Back home from the West Coast now, contemplating the last week of my sabbatical-from-bread-and-butter-writing and thinking about how to manage the fall tasks.

I’m feeling more rested than when I began the sabbatical, but I haven’t yet made much progress in getting back to writing some fiction. There’s a bit from Dorothy Sayers’s mystery Gaudy Night that keeps coming back to me. Sayers’s heroine Harriet Vane is a mystery novelist, which means that (like me) she writes for a living. Unlike me, she can go and hang out in Oxford for her sabbatical. Also she has an aristocratic admirer who’s dying to marry her and shower her with money, but that’s another subplot even further removed from my daily existence.

Anyway, she returns to Oxford and, for a time, spends her days reading and thinking about matters which have nothing to do with her daily work. Sayers writes that, in the silence, something comes “back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old, innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the presence of the struggle for existence…began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, like the great carp from the depths of the pool, swam up out of her dreaming mind.”

I like that metaphor. The singing voice, like a great golden fish: it darts away if you try to grasp it. You have to lure it in, waiting for it to flick into view and hover there.

(The Mercury Fountain in Christ Church’s Tom Quad in Oxford–I think Sayers had these particular carp in mind)

So how do you lure a fish?

When the boys were smaller, we used to take them down to my neighbor’s pier on the Chickahominy so that they could fish off the sides. They adored this, but by the time they were done leaping up and down on the boards with joy, screaming with excitement, and hurling bits of bait into the water, the fish had prudently absented themselves. My daily routine has made it increasingly difficult to lure the singing voice; so much of what I do–not necessarily the writing itself, but all of the work that surrounds it–seems to act like a little boy’s boots, driving the barely-seen imagination back into hiding.

For me, these are imagination-killers. There’s a time and place for all of these things, but they ruin the fishing:

Watching TV
Cruising the Internet
Reading Publisher’s Weekly
Aerobics classes
Wandering around New York

And then there are the imagination lures:

Reading (almost anything)
Music (particularly classical, folk, sometimes soundtracks)
Drinking tea (I adore coffee, but it oils the gears of the money-making machine; it doesn’t do much for my imagination)
Complete quiet and solitude
Coffeeshops where I don’t know anyone
A restaurant meal alone
Walking or running by myself

(A road I hiked in Scotland…a moment I’d like to return to)

At this particular moment, I’m reading King Lear and A. S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden,; listening to the Two Towers soundtrack, Bach fugues, and Susan Enan(I like “Bring on the Wonder” and “Monoplain”). And waiting.

I’m up for suggestions, particularly from you other creative types.

Showing 14 comments
  • Jenn

    This is a boring admission to make, but I get my inspiration from great autobiographies!

    Ben Carson’s “Gifted Hands” is one favorite, as is any memoir that invites me inside the personal life of a great individual. The juxtaposition of their great discoveries with the seemingly ordinary circumstances of their upbringing is exciting; it is comforting to know that the great ones I am trying to emulate actually put their pants on one leg at a time, too. Then I feel ready to break away from my own everyday, normal self and be the great achiever I know I can be!

  • Elena

    Susan goes to my church in Brooklyn! Isn’t she awesome! I can’t wait until her album comes out. Bring on the Wonder is my favorite too!

  • Justin

    You listed “drinking tea” as one of your imagination lures, but Inquiring Minds want to know: what KIND of tea?
    Chai? Earl Grey? Peppermint? Oolong? Rooibos? good old fashioned southern iced tea?

  • Larry_D

    I find that meditation is great for focus and imagination (especially with lots of kids and noise). Practicing the clearing out unwanted thoughts is useful when needed for creating or focusing on details. In addition, another little trick it to tell yourself at the start of your meditation that you wish no new ideas at the time, you just want to meditate (dont’ think of pink elephants!).


  • Lynn in WI

    A walk in the woods (sounds like you’re already doing that) and poetry.

    And Hersheys with almonds.

