Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Inspiration is everywhere. Sounds cliché, right? Or perhaps trite or obvious—but I think the thing that a lot of people miss is that inspiration floating around everyone is pretty much useless unless you train yourself to pay attention to it and (most importantly in my opinion) record it.

It’s something that I didn’t always realize. Back when I had a 9 to 5 job working as a graphic designer, I’d race home after work and write and draw. Evening and weekends; these were my blocks when I could truly be creative and do what I want.

But now that I’ve been a self-employed writer and specialized arts educator for the last fifteen years, I’ve learned that I need to be in-tune 24-7.

To put it simply, working in a creative profession means I am alwaysworking. That doesn’t mean I’m forever hunkered down over a computer or notebook. It simply means my antennae are always circling, waiting to pick up the signals that are floating around out there.

I guess what I’m saying is that this was something I didn’t always conscioiusly realize. Or it didn’t come naturally to me. I had to train myself to, first, pay attention and, second, make sure I documented what caught my attention.

I realize this same problem in many of my students. Whether they are in elementary school, high school, or university, so many of them are extremely well-trained to think in “blocks: This is math block, this is writing block, this is history block. Yes, some of those blocks aren’t your passion and you just want to survive the hour or so that you are locked inside of them. But there are other blocks that should needle your passions! Those passions should ooze out of their confinement and seep into every aspect of your life. Being a writer (or an artist, or an actor, or a . . .) means thinking like one all the time.

To some people, this comes naturally! But, as I mentioned above, I was one of those people who came from an exceedingly practical background. Maybe it’s the case with many of my students.

That’s why I now carry my notebook (or, as I call it, my brainstorming book) with me everywhere. I have specific books for specific projects, but often things that are unconnected to that project (or at least SEEM like they might be unconnected) go in there.

I only have one criteria for recording something: it interests me. Most of the time, I don’t know what it is about something that grabs me—just that it does. In those cases, I photography, draw, and scribble notes. That means those ideas are waiting for me in the future. It might be a week down the road. Maybe a month. Perhaps years. Or, quite possibly, NEVER. But I’ve learned to honor the process, not the result.

Vacation/smacation

All of this is to say, when my family was on “vacation” a couple of weeks ago in Whistler, BC, and we learned about the famous Whistler train wreck, my Spidey-senses perked up. I knew I needed to grab my sketchbook and my camera and head there.

(Also, I tend to now just call all vacations “inspircations” because it is impossible for me to go anywhere and NOT be inspired.)

About the trainwreck

Just south of the resort town of Whistler, not so deep in the forest, is the site of a train wreck that occurred on August 11, 1956. The train had started in Lilloeet, 130 km north of Whistler and was bound for Vancouver with a load of lumber. The train was behind schedule, so was going twice its speed to make up time. When it arrived at a narrow passage carved in the rock with a sharp curve at one end, one of the engines jumped off the track. Twelve boxcars in total were derailed.

The clean up took a long time, and some of the carriages were left behind—and this is the site you can now visits. Here, in the not-so-deep woods, the boxcars are both solemn and garish, painted with graffiti after all these years.

Getting to the train wreck

The site is a short drive south from Whistler, and once Google or your satnav takes you to the appropriate turnoff, you’ll find signs marking the way into the woods.

The path is even and not at all onerous. In fact, we took Hiro in his stroller and only parked it once we arrived at the hill that led up to the final site (a one-minute walk).

The way there also features a suspension bridge and a view of the gorgeous, swirling river.

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Exploring the train wreck

Once you arrive at the site, you can explore all the different carriages. You can climb some of them (at your peril!), and one leans toward the river gorge, tempting fate.

This place certainly stirred my imagination and gave me inspiration for a scene in a story that has been percolating inside of me lately. I made sure to take as many pictures as possible and to jot down some notes, too.

The rest of the family enjoyed it as well (though I was the only one brave—or foolish—enough to climb atop one of them). Hiro loved the colors.

I think my favorite part were the couplings, painted to look like creatures. In my mind, they are train gargoyles! You can check out a few of our photos below (including those mischievous looking gargoyles). . .

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In search of the nine-tailed fox

In search of the nine-tailed fox

This past summer, I led a summer camp in Korea with the theme of magical creatures. I have plenty of magical creatures in my own books—some of them borrowed from mythology (dragon, unicorns, perytons, etc.) and some are completely made up (like Tug the skyger, who is a main character in The Secret of Zoone).

But there is a creature I’ve been becoming more and more interested in, and that’s the fox spirit, which is prominent in Asian folktales and myths. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Korea, or maybe because so many of my creative writing students in Canada come from Chinese or Korean backgrounds. And, of course, my son being adopted from Japan has something to do with it.

The fox spirit in myth and legend

Legends about the fox spirit vary from country to country, story to story, but a common theme is that it is depicted with multiple tails—often nine. In Japan, it is called kyūbi no kitsune (literally fox with nine tails), in Korea it is called kumiho or gumiho (also, literally, fox with nine tails), and in China it’s called húli jīng or jiǔwěihú. Sometimes the foxes are seeking to gain all nine tails, which will take a thousand years (gaining a tail every hundred years) and allow them to transcend to a greater wisdom or being. They are sometimes associated with being evil (especially kumiho in Korea)—they can shapeshift into beautiful women and are often portrayed trying to seduce young men, even desiring to eat their livers!

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Last summer, when we first met Hiro, I encountered many fox effigies at the temple sites throughout Japan. When we returned to Tokyo this summer with Hiro, I made a point to seek out one of the temples in the city featuring the fox.

These are the benign versions of the fox spirit. Kitsune is associated with the God Inari, who is worshiped for fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture—essentially prosperity and success. That is why kitsune can be found at so many Shinto sites.

A trip to Toyoa Inari Betsuin

On a sweltering morning in Tokyo, we headed to Toyoa Inari Betsuin to see the many kitsune assembled at the shrine. It’s not always easy to make the trek across the city with a one-year-old in tow, especially when it comes to navigating the subway system. Actually the Tokyo subway system itself is easy—finding ways in and out with a stroller aren’t, especially at the older stations.

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But that minor inconvenience was offset by the beautiful shrine.

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When it came to finding foxes, we weren’t disappointed—there were countless ones at Toyoa Inari Betsuin.

Here are just a few of the many photos of the kitsune . . . such delightful creatures! Many of them were wearing a red bib (a symbol of good luck).

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To provide a bit more information about the shrine, I transcribed the information from the welcoming sign, which is also in the photo below:

The Toyokawa Inari is in reality the Toyokawa Dakini Shinten, one of the many Buddhist saints who were Protectors of the Buddhist doctrines. This saint has a beautiful countenance mounted on a white fox, carrying the ear of rice, and is called Toyokawa Inari. It has been enshrined in the Myōgon-ji, a temple in Toyokawa City, Aichi Prefecture, since the first founder Kangan Giin received an inspiration, enshrined it about 700 years ago. Since then, it has been worshipped by peