Guest post: Inspiration and intimidation by Johanna Harness

I first met Johanna on Twitter, as the creator of the wonderful #amwriting group.  Johanna’s enthusiasm and drive make her stand out from the crowd.  I wanted to hear more about the source of her creativity, so I invited her over to share her vision with you.

Many thanks to Merrilee for inviting me to guest blog.  I feel both inspired and intimidated to be invited alongside such a wonderful group of writers—and it’s in this place of inspiration and intimidation that I often find creativity seizing.  Ironic, no?

It does seem that most people enter Creativity from one of these main entry points.  Those who are inspired usually enter with muse on arm.  Writing on the whims of the muse is a wild experience.  With blind inspiration, an idea grabs me and won’t let go.  I write without outline, without plan, inspiration burning holes through otherwise normal days.  It’s an extraordinary experience, but not one I can duplicate at will.

On the flip side, I’ve written in a state of intimidation.  Writers who enter Creativity through these gates often find themselves surrounded by the ghosts of dead authors.  Harold Bloom described this intimidation among poets, calling it “the anxiety of influence.”  He argued that being too steeped in the words of others leads to derivative (and therefore inferior) works.  In this state, I study the techniques of great authors, observing language and structure of their creations, hoping to duplicate their successes. And, while I learn a lot through this method, I tend to agree with Bloom:  my writing arrives flat on the page, the fizz of the words gone before poured.

An approach to Creativity that works for me is neither of these, but a path well-worn by children and fools–one of playfulness.  Writers on this path don’t bother with the main gates.  We’re happy to climb trees and drop down into the city from shaky branches.  We cross through thorny brambles, bleeding and tormented, then stumble into mythic watering holes to laugh at ourselves and our adventures. We tunnel under the wall and find new worlds before we reach the other side.

On the path of playfulness, we don’t ignore inspiration or intimidation; we simply take things a bit less seriously.  We seek out our self-possessed muse and pull her hair, tie her shoelaces together, threaten to write utter crap, and then run away laughing.  (She usually follows, screaming inspired thoughts while we take notes.)  We play with the style of dead authors but, rather than copying, we find an irreverent twist.  We make up words to suit our writing rather than painfully searching for the correct word.  We study sentence structure to enlarge our options rather than limit them.

We use long sentences when it suits us to do so, knowing (hoping) that a bespectacled reader will tsk and count words and ask if we are trying to alienate ourselves from all those who now or ever will read.  We also write short.  Sentences, that is. And sometimes not proper sentences at all, but fragments. If that style doesn’t work, we dress up our thoughts in pearls and long gowns, the styles of our esteemed mothers leading us into elegant dialogue (while our inner children run screaming through the house).

The path of playfulness not only provides access to the city of Creativity but also brings with it a great deal of joy.  It is the armchair on the beach, the writer making herself comfortable within the creative environment. For me, this difference is key.

Inspiration makes me write because I alone have been chosen to tell a particular story—and it must be told before I rest.  Intimidation makes me write because I have something important to say and it’s my responsibility to say it.  Playfulness leads me to write because I delight in writing.  Of the three paths, playfulness offers the most consistency for day-to-day creativity.  I still hear from the muse and I’m still influenced by great authors, but my own voice emerges through playful experimentation.

The following question is one only grown-ups ask:  how do I do this?  For the grown-ups, I provide directions:

1.  Set aside time.

2.  Play.

Having difficulty getting into the spirit of playfulness?  If so, it’s best to spend time around other children writers.  I find these souls in abundance on Twitter.  I was drawn to the social networking site because I delighted in the opportunities for eavesdropping and character development.  I stayed when I realized other writers were loitering there with me, often for the same purposes.  I started the #amwriting hashtag to bring writers together to talk about their writing thoughts—as they write.  Or, keeping with the focus here:  writers discuss what they are doing as they play with words.

Some days when I’m having a difficult time putting myself in the right frame of mind, I have only to read the stream of thoughts at #amwriting.  There’s something about watching other kids play: I cannot simply stand by and watch.  I have to participate.  They’re building worlds and dialog and characters and complex plots and I have to join in or I’ll die.  Or at least I’ll throw a tantrum.  I will.

Accessing creativity is only part of the journey.  Writing requires that we move beyond inspiration and exposure to great ideas.  We have to play.

