What fuels my writing process—aside from caffeine and chocolate? Sometimes I’m tempted to turn to books that are far too familiar or similar to what I’m writing. (And sometimes that is just what my process needs.) But I am often better served by books (or other media) that are “foreign” to me in some way. Whether it’s poetry, essays, science writing, or other nonfiction, books written by authors from another culture or country, new music, or art galleries, I think exploration “shakes things up,” allowing the unexpected to percolate through my subconscious and enrich my work.
For example, this past month or two, I’ve read (or have read portions of) the following:
Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
StretchyHead by Ian Tuttle
Good Offices by Evelio Rosero
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Underground America compiled and edited by Peter Orner
Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher
McSweeney’s Issues 23 and 25
Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
Words for Empty and Words for Full by Bob Hicok (poetry)
Gathering Light a photoessay by Richard Ross with text by Dave Hickey and Eduardo Cadava
This doesn’t mean I make a reading list. I just let serendipity happen, often by wandering through sections of a good bookstore.
Last night at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, I read a paragraph of a book I didn’t buy, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, although I wanted to. (It is a beautifully designed book.) In a digression, the author, Ivan Vladislavic, noted that a photograph doesn’t provide an innate sense of chronology, unlike most narratives.
So as I stood next to the bookshelf and stared off into the middle distance, I considered that each photo, a single instant with no past and no future, forces the photographer to supply a narrative (if desired), through written text or by selective arrangement in a series. Viewers, in turn, can either see each captured moment as a single artifact, or impose their own narrative.
I’m sure this information is at work somewhere in my subconscious, forging new connections. I thought about the author’s statements as I looked at photos from someone’s travels in India displayed on the wall of the ice cream store (Toy Boat) down the street from Green Apple.
I came home and pulled out a photo essay, Gathering Light, and examined how the quality of light affects perception and our sense of time passing. And then I thought about how photos produced through camera obscura techniques or those with extremely slow shutter speeds tend to have a different quality than standard photographs produced at high shutter speeds.
Does the amount of time put into the making of a photograph have something to do with how it is viewed? Do certain images contain a sense of narrative?
I’m now sitting at my PC, knowing that the synapses are firing. Who knows what will come of it, something small (a word or a gesture in a story) or something grand (an entire novel). Thoughts to consider as you scavenge fuel for your own writing process.