Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘creativity’

Daydream, Writer

I wonder what you remember of being a kid in school. What was the most common remark you heard from your teachers? It might have been anything of the myriad activities that engage young children at the perimeter of studies. Don’t write on the desk. Stop running in the hall. Sit up straight. Throw out your gum. Turn to the right page. Stop talking to Sally (Henry, Willis, Coralee.) Sharpen your pencil before class. That’s not a word we use in school. We heard all those comments directed at kids who needed reminding about the purpose of school: practicing times tables, practicing spelling words, practicing cursive writing, practicing reading, practicing memorizing. School instruction was not interesting so much as required. School instruction was not creative at all. It was practice for something else.

None of those comments were directed at me, however. I heard another order – often – from every teacher through the elementary grades. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” Because there I’d be, my head turned toward the huge windows along the back wall, staring out at the gray and yellow skies, the bare limbs of the trees, the steeple of the church across the street. Caught daydreaming again about all the possibilities of life outside our classroom, wondering what it would be like if. My teachers thought I was wasting time but I was imagining a different world. I turned back to the current lesson though not for long. I’d be daydreaming again before the end of the day.

I recently read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. The first chapter was about Albert Einstein and the fact that he spent a year doing nothing but daydreaming. Einstein’s daydreams led him to conceptualize some of the most revolutionary ideas about the nature of physics and the role of light, energy, and matter in the origin of the universe. After that daydream year he had a creative explosion that resulted in him writing four important papers that identified the connective nature of just about everything in the cosmos. Eventually he won the Noble Prize.

Everyone should daydream. Children should daydream, inventors should daydream, lovers, the aged, politicians, priests, and travelers should daydream. It isn’t enough to do the ordinary and expected, to take notes and photos, to make lists and plans. We writers should daydream. Inside the daydream is the inception of wonder, the place where everything begins.

Writers need a break from ordinary routine. We put too much emphasis into the strategy we think should result in brilliant writing. It’s like buying the most expensive computer system, adding an outstanding writing program, lining up research files, and then drawing a creative blank. The novel doesn’t emerge.  Great story writing doesn’t come from elaborate equipment. It comes from slow and careful observation about the world, thinking about the human experience until the artist has insight about life.

Once we start to write, we should not try to write well. We should just write. Let the words flow and don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. That’s not for us to judge anyway – that’s for readers to judge. And maybe what we should be doing is not writing at all for a while but continue the daydream until writing organically enters our stage.

Everybody knows Einstein did poorly in school, that he appeared to do nothing for a while. But it isn’t true that he didn’t do anything – he observed, he thought, he let ideas flourish in his brain. He wondered. That year of daydreaming was the catalyst for the extraordinary and continuing bursts of brilliance that allowed him to cultivate his curiosity and resulted in the synthesis of his ideas. That led him to develop one of the pillars of modern physics, the theory of relativity.

Maybe we don’t have everything yet.  Maybe we need time spent looking around the world, observing, thinking, wondering, the way Einstein spent that year looking at the universe. Because if we don’t find the world enchanting – the way the clouds gather around the moon, the way we can talk to a stranger who doesn’t speak our language, the way the horizon stretches to infinity yet never really exists at all – we might as well stick with writing shopping lists.



 This article was adapted from a letter sent to a friend.

Photograph of Albert Einstein courtesy of


Sand or Honey


Even the most momentous creation – a whale or a love affair – begins with a tiny drop of something elemental – sand or honey – and is complete only when the final bit – a fluke or a splinter – slips into the right place.



Just a Thought 16



Image of sandcastle courtesy



The brain for all its complexity has no imagination. Only the soul has imagination, the link from the stars to the earth, from God to the future. Quicken the malaise from my thoughts. Divulge the possibilities to come. Remove me from this cramped perch and straighten me. Shove me against the wind and permit my spine to bend. Quell my heart and start it again with a new beat and fresh blood. Each moment about which I write, launch another to witness. Wipe the grit from my eyes.

Ah, vision. Imagine what I can do now.


Just a Thought, 3



Painting Roses by P. S. Kroyer,  1893

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.


