In this session, we will talk about how we can find inspiration in other disciplines of art. We will choose one specific theme or situation, and practice going deeper, writing about the same theme from various perspectives. This exercise will help you explore a theme of interest to you and contribute towards finding your own unique style and voice. If you’re writing a novel, it can be a complementary project that will feed and enrich your work.
The idea behind this week’s writing exercise was inspired by a combination of three separate art projects I have come across recently. Each one inspired me to explore this approach, but only when taken together was I able to see the strength in it and the endless possibilities this approach offers when applied to the craft of writing.
100 times: Before sitting down to write at night, I like to take long walks. These serve as a transition activity, separating between my daily routine and the time dedicated for writing. Walking clears my head, gives me the necessary time to wind down, and lets new ideas in. Sometimes, when I feel depleted of ideas, or need motivation, I like to listen to podcasts about writing, mostly interviews with writers who talk about their work.
The podcast that set this idea in motion was Ron Hogan’s Life Stories, episode #107. In this episode, Hogan interviews Chavisa Woods, author of 100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism. The book is based on a simple concept: it’s a catalogue describing 100 incidents of sexual harassment Woods has experienced since her childhood and throughout her life.
A Collection of 100 days projects: The interview with Woods reminded me of an article I read about Janet Willis who lost her mother, “Beauty in Grief: Durham woman creates 100 days of art from her mother’s funeral flowers.” Again, a simple concept, focusing on one theme. Willis created beautiful pieces of art, mostly figures of animals and people, from her mother’s funeral flowers. I followed her art on Instagram, as I also recently lost my mother. I felt close to her, as we were both using our art to process the pain and grief of losing our mothers. After her 100 days of creating art from the dried flowers, she has embarked on creating 100 watercolor postcards with the words You Inspire Me, which she is sending to people who inspire her. She has an Instagram account called “A Collection of 100 days projects.” (You don’t need an Instagram account to see her posts).
100 ways to paint an animal
I have recently taken up painting with watercolors. I’m not any good at it, mostly I just paint abstract doodles before my writing sessions as a form of meditation, grounding, and connecting with my work. Also, I’m always interested in artists’ processes. I’ve taken a couple of online courses in illustration (links are provided at the end), and in both courses the illustrators talk about a similar process, which entails painting the same object – in their case an animal – hundreds, if not thousands of times. They talk about discovering your own style through this. The exercise is simple. You choose an animal, say a fox. You then paint the same fox in as many different styles (silhouette, black and white, abstract, caricature, realistic) using as many different materials as possible (watercolor paper, canvas, ink, graphite, watercolors, oil paints, pastels, acrylics, tea water). During this process, the fox undergoes endless transformations, you get the opportunity to experiment with different materials, explore various styles, ultimately ending up with your own unique rendition of the fox.
- (Links to the illustration courses I took are provided at the end).
Writing our own collection of 100
Now let’s see what we can do with this concept when applied in writing. The possibilities are endless, and I am only describing some of them here as examples to encourage you to devise your own project.
Take your time choosing your subject. Write down a list of themes/situations, even if you don’t think you will be able to write 100 pieces about them. Add to the list whenever you come up with additional ideas. When you have a list of about 10-15 themes, choose the one that speaks to you the most, the one you wish to explore.
Start by writing short pieces about your theme. These can be as short as 200-300 words. The first few pieces are exploratory, so don’t worry about the quality of your writing at this stage, or whether you’re making sense or not. Don’t abandon your subject after a few short pieces. If you think you have all but exhausted the subject, push yourself beyond. Take some time off, work on a different project (you can always go back to your character sketches we started last time), then come back to it with fresh eyes. If, after a few more attempts, you’ve run out of ideas, you can discuss the theme with a close friend or your partner, they might give you a fresh perspective on it.
Keep writing even if some of the pieces seem bland to you. Go into deeper water. Try a different form. Play around, have fun. But if you feel you’re suffering, you don’t connect to the subject, you truly hate your theme, you can always go back to the initial list and choose a different subject. There are no rules.
When you’re choosing your subject, take into consideration your writing aspirations. If you’re trying to develop your skills in writing articles, choose an overarching theme you might want to write about in the future. If you’re dreaming of publishing a collection of short stories or personal essays, you may want to go with a more flexible theme. Think about the issues you’d like to deal with in your collection of stories or personal essays. Such a collection, when published in a book, should have a theme that binds the pieces together. If you don’t have anything in mind yet, don’t worry about it. It will reveal itself to you as you go. Just choose a theme that interests you and which you’d like to explore in more depth. The pieces you write in this project can then serve you as a source for your future work, in the same way as the character sketches we discussed last time.
From now on, this will be one of our ongoing writing projects. It will push the limits of your creativity and flex your thinking muscles. You don’t have to stick with facts, you can embellish, change, play around with various endings. Some of these may end up inspiring you to write a short story, or a conversation end up in a story you’re working on.
If you’re writing a novel, this writing project will help you go deeper. Take the central theme of your novel (belonging, loss, love, home, identity, or whatever your central theme is) and explore its meaning in these short pieces. Write from the different characters’ perspectives. The writing will help you explore your theme in more depth and discover additional meanings to your theme than the one you initially had. Often, a supporting secondary character will hold a differing opinion or belief about an issue than your main character. This exercise will help you explore these different meanings. Turn your theme inside out and upside down. The writing pieces can be a sounding board, a source, or an inspiration for scenes in your novel.
Additional examples of 100 themes/situations
100 encounters with my quirky neighbor (see my own piece of writing about our neighbor from session 2)
100 silly/funny arguments with my partner/daughter/son/sister/brother/mother-in-law
100 times of forgiveness
100 talks/dinners with my mother/father/in-laws
A dictionary of 100 meanings of the concept of home/belonging (or a concept of your choosing)
100 meanings of love/kindness – a while back, I had a craving for something sweet, but it was well after midnight and I was too tired to even get into the car and drive to the kiosk. My partner made me pancakes, and I had one of those melting moments when I realized that this is what love means.
100 pieces about a specific theme. In the first session, we wrote about borders, and I offered a number of different perspectives on borders (see the help card attached to that session). Just off the top of my head, I can already think about at least twenty pieces on borders, each with a completely different take on the meaning.
100 things I didn’t tell my mother/father/partner – in the memoir I am working on now, I describe several scenes of sexual harassment I’ve experienced throughout my life and which I never told my mother about. Is there a subject you have never talked about with your mother? Write about it.
You can also use your own unique experiences as belonging to a certain group or having a certain identity. Experiences, incidents, or encounters that have made you feel uncomfortable, funny incidents, incidents that made you feel you belong, or encounters that evoked in you certain feelings. You can write about any part of your identity in the same way: are you a woman in hijab? A person of color? An immigrant? A person with disabilities? An ethnic minority? Do you belong to the LGBTQI community? You might end up with a collection of short stories, with characters encountering various situations relating to their identities. You can match these situations with characters from the character sketches we did in the last session. You might end up with a collection of personal essays. These experiences can also serve you as a source for a novel. The possibilities are endless.
Whatever the theme you choose, you don’t have to decide what the end result will be. Start writing and see where it takes you. Let the theme reveal the format and structure to you.
Let’s inspire one another
In the comments, share with us the theme you chose. You can let us know why you decided to write about a particular theme. I also encourage you to share with us some pieces you wrote on your theme. I would love to hear from you how this writing project is inspiring you in your writing.
The illustration courses I talk about are offered by Domestika:
Botanic Animal House: Watercolour, Ink and Graphite, by Violeta Hernández
Illustration Techniques to Unlock your Creativity, by Adolfo Serra
You don’t have to take these courses to get inspired by these artists. All you have to do is browse their Instagram accounts: Violeta Hernández, Adolfo Serra. It doesn’t have to be these artists specifically, you can browse and discover the work of artists who inspire you, share their work with us, and tell us how they inspire you.
- This workshop is made public, and it is part of an ongoing creative writing journey. If you enjoyed it, if it has inspired you in your writing, please consider becoming a Patron in order to have access to the previous workshops as well as to future ones. My Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/khulud_khamis