It’s November and that means it’s National November Writing Month and, for the first time in three years, I’m not taking part. I used NaNoWriMo to complete the bulk of the drafts for Redeeming Brother Murrihy and Te Kauhanga. This year, either because of patience or fatigue, I’ve decided to leave writing until I have more time and energy during the summer months. In fact, I haven’t devoted much time to writing or marketing in the past five weeks, giving myself an extended break for the first time since October 2012.
These weeks have been about rest, but also about re-establishing a foundation for why I write books, an assurance that I am working from inspiration, not just perspiration. But tonight, I determined to renew my focus on my third novel. To motivate myself, I returned to a familiar well – Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative podcast. In particular, I listened to his episode, Stoking Your Curiosity. In this episode, Todd draws from his own book, Die Empty, relating the story of Roseanne Cash, whose father, Johnny Cash, wrote a list of 100 songs that would form her education in country music. Roseanne went on to record twelve of these songs for her 2009 release, The List (including a duet with my musical hero, Bruce Springsteen. Recently, Springsteen shared his own list of influential books in an interview with the New York Times).
In his podcast, Henry recommends creatives write their own list of “resources you should be intimately familiar with” and quotes Steven Sample who says that we should “commune with great minds.” In other words, we should revisit the resources which have impacted us in the past and make time to introduce ourselves to new resources we know will shape our future creative endeavours.
So, here is my list – a list I intend to immerse myself in over the next month or so, seeking a foundation of inspiration before the next period of perspiration, ensuring I am drawing from the best energy for my work; a list which is less about the specifics of the work, and more about tapping into my purposes, my core values, my motivations and aspirations. It’s a list that changes all the time and shouldn’t conform to one genre or medium, but instead reaffirm where I am at, and, at the same time, push me out of my comort zone.
This list is not written in order of importance and, like Roseanne Cash, I’ll stick to twelve:
1. The Accidental Creative Podcast – I started with Todd Henry’s podcast tonight for a reason. I listened to his episodes for years before I finally wrote my first novel. I credit him as one source that pushed me to make it happen. His tagline is “Cover bands don’t change the world – don’t be a cover band” and his interviews and analysis cover the creative process in multiple fields from business to the arts.
2. The War of Art – I first heard of Steven Pressfield’s book in an episode of the Accidental Creative. I’ve written about this gem elsewhere and I will certainly be re-reading it before and during the writing of my next book.
3. John Steinbeck’s Writing Advice – I keep a copy of this in my journal and in my Scrivener notes and regularly check back with it as I write my novels. I take every word of it seriously, and am especially convinced when he says,” In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
4. Neil Gaiman’s Writing Advice – I only discovered it this year, but Gaiman’s advice mirrors Steinbeck’s and is liberating to listen to (“Nobody cares about your first draft.”). Similar to Todd Henry, Gaiman advises that you read, view, listen to other stuff (“Tolkein didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies.”). His great revelation to which I can attest is that we “learn by finishing” and he reminds me that a novel is written one word at a time, a sentiment I use when running, reminding myself to just put one foot in front of the other.
5. The Power of Now – I’ve just finished reading Ekhart Tolle‘s book and parts of it have had a profound effect on me. I envision it will help in balancing my writing with other aspects of my life. Tolle teaches the truism that we only exist in the present, not in the past or the future and that, really, we can only do things in the moment. So, when I’m writing, I’m writing; when I’m at work, I’m at work; when I’m with family, I’m with family, etc. I need to meditate more on this as I bring the next major writing project back into play.
6. Into the Wild – I’ve watched the Sean Penn film several times and just read the John Krakauer book this year. While the ultimate fate of Christopher McCandless was a tragedy, I, like so many others am inspired by a story of the young man who went it alone, at least for a time. Ultimately, a writer has to spend large amounts of time alone – away from talk, away from Facebook and into the wilds of his own imagination and soul. The Eddie Vedder soundtrack is also now on my ipod. Like Thoreau’s Walden, Into the Wild reminds me to live and experience a life worth writing about. It also reminds me to get away from the computer, hop on my new bike and explore some more.
7. The News – I’ve always been a sporadic newzak, but during my break these past few weeks, I’ve followed several news stories from ISIL to Ebola to the Hong Kong protests. Al Jazeera is now one of my favourite sites for world news and related documentaries, but I also check the New Zealand Herald and the CBC. There are stories everywhere to provide information, elicit pathos and to stoke the imagination.
8. One Hundred Years of Solitude – I had barely heard of Gabriel Marquez until I read news of his death earlier this year. A conversation with a fellow bibliophile resulted in a loan of his 1982 Nobel Prize winning novel. I’m still reading it at the moment and am in awe of its audacity and ambition. It’s rich and dense and mad – wonderful stuff, and a daunting challenge to me to write a novel covering a greater expanse of time. More serendipity: Springsteen cites the Marquez novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, in his list.
9. Modern New Zealand Fiction – Reading modern New Zealand fiction, particularly that written by writers I am meeting, is a goal I set earlier this year and am progressively achieving. I am currently reading Julie Thomas‘ The Keeper of Secrets and Susan Tarr‘s Phenomena. Also on my Kindle is The Forrests by Emily Perkins. On my reading table is Kate Duignan‘s Breakwater.
10. David Adams Richards – Just as I was a late-comer to the work of Gabriel Marquez, I have only just discovered David Adams Richards, the Giller prize-winning novelist from New Brunswick, Canada. After downloading Crimes Against My Brother, my father recommended I first read Mercy Among the Children. I am hooked on this writer – small towns, bleak and violent lives, realistic dialogue and characterisation. I need to read more.
11. Talking Funny & It Might Get Loud – On a lighter side, and returning to the creative process, I’ve found and re-watched this wonderful video featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock and Louis C.K. in which they interview each other about their methods. It’s a very similar format to the documentary It Might Get Loud featuring Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. Again, following sound advice, but also just immersing myself in things I find truly helpful and fun, leads me to genre and media outside my own.
12. Bruce Springsteen Catalogue – Well, this one is ongoing for me and it has been for decades. While I love all sorts of music, I continue to find new things in Springsteen’s work and count him as one of the great minds I commune with. Too much to explain here, but I am currently obsessed with his song The Promise and am learning from his structure as well as from his ability to inject hope into an otherwise utterly dispairing environment. Best line:
All my life I fought this fight
The fight that no man can never win
Every day it just gets harder to live
This dream I’m believing in
If you enjoyed this post and would like to jot your own list, please share in the comment section. I’m off to get inspired before the real work begins.
Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand and the author of Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River to Hiruharama and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s).