    But mostly solitude, out of doors with your favorite poet.

    How does that sound?

  • Amy

    This is off the subject, but…

    Just wanted to say thank you for your SOTW books. As I write this, my kids are sumo wrestling their father in the living room! I don’t think they’ve had so much fun since last year, when they painted their faces blue and battled as Celtic warriors. We absolutely love the curriculum. Thanks!

  • Chris

    I like to go to a bookstore, a really big one and be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of words between those bindings! I have this dream of reading EVERYTHING there but I am soon brought back to reality. Just the thought of trying to stay awake reading the Sunday paper shakes me out of it. (It gets worse the older I get for some reason.) However when I am actually reading and not just dreaming about it, I do find it easier to stay awake when I am gulp rather than sip. Beware of sipping the tea of blogs!

  • Under the Sky

    Well, what really usually motivates my mind is a nice dinner with friends, could be Chinese or Italian, red flights, and lots of laughter. Laughter is wonderful creative medicine.


  • A Circle of Quiet

    With flights, Kate? Yes, with flights.

    I do not relate to the tea thing. I’ll go for decaf coffee if I don’t want to be too hyper. Somehow tea just doesn’t ring my muse chimes.

    Solitude does, though. Which is probably why I end up getting all bottlenecked in my mind. Not much solitude around here. When I get time, it needs to be long enough for the kinks to work out and the thoughts to start flowing.

    What I find difficult to balance is the discipline vs. creativity aspect. Sometimes the words just.aren’t.there. But how will I ever know if I don’t write in spite of that possibility?

    Oh, a pedicure is a creativity boosting activity, too….life changing, in fact. My fire engine toes still sing to me (-:

    Enjoy these last days of September,

  • Heather Quintero

    Hi Susan,

    I had your email once upon a time, but it seems to be gone in the coffee-ignited, electrical fire that struck our (former) laptop. So, you get a blog comment instead of a nice email. I wanted to tell you again how much we enjoyed worshiping at Peace Hill. It was good for our souls. Please be praying for us as we look for a church here in Lynchburg.

    A friend gave me the book, Revolution, by George Barna. I am reading it and his research is interesting concerning the “demise” of the local church. It seems possibly flawed to me… I think his survey question is not clear. However, his description of the sources of dissatisfaction with the local church resonate. It is rare (at least in my experience) and exciting to run across a church as authentic and as “unchurchy” as Peace Hill.

    Your son, Ben (I think, the drummer?) was so sweet playing with Elias. I would have liked to bring him home with us to amuse the little guy in the car. If you all are ever headed our way, we would love to see you. If not, we’ll stop by Peace Hill again when we get the opportunity.

    : )

  • Heather (yes another one)

    How about sitting outside in the rain. I’m not sure what it is, but it purifies and allows me to start over.

    Sitting on the porch or underneath a tree. If you can find a spot somewhere in the city (I live in Seattle) and just watch all the people walk buy in the rain it’s amazing.

    It smells clean and fresh and new. The rain always inspires something new for me.

  • Jenny Wells

    Susan, I don’t know how to balance the life of production with the life of creation yet, simply because nothing seems to dry up the juices faster than facing deadlines. This may not be the case for others. And maybe once your deadlines and creative endeavors meet, it is less than a problem. That is the season of my creative process I find myself in…trying to eliminate deadlines that keep me from creating, yet continuing to live a disciplined life.

    Thank you so much for coming to Sacramento.

  • Anita

    My favorite thing to do is to head over the Panera Bread and have my pile of books with me, as well as a lap top and a huge cup of coffee in some form and a fat free blueberry muffin. There’s always a nice quiet place in the back in the late afternoon.

  • Loreen

    I write math problems, so the Internet and newspapers and conversation and meeting new people all stimulate ideas. Just NOT thinking about what the writing schedule tells me I should think about often works – then the ideas begin to force themselves onto my consciousness, almost as if they feel ignored.

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