I apologize for not posting in over a week. But I really haven’t done much but read. I’ve been drowning in the vast, complex, compelling Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey, so I’ve not been sleeping or eating much, let alone blogging.
When I was a kid, I spent three or four hours a day reading, and all weekend long if my parents would let me. I really didn’t do anything else, a lot of days, especially when I was immersed in the kind of fantasy series that hurtled me through one 700-page book straight into another, and another. Back then, I read The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien at least once a year, and I frequently re-read The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, the Dragon Prince and Dragon Star books by Melanie Rawn, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams, and the first few Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan. These books shaped my imagination and my first efforts at fiction.
In fact, my first attempt at a novel features a first-person narrator who thinks a lot like Corwin of Amber and travels through a somewhat cartoonish version of Middle Earth. But in college, I gave up reading most fiction except what was assigned for my literature classes and have only recently started reading fantasy again. There’s a gaping hole in my knowledge of contemporary fantasy.
I’ve gradually started filling that hole, and now that I’ve read Kushiel’s Legacy, I’m kicking myself for those lost years of inspiration. Nothing compels me to write more than reading the kind of book that makes me completely forget about sleeping until my alarm goes off and I realize it’s time to get up and go to work. This inspiration goes beyond the imitations I wrote as a kid. Even then, I put my own twist on the characters and world. My “Corwin” was female, and my world was inspired by bits and pieces of many stories, as well as my own imagination.
But now, I have some experience in understanding the mechanics of a story, not just the emotional impact. Now, even as I’m swept away by the power of the story, I’m reflecting on what elements create that power. Now, even though I’ve completely fallen in love with Phedre, the narrator of the first three Kushiel’s Legacy books, and Joscelin, her consort, (and I haven’t crushed this hard on characters since Melanie Rawn’s Rohan and Sioned) I can step back and examine what makes them such compelling characters. I don’t want to imitate them, but I want to learn about them, the balance of traits, strengths and weaknesses, that create such sympathetic, yet admirable characters. And I notice all the little details that make the world of Jacqueline Carey’s story so exotic and yet so familiar. It gives me ideas for ways to make my own world come alive.
I don’t know if I’ll ever write something so incredible as Kushiel’s Legacy, but having the opportunity to study such a masterpiece can only improve my writing. And that’s what I mean by passive creativity. Part of me says I’ve been wasting time, devoting so much energy to reading these books. My laundry has been dirty and my fridge empty, this past week. I could have spent the time doing something “productive,” like working on the blog design and writing my own stories. But the creative part of me knows better. Reading is research, inspiration, sowing the seeds of future creation. Though I haven’t written this past week, my imagination is fired in a way it hasn’t been in a long, long time.
Every writer is told, again and again, that the way to learn to write is to read and to write. As simple as that, but much more complex. Reading teaches the writer what works and what doesn’t, what story elements will repel readers and what will drag them in. In the course of observing these things, I’ve learned ways to make my own stories better. So as I read, I am creating, imagining my characters better and stronger, my world more detailed and inviting, the tension of my plot rising to a more dramatic peak.
Passive creativity is the ability to incorporate all the lessons of life into your creative work. Whether you’re a writer, an artist, or anyone else with a problem to solve, practicing passive creativity will make your efforts stronger. Creativity doesn’t mean that every idea has to come from your head alone. We are all influenced by everything we see and learn, whether we acknowledge it or not. But recognizing these opportunities to learn allows us to apply the lessons directly to our own work, and makes it better and stronger for the effort.
I don’t see myself forgetting this lesson soon. If I want to write epic fantasy, I need to study the best, and even the worst, to see what works and what doesn’t. As complex and vivid as Jacqueline Carey’s novels are, I have a feeling I’ll be learning from her for a long time to come.
What inspires you? Are there books, songs, movies, art, that compel you to create? What do you learn from your inspiration?