Finding Inspiration in the Low Places

The other day Galen and I were taking about art, and I raised a point about finding inspiration not only in great art but also in bad. She readily agreed, and stated that she’s almost more inspired by bad art than other things. See, in great art it can be difficult to appreciate all of its wonderfulness—individual aspects of genius are lost in the overall transformative experience of the work. You just know it’s great. But in bad art, every wart is apparent and you immediately see all of the things you would do differently.

Bad art inspires you to make something better. The same can be said about writing.

Before I get too far into this point, let me state that you need examples of greatness from which to learn. If you want to be a great artist, you need to look at the masters. If you want to be a great writer, you need to read great works of literature. Let these be your teachers—it is, after all, how they learned. But if you only ever use them as your guides it’s possible you may feel overwhelmed—how can you ever be good enough? And, worse, is there any point in trying?

These are defeatist thoughts, something we all suffer from at times. This is where exposure to weaker, poorly-crafted works come into play—they actively inspire you to try harder, to do better.

With a work of art, there are a number of components that make up the piece—composition, color, value, line or stroke quality, variation of scale, etc. Often when something is poorly done none of these aspects are handled well. Even still, the overall idea usually comes through—you get the intent, and you (if you’re an artist) see how you could do it better, or at least improve certain elements.

Written work is no different. A great many elements go into crafting a piece of writing—pacing, plot, character development, tone, word choice and sentence structure, etc. Again, when poorly done many of these elements fail, but the intent is usually obvious—and, as a writer, you see how you would have handled it differently. You may not be the best writer, but you know you could do better than this.

Additionally, when you look at enough bad work you start seeing patterns of common failures, things many people do poorly—and things you can learn to avoid yourself.

Here is where getting involved with slush* can be quite useful. Up until a week ago I had never read through a slush pile. While I was familiar with the process through peers (and reading about it), knowing about something and experiencing it directly are two different things. This has been very educational. Certainly there has been some wonderful submissions—really impressive work—along with the not-so-good, but there are also lots of interesting works which succeed in some ways and don’t in others—these perhaps are the most inspiring. The promise of—maybe not a great story but a good, well crafted piece—is there just begging to get out, if only the story was paced better, or the characters had more depth. Sometimes the failures are general sloppiness—a poorly edited manuscript, or a piece that received no proofing at all. These are fixable things, and seeing them so glaringly in another’s work will help me identify them in my own efforts.

At a minimum, I’ll come away with the idea that I could do better than most of the stories in this slush pile. I might be wrong, but at least I’m inspired to try—and sometimes that’s enough.

*The point of reading slush is to help craft a great anthology or magazine, but there is this added benefit of learning from others’ errors. I think every writer should experience this at some point in their career.

Perchance to Dream: Tapping Your Infinite Creativity

John R. Fultz is the author of the novels Seven Princes and the forthcoming Seven Kings, both from Orbit.  A native of Kentucky, he now lives in the North Bay Area, California. 

All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together. –Kerouac

It occurs to me that the act of writing, especially in the fantastic and speculative genres, is very much like the act of dreaming.

When we sleep, our subconscious mind constructs vignettes, narratives, adventures, terrors, and dramas for our dreaming mind to inhabit. The architectures of our deepest selves come bursting to life, and even though we sometimes feel at the mercy of our dreams, it’s worth recognizing that it is actually we, the Dreamers, who create our dreams.

In this respect, everyone is a writer. A writer of dreams, if nothing else. Scientists tell us that dreaming is an essential human function–those who cannot dream eventually go mad. Dreaming allows us to confront our deepest fears and desires, often without realizing that we are doing exactly that. It’s as if something essentially human inside us is writing stories that are crucial to our spiritual, mental, and emotional health.

We are born dreamers; in that same vein, we are born storytellers. What could be more human than telling stories? It’s one of our oldest and most primal skills…from fireside grunts to cave drawings to stone tablets and right on up to paperbacks and best-selling fiction.

The same deeply ingrained creativity that subconsciously creates dreams also creates the stories we write in our conscious hours. I know writers who have dreamed entire novels before (or while) writing them. Robert Silverberg’s SON OF MAN was written in this way. I’m sure the same has been done with short stories. How many of you reading this have turned the nugget of a dream into a full-fledged story–or a whole book?

I am accustomed to sleep and in my dreams to imagine the same things that lunatics imagine when awake. –Descartes

There is a definite, if mysterious, link between our ability to create convincing, immersive, powerful dreams and our ability to write fully realized fiction. In effect, when we write we are dreaming while awake. Our conscious mind shapes, hones, and transcribes these dreams, but it is the infinite font of creative consciousness that dwells deep inside all of us that serves as the soil in which these stories grow.

In other words, every story or book you write is a combined effort: the conscious and subconscious mind working in tandem to produce the desired results. Often, writers find themselves on a journey of discovery. Many of us know where we’re going, but are surprised at how we end up “getting there.” We tap into our subconcious–which taps into the great Idea Pool–the Universal Consciousness–Jung called it the Collective Unconscious–and we “fish” for ideas, scenes, plots, characters, entire WORLDS. We are the miners of dreams, turning raw stones into diamonds with our dedicated efforts.

When we write, we dream. When we dream, we write–if only for an audience of one.

Isaac Asimov once said “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” I submit that writing, for us all, is actually DREAMING through our fingers. Undistilled dreamstuff, flowing like lifeblood from the center of our being along the conduits of our arms, into our fingertips and so into the keyboard (or pen). That immortal flow continues, right onto the printed page (or screen), and directly into the heart-minds of our readers.

Therein lies the magic and majesty of the written word. It’s how we share our dream-visions across space and time. It can even provide us with a certain kind of immortality; the writer’s words often live far longer than the writer.

Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men. –Goethe

When I’m deep into the writing process on a novel (or even a story), my conscious mind is so involved with the story I’m weaving that when I go to sleep my dreaming mind often takes over. I write stories over and over in my dreams… often watching them play out before me in part or whole. Sometimes I emerge from this state of dream-writing and I’ve suddenly solved a problem in the narrative, or “caught” a great idea that seemingly came from nowhere. When your mind is in “high gear” crafting stories, it doesn’t want to stop–even when you sleep.

All of this culminates in some valuable advice for writers: Pay attention to your dreams.

Listen to that Sleeping Narrator because it is your direct line to the source of infinite creativity. If you’re having trouble with a story, try sleeping on it. Let your unconscious partner, your Sleeping Narrator step in and give you a hand. You can also try some transcendental meditation for tapping creativity…but that’s a subject for another day.

Dream On, Brave Dreamers…

Man is a genius when he is dreaming. –Kurosawa