Johanna Harness taught college English for ten years before setting in to homeschool her own children.  She writes middle grade and young adult novels in both Northwest and fantastic settings (often forgetting which is which).

Read the #amwriting FAQ, or visit Johanna’s website.

Thank you, Johanna!  Now it’s your turn, participants.  Do you conquer intimidation with playfulness?  Do you find time to play in your own writing?  Leave your thoughts in the comment trail.

18 thoughts on “Guest post: Inspiration and intimidation by Johanna Harness

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  2. A lot of serious advice about how to have fun when writing. Excellent. I often have a look at the #amwriting tag and occasionally put it onto my tweets but I didn’t realise you had started it, Johanna. In real life I’m too much of a wimp to ‘climb trees and drop down into the city from shaky branches’. Thanks for giving me the inspiration to give it a try in the virtual world.

  3. This is a beautiful post and I hope it was lots of fun to write too! I’m slowly learning to play again and I’m encountering all my old foes again. Now I must think of my muse as a character in a video game and these foes are the bosses she must slay to win the treasure. Ha ha! I think I’ve got the hang of it. :)

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  5. I tend to be all work and no play but I’m working on it.
    Oh, wait, perhaps I should say, I’m playing with the idea.
    Regardless, Johanna was inspiring!
    Now back to work.
    I mean play.

  6. It’s great to read how others weave playfulness into their writing days. Thanks so much for your reactions to my words!

    I’m currently working with a critique partner who shares the same sense of fun with revisions. It’s so much easier to consider changes as co-conspirators, asking what would happen if I deepened the character reaction in one section or explained her motivation a little more in another. How would it play if I deleted a scene here or showed another character perspective there? Keeping it fun also decreases the pressure on the critique partner to be “right” all the time. It’s just play. We’re just seeing what happens. Not everything has to make the final cut.

  7. I like to consciously play around when I’m plotting – I’ll scribble notes all over the place, play around with pictures and make collages. I can’t force ideas, I have to play to get them – but once I’m in the midst of a story the play becomes more regimented, more of a set time and place type thing. But that works for me. If I find myself struggling, then I’ll think about playing about again, sometimes scribble down lists of things that I know are rubbish but which get my brain back in gear, but most of the time I just walk away for a while and wait for my muse to resume her seat in the classroom! More playing would probably be a good thing though :)

  8. As lovely and lyrical as your other bodies of work, Johanna. Finding our playful selves and letting them run rampant often leads not just out of the doldrums but into a grand new world. It’s whimsical and offers twists to the characters and plots we’d not yet considered. How cool is that? Terrific post – thanks for the pep talk.

    Take care,

  9. I’m trying to imagine a muse with her shoelaces tied together, screaming inspiring ideas, while a writer flees from her and taking dictation. You might have a story idea in that alone.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts, Johanna. Glad to have met you through these Twitter communities.

  10. Oh, this is just what I needed. And what I need to do, with my main WIP. Just play a bit, and enjoy being in that world. I think I’ve been taking myself far too seriously as of late.

  11. This is simply lovely, Johanna. And very inspirational! Short stories (which I don’t generally write) are a fun way to play and experiment with styles and genres. I’m so grateful already for this workshop.

  12. Beautifully written Johanna, and if that doesn’t inspire some creativity in me I dont know what will. I definitely related to the statement ………..”Inspiration makes me write because I alone have been chosen to tell a particular story—and it must be told before I rest. Intimidation makes me write because I have something important to say and it’s my responsibility to say it.” I often forget to enjoy the ride along the way, thanks for the reminder.
    Ok off to write.. bye

  13. Lovely post! Enjoyed reading Johannas thoughts. Thanks for the amwriting hashtag…wonderful meeting all the motivated/fun writers on board.
    Thanks merrilee.
    Best regards!

  14. Beautifully written, Johanna.

    Yes, yes, I play. I relate to everything your methods. To me, there is no greater adventure than writing. It’s my extreme sport. Sky-dive into that pile of words and see what happens. Climb that Everest of doubt to discover what treasure the Muse has waiting at the pinnacle. Dive into that sea of the subconscious and bring gold to the surface.

    Why not?

  15. At the moment I am so struck with admiration that I can’t possibly think of anything but how beautiful Johanna’s post was crafted. I’m going to go swoon and swim in the luxurious caress of her conversation and come back to this discussion when I can think rationally again. Because right now it’s not about me – it’s about her beautiful words.

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