W is for Wonder



I’m a child when I write. I find splendor in the world and I wonder how it all works. As long as I wonder about everything, my mind is open to exploring everything about which I know very little, and that’s a great deal. Languages I can’t understand, cultures unfamiliar, history I never learned, rituals fascinating to observe, food strange to eat. Why, I ask, do mines drive men deep into the bowels of the earth? What conditions, I want to know, force children to beg amidst bounty? Humans are adventurers, pioneering flight across the continents, thrusting rockets into outer space, boarding ships to journey across oceans, climbing into wagons to roll over uncharted land. Why journey into danger? Four billion years of unrecorded history, a few thousand years of written chronicles, national policies misunderstood, cultural secrets misinterpreted, continents harboring mysteries my generation will never uncover. I’m guided by the scientists, prophets, inventors, philosophers, tinkerers, activists, and statesmen who have intuited and interpreted the condition of the world and still left plenty for me to discover.

Did Shakespeare know it all, or Confucius? What about Moses who spoke directly with God? Did Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony or Mohandas Gandhi? Or Sappho whose poetry is mostly lost but not her influence, or Maya Angelou whose poetry remains as well as her legacy? Does Stephen Hawking have all the answers? What about Toni Morrison or Bill Gates?  All the wisdom and experience of these great people, writers, scientists, ministers, poets, political leaders, philosophers, and yet they know only fractional slivers about the universe. There is more to learn.

All these things and more make me wonder how much I don’t know. How hollow I am, pretentious, assuming. But I’m willing to explore, to find out, because I can’t write if I don’t know my subject. Welcome to wonder. Investigate the world you don’t know. Then can you write with a voice of authenticity. Even fiction writers must know something first.

Consider the back pages of many of the great books where the writers leave off the fiction and reveal some of their sources. Michael Chabon visited Alaska to see for himself the state where he imagined The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon researched dozens of non-fiction books, including the history of comic art, to write The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Geraldine Brooks did the same to write The People of the Book. Brooks studied, wearing white gloves and closely supervised, the very rare Sarajevo Haggadah before writing People.  Anthony Doerr traveled to St. Malo, France, the setting for All the Light We Cannot See, to walk its walled city, and learned about radio transmissions and Braille for the book that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jodi Picoult lists pages of resources she’s plumbed, including her interviews with people with careers in medicine and law, as well as books and articles concerning her subjects for every one of her many books. Shaun Ellis is a real life wolf expert whose experiences informed Picoult’s book Lone Wolf. For Change of Heart, she referred to almost a dozen books about Gnostic gospels, the death penalty, and heart transplants.

Barbara Kingsolver lists more than two dozen books in the bibliography she compiled while researching The Poisonwood Bible, the book about the Congo/Zaire and the Evangelical American family that moves to its dark jungle to convert its natives. Lisa See researched the hidden culture of nu shu, the secret writing of women, and visited China as background for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Amy Tan also went to China to explore her mother’s first, abandoned family before she wrote The Joy Luck Club. Kim Stanley Robinson studied the translated works of Galileo to write his historical fiction, Galileo’s Dream. In order to understand Ann Eliza Young, wife of Brigham Young and subject of David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, he read her memoirs and lectures, as well as the work of many others who wrote about her and about Mormon doctrine and early history.

Alice Hoffman wrote in her notes for The Dovekeepers:


I was initially inspired by my first visit to Masada, a spiritual experience so intense and moving, I felt as though the lives that had been led there two thousand years earlier were utterly fresh and relevant…In that great silence, standing inside the mystery that is the past, surrounded by the sorrow of the many deaths that occurred there, I also felt surrounded by life and by the stories of the women who had been there. In that moment, The Dovekeepers came to life as well.


All these writers were enchanted by something and wondered about it enough to learn so they could then write about what they’d discovered and convey their sense of enchantment to readers. Can I recoil from wonder and yet write anything approaching the achievements of the masters? My writing is only a poor mimicry of theirs, but that doesn’t stop me from asking the questions, identifying plausible answers, and writing what I’ve discovered. Like great art, it is our fascination with the world, even when we are disappointed with its direction or outcome, that moves us to create – poetry, painting, music, drama, comedy, dance, song, inventions, ideas, and books. Great ideas are born of great wonderment.

As Sappho wrote in one of the few salvaged fragments of her lyric work:


So must we learn in a world made as this one

Man can never attain his greatest desire.


Sappho was right. I won’t get close. Doesn’t stop me from trying. I wonder. I am the child who writes.


Image: child in lake, public domain,

All Fall Down

Caravaggio - Conversion on the Way to Damascus (c. 1600)

Caravaggio – Conversion on the Way to Damascus (c. 1600)

Look on the end flap at the photo of the writer whose book you’re reading. That’s right, the image of the man or woman with artfully tousled hair, a somber expression in alert eyes, leaning on a stack of books. The photos don’t show the lower extremities of the authors, or if they do, legs are covered in slacks or long skirts and tall boots.