Where Do You ‘Scratch’ for New Ideas? 3 Tips for Spring
Posted March 27, 2017on:
Scratching can look like borrowing and appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander around in these back hallways…”and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.
-Twyla Tharp, choreographer
Where do you get your ideas? How do you generate small ideas that lead to big writing projects? It’s springtime and as we put away our winter coats, boots and hats, we naturally desire to generate fresh ideas for our writing life. Twyla Tharp, world famous choreographer, in her understated, but powerful book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it For Life, uses the concept of ‘scratching’ as a method for finding and incubating new ideas.
‘Scratching’, she observes is what we do so we aren’t always waiting for the “thunderbolt” of inspiration to hit. Tharp says, “That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.”
Twarp notes the importance of reading, as a place to scratch for ideas. Many writers reread the classics or work by mentors they love as a way to sharpen their senses and generate new perspectives. Tharp likes to read ‘archeologically’, backwards in time, working her way from a contemporary idea back to an ancient text. When working on an idea for a dance she began with Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy which led her to Dionysus and then studies of Dionysus (worship of and symbols connected to), which led her to Euripides and his The Bacchae. These readings led to her choreograph ‘Bacchae’, a dance that explores hubris and is loosely based on the Euripides text.
Inspired by her strategy, years ago, I made a list of the subjects that I typically read about both as an academic and as a creative writer.
List: self-help /’how to’ in yoga, health and wellness, women’s health, women’s empowerment, public speaking; craft of writing books; cookbooks; leadership; 18-20th century African American history, spirituality; creativity; women’s spirituality; African American women; black feminism; dreams; sociology of race; women’s and gender studies; elections and campaigns; feminist theory, history of the American university; genres: speculative fiction, thrillers, literary fiction
When finished with this list, I felt pretty impressed.
But then I asked myself, what are the subjects I rarely read in, have no working knowledge of, couldn’t put two sentences together about, or even avoid?
Here’s that list: general biographies, colonial American history, world history, geography, travel memoirs, animals, romance, celebrities, sailing, cars, history of language, math and science, sports, nature, children’s books, plays, poetry, Christian fiction, true crime, technical books
Doing this exercise motivated me to dig into many unexplored subjects.
What would your reading lists look like?
Here are three scratching strategies:
-Flirt with a different genre (or even subgenre)-It’s always fun to explore a different writing genre than the one that’s become your norm. In a recent writing workshop, the instructor encouraged us to take a short piece that we were working on, keep the characters but rewrite it using a different genre. This exercise felt so liberating. I found myself exploring space opera with what had started out as a realistic story. I have little working knowledge of space operas, but it was fun to use my imagination to fill in the gaps.
-Visit a writer’s residence or historic site-Traveling to see a writer’s home is a kind of pilgrimage that can bring us fresh insights. A few years ago, I traveled to Edenton, NC to learn a bit more about Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive slave, writer and abolitionist who penned Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonym Linda Brent. My literary pilgrimage was so rejuvenating.
-Mine Magazines-Acquire ten magazines that you never read (you can buy some and collect others from friends, the doctor’s office, libraries, etc.) and read them from cover to cover. Keep a list about the trends, ideas and musings that spark your interest.
Where are you going to scratch for ideas this spring?