanel. I was fascinated with her impact on what we continue to wear today, her place in the social history of Europe, and most especially her ability to create a life for herself out of nothing. I was thinking about this one day a few weeks ago when I was laboriously hand-stitching (there are many hours of hand-stitching in a couture jacket!) a silk charmeuse lining into a bouclé jacket that I was making as an homage to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel when it struck me.
What I was really doing that day was research – research for one of my next books. This creative cross-training forced me to think about some work that already inhabited an electronic file folder that held the first chapter of a future book. The story in the folder began in 1927 in the Paris atelier of the designer Madeleine Vionnet as I had envisioned it. Suddenly, as I sat there sewing tiny stitch after tiny stitch with lengths of black, silk thread, I realized that my story was of a different era. It would have to begin in 1954 at the Chanel atelier as work progressed on Chanel’s first collection since her return to Paris after a fifteen-year absence – the year she created her first little French jacket as they are now known.
Inspiration, as any writer knows, comes from anything and everything. Sometimes, though, capturing those sights, sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts that lead to true inspiration needs a bit of help.
Leonard Bernstein once said this: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time…The wait is simply too long.” Perhaps part of that approach might be artistic cross-training. At least it is for me.
Many thanks for being on the blog today, Patricia. I look forward to reading your next novel!
Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow – It is 1106 when an eight-year-old girl named Hildegard comes from Bingen in Germany to live with Lysanor of Rupertsberg. One of the girls will become a twenty-first-century saint and icon—a mystic, physician, teacher, and, most importantly, a composer. The other will make her mark on the world as a grace note—the woman in the shadow. As their lives intertwine, two vastly different girls begin to build a friendship that will eventually lead both into experiences they never could have imagined.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016.
Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.