How to Tap into Your Inner Compost

miracle-squashI was turning my compost pile the other day (something I do far too infrequently), when out rolled a little present – a tiny acorn squash about the size of a baseball!

I had to smile. Out of the scraps and neglect, this little gourd thrived and graced me with its totally unexpected existence.

Writing is like that sometimes. We toss excess ideas and research into a heap in the corner of our minds and forget they exist. We’re off on another writing adventure, too busy to care.

If we’re lucky and patient, the seeds in the debris sprout and grow into something we can harvest later.

Sometimes I’m a lazy writer (although not as lazy as I am a gardener). I don’t mind working hard at the writing, but I like to have ideas floating around within easy reach. I repurpose much of my writing – adapt something I’ve written to a different audience or use some of the research in a different way.

Yet, like all writers, I will hit that desert where all creativity dries up. Sustenance is absent at every turn.

In desperation, I’ll dig deep, turning over the detritus of my former efforts. More often than not, I’ll find those ideas I abandoned so long ago have matured. They anchor some of my favorite work.

How do we harvest these serendipitous ideas?

  • Don’t panic! In the throes of creative abandonment and faced with a deadline, we often start jabbing around at everything. Don’t put your intellectual pitchfork through that innocent idea.
  • Go gently through that waste. Quietly, gently turn over the ideas you worked on before. Read through old work. Revisit ideas you’ve tucked away in notebooks, on your mobile device, or in piles of scrap paper. I keep a personal journal where I jot down my strange ideas or observations.
  • Keep the compost together. Compost cooks best in a confined space. Try to keep any ideas you write down in one area. I know this is hard. I’m constantly finding scribbled bits of paper all over the house, my office, and even my car. This makes harvesting those ideas that much harder.
  • Only take what is ripe. Like Venus birthed from the sea and my little acorn squash nestled in old coffee grounds, the best ideas are the ones that present themselves full blown. Don’t try to force ideas that are still developing.
  • Feed the pile. Compost constantly needs more scraps — and the right type of material — to work itself into great soil. Don’t forget to write down that crazy idea you had or the funny conversation you eavesdropped on. Create those directions for a robot that doesn’t exist yet. You will be surprised how bountiful those things can be when you need them most.
  • Leave it alone. Good gardeners turn their compost regularly to prevent seeds from sprouting. We’ve got a different purpose. We want those little seeds to grow. Contribute to the pile then walk away. Let nature take its course.

Someday soon I’ll have that little squash for dinner, but not yet. For now, enthroned on my kitchen counter, it reminds me how miraculous compost can be.


The Rocky Relationship of Words and Numbers

Remember the old “Paint by Numbers”? If we painted the right colors in the numbered areas, we’d end up with a masterpiece (or so we thought).

This popped into my head after reading several items that discussed how numbers influence our writing.
 In “The act of writing in the age of numbers,” Stephen Marche ponders how word processing and numbers affect writing. The Los Angeles Times op-ed piece poses the question of whether chasing quantifiable criteria in our writing affects the quality. He argues that numbers have always affected writing in literature whether it be support for an argument or the meter of a poem.

The difference in today’s world, he states, is that the numbers have crept from the background into forefront. Writers check their hits and “likes.” Pieces are evaluated more on numbers; if something isn’t popular, it’s possible people won’t read it.

Kathy Caprino, Forbes blogger, warns against chasing the numbers in her post “The 5 Most Glaring Mistakes New Bloggers and Writers Make.” She says those who write content with the purpose of making it go viral will fail. There is no magic formula for pushing something into “viraldom.”

“I’ve come to learn this one thing about viral activity — you can’t plan it, predict it, or count on it,” Ms. Caprino writes.

Sure, I’m like everyone else. I check my blog stats. But I really try to avoid making those my purpose for writing something.

Probably the most depressing evidence of numbers taking over writing is the story of kulturBot, a “poetry” spewing robot now making its free verse way across Canada. (There’s a discussion here about what makes something poetry.)

After years of teaching English composition, I see many students looking for that formula. They want me to tell them where to place what words, so their writing will end up as masterpieces. I just can’t do that.

Part of writing is the different perspective, originality, and creativity the writer offers the reader. You can’t get that when you write by the numbers.

I always admired the kids who put the color they wanted in those designated areas instead of blindly following the numbers. Their paintings may not have looked like the picture on the box, but they were definitely interesting.

P.S.  Am I the only person who yells at my grammar checker because it is wrong so many times? There those numbers go again, trying to rule everything!

Weekend Wrinkle: Does Depression Spark Creativity?

Do we have to suffer from depression to be great writers? Does depression make us more creative?

The list of great writers and artists who have suffered from mental illness seems miles long. Why is that?

Can we write about tragedy, heartbreak, or even great joy without having experienced the emotions ourselves? How much does the creator need to experience to make her creation authentic?

Are people creative because they are depressed or does the depression result from being able to see the world a little differently than most people?

“The dark side of creativity: Depression + anxiety x madness = genius?” is an interesting read even if it doesn’t really answer the question.

Is depression — and the pain, lethargy, and exhaustion that come with it — actually the enemy of creation?

What do you think?