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Multicultural Muses : The Story as Muse

Multicultural Muses

The Story as Muse

By Molly J. Anderson-Childers

How can the stories of other writers — true or fictional — inspire and inform our own work? Writers are often voracious readers, and with good cause. We have much to learn from the stories, letters, diaries, and memoirs of others. Art projects and writing prompts based on your favorite books and authors can be an interesting way to use stories as a jumping-off point to inspire new work. Also, reading is a good way to learn the basics of writing your own stories, and to familiarize yourself with the tools and mechanics of the writing trade. It is often given as a general rule for writers to read the type of work that they themselves wish to write. If you want to write romance novels, you must read romance novels, young writers are generally told.

My own advice is to read a little bit of everything — literary promiscuity is your watchword. Be bold and unafraid to try new things. I have found many new favorite authors this way. The classics have a lot to teach — but so do the modern-day poets printing their own zines in secret, dingy rooms. Raw unfiltered genius, hot off the presses — but you'd never know that unless you picked up that little broadside in the local coffee-shop. Read anything you can get your hands on. Read every Banned Book you can find. Read anything classified as subversive, rebellious, revolutionary.

You will find some extraordinary ideas this way. You'll also find a lot of bloated rants, soap-box conspiracy theorists, and plain old bad writing — but I maintain that you can even learn from the horrible stuff — you can soon begin to recognize it, judge it for what it is, and learn how not to write.

For the purposes of my discussion today, I have chosen several of my favorite novels: Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood; The Only True Genius in the Family, by Jennie Nash; White Oleander, by Janet Fitch; The Incantation of Frida K., by Kate Braverman; and The Probable Future, by Alice Hoffman. These remarkable works of fiction are books which I have found to be truly inspirational. I also wish to include the works of memoirist Mary Karr: The Liars' Club, and Cherry in this discussion. Her bare-bones truth-telling style speaks to me on a gut level. She's one writer who's not afraid to tell it like it is, and in this age of politically correct mealy-mouthing, that is something of a relief.

These books — though some are novels, and others, deeply personal memoirs — all share a common theme, and one which truly speaks to me. In these books, the main character is an artist, writer, or other unusually gifted soul who must come to terms with and accept her unique gifts, ultimately discovering the healing and redemptive powers of creative work and following one's dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As a struggling artist and writer, reading these books has inspired me to continue my creative work, no matter what obstacles stand in my way, and to dare to believe in my dreams.

Look for books with a universal theme that speaks to you. Read to inform your own work: Dialogue, strong characters, setting, plot, pacing — all of these things are essential parts of a story. Some writers do them well; some do them badly — again, you can learn from everyone, even if you're learning what not to do. How do your favorite writers tell a story? How do they deal with flash-backs? Dream sequences? Memories? Does the story's language and pacing hook you from the beginning, or does it take a few chapters to get really interesting? When you're especially intrigued by a certain character, stop to ask yourself why. What is it about this character that is real, believable, and engaging? And if the character just doesn't work, ask yourself why not. Where are the false notes; what is off-putting or awkward about the way he speaks, and acts? Find out how the masters do it. Pick things apart, and take whatever tools you have in hand to practice these methods for yourself, and use them to inform and improve your own work.

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