Writing Inspiration Through Peer Interaction

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Talking to other writers and artists about their projects can help bring up new ideas and approaches to your own pieces of work-in-progress. About a month ago, I joined a writer’s group here in the city; what I’ve found is that reading the work of my peers helps remind me of the books, plays, films and other artworks which have inspired and influenced me over time.

This week, I thought I’d share some of the pieces that have come up for me in the course of interacting with other artists this week.

Our Town. A classic American play that I’ve managed never to see; a play that I brought to writer’s group drew a comparison in a particular scene to the mood of this piece. So I’ll be on the lookout for a copy of the script, or productions in NYC, to see what I can learn from this piece my scenes evoked in my audience.

Intentionality in the use of language and symbolism. This topic came up a couple of times in writer’s group, both in relation to my play and another piece. Someone pointed out an extremely powerful image in a play I’ve been revisiting, and asked about how that image recurs later in the piece, how the theme is expressed and what it ultimately teaches the audience. 

There are also the kinds of inspiration that come up in wider reading and discussion.

  • This article about a pork slaughterhouse and packing plant in North Carolina has been on my mind, both because of its descriptions of how our food supply is produced and the contrast between that and my experiences with organic farming and meat production, and because it paints a stark picture of racial segregation in the US workforce. The article was written in 2000, but came to light again with the announcement that Smithfield’s, the company whose plant was portrayed in the article, is the subject of interest from a major Chinese pork company. 
  • The Save the Cat beat sheet, which apparently everyone but me knew about. I’m going to get addicted to this tool very quickly. Here’s a version for novels. Um, awesome.
  • One of my fellow writer’s group members is working on a memoir about her time in another country; reading it reminded me of the mood in Super Sad Super True Love Story in the same way a previous week’s piece from another member put me in the mind of “Parentheses” from Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.
  • Finally, by now everyone knows I love China Meiville; I was excited when one of the writers in the group brought a draft where his tumbling use of language drew me into a world that gave me the same feels as trying to pick through one of Meiville’s rich, topsy-turvy novels.

Other inspiration I’ve drawn from writers in the last week: a friend who’s written an 80K YA novel draft in the last year, another whose writing is taking off just as she’s being presented with a phenomenal career opportunity, and how discussing recommendations with her (I’m one of her references) has reminded me of some of the best reasons for being a writer: the communication, the ability to get to know oneself better. A young woman who’s the daughter of a friend of my dad – she’s about the same age as I was and to listen to her breathlessly recount her current project was like looking into a window on the past.

I gave feedback on/edited a short story for a Twitter friend who writes in English as a second language and was reminded of the spare, intentional language of a Japanese friend from graduate school. I don’t have enough French to try writing something coherent in another language, but maybe I should try. (And that notion is a reminder of the article I saw tweeted that claimed Google translate is colonizing language; I need to go back and look for that one.)

A discussion on the politics of gender pronouns led to the discovery that Google nGram can search words used as parts of speech (“female” used as a noun instead of an adjective, for example). Fascinating stuff.

And of course, no discussion of influences this week would be complete without mentioning Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks/revelations. Drawing comparisons to activist-leakers like Bradley Manning, Wikileaks and Anonymous, Snowden’s claims regarding the NSA and their wiretapping and data collection techniques have me feeling once more that truth is far stranger than fiction. Electalytics will one day benefit from all of the craziness that’s swarming through our informational technology and culture, but I also lose a little confidence every time something like this happens. Can I even imagine the extent to which the system is manipulated by these behind-the-scenes players, and do I have the skill to weave this into the story I know Electalytics could be?

Only time will tell.

Talking to your peers about their work lets you understand what else is going on out there, what people are interested, and what kind of information is currently in the zeitgeist. It’s not always easy to find a patchwork of like-minded people with whom to have these discussions, but once you do, horizons seem to expand nonstop.

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