In art, you must consider the negative space around the object as carefully as the object itself: Careful consideration of negative space draws the positive into sharper focus. The negative is what we talked about in our last post, but what about the positive, the fun stuff? What about the things that are important to your and your creative work, that are life-giving? As important as it is to cull the negative from your life, it is equally important to fill your life with activities that energize your writer’s soul.
Earlier this year, at a youngARTs conference I was lucky enough to be a part of (and to which you should apply), actress Kerry Washington spoke about why she loves art. “Art is creation,” she said. “It’s beautiful because you create something from nothing.” (I’m approximating here; I don’t have the exact quote.) Indeed, the word creative has its roots in the Latin creo, meaning to make or create.
But this idea doesn’t apply solely to our artistic product, literature. Within us, something is created as we write, and it continues to be created throughout the artistic process. (It is, I think, the reason so many writers feel compelled by an outside force, a muse, a fiery passion. Or as author Tom Robbins puts it in Naming the World:
Writing imaginative fiction is such a mysterious enterprise that often there’s no way to explain its sources except to attribute them to Something Out There Somewhere.)
It is an almost visceral sensation, energy rising in you electrically and out onto the page.
But that energy isn’t only created when we write; it is simmering constantly, inspired occasionally by a spark of inspiration from another life-giving activity.
That’s what this post is about: finding activities that enrich your life as a writer. Activities that produce within you creative energy, that give you ideas, that encourage you to move to the page. Looking for the positive. Unlike my post about using free time to take in creative materials, this post focuses on structured extracurricular activities.
Which activities work best for you, of course, will depend on your genre. Below are imagined case-studies of students working in various genres and the activities beyond writing that inspire them.
Blythe is a high school junior interested in journalism. From an early age, she’s been interested in politics. Most people, upon hearing that, suggest that she joins Student Government. But she knows that Student Government is a forum for planning small school functions, not for thinking critically about political issues. And it’s the issues that really fuel her writing.
Instead, she joins the Debate team, which forces her to research a new current event monthly and debate both sides of the issue at tournaments. Every part of the Debate process is like researching for a political article: First, she finds related articles and academic papers, then formulates “contentions” that synthesize this information. At tournaments, she is constantly reevaluating her stance while debating and informally with other debaters.
This means that when she sits down to write articles for her school newspaper, an Internet news site, or a local paper, she already has fully-formed and well-supported ideas. She’s excited to write, and it shows. She is only a part of those two activities, Newspaper and Debate, but because they work so seamlessly together, she is excellent at both. When it comes time for college apps, she’ll have a slew of debate and journalism awards to show for her efforts. And more importantly, writing isn’t a chore; it’s a natural extension of her interests and other activities.
Will is a sophomore with a thing for Anne Sexton. What particularly excites him about poetry is its ability to break English down into its elements and present the parts in concentrated, high-impact glory. And to get better at doing this, he joins—of all things—Spanish Club.
A teacher at a summer program last year told my class that we should learn a foreign language to read its poetry. My idea is a little different: that one should learn a foreign language to learn to write English poetry. After all, nothing makes you realize the grammatical structure of your own language like studying another. You know English too well to really examine the grammatical and linguistic function of each part of speech, each word.
So Will spends a day afterschool every week learning Spanish phrases, reading Spanish periodicals, listening to Spanish music. Slowly, he begins to hear the same structures in English. He can read a Sexton poem and see what she’s doing, how she uses the language like a painter would use his brushes. He gets excited; he knows he can do the same thing, now that he sees the scaffolding.
Along the way, he becomes proficient enough to take a mission trip to Guatemala, start an afterschool program for ESL students, and rock the Spanish SAT Subject Test (language tests are notoriously difficult). And his poetry? It’s beautiful and original, earning him an invitation to several nearby readings and a mention in his local paper.
Monica is a fiction junkie about to enter her junior year. When she writes stories, she starts with an image of a specific place. She uses the details of these places to get her to the page, and from those details she can begin to unravel a story. Sometimes, however, she finds it difficult to really get a picture of the places she imagines, to draw her fantasy lands into sharper focus. Her solution? Join Photography Club.
This requires her to take pictures regularly, often for the school paper. She spends most afternoons trawling around the school football field, snapping pictures of tumbling athletes, or around the community for pictures of new parks or stores. This becomes a way for her to more clearly visualize the places in her stories—she has actual pictures to work from, pictures taken in her own voice. When she sees her pictures of football practice, she sees the stadium, the yelling coach, the lonely players resigned to the bench; she can smell the sweat and hear the thunderous chants. She is in these places, and because of that, she can write about place more clearly.
Over the course of the year, her fiction becomes more vivid and immediate, and her photos are not just still frames but images with movement. They tell stories. And they earn her recognition from local galleries. By senior year, she has won Scholastics medals for both her fiction and for her photography—a rare feat, and an impressive one.
Obviously, these are fictionalized accounts, unlikely to perfectly represent you. But I hope their specificity brings to life the possibilities that exist and detail just how much more impressive you can be if you use your non-writing activities to benefit your writing. Look for intersections, and allow them to feed your inner writer.
I’d love to hear your own mini-accounts of similar experiences. Structure your response like the examples above and leave it in the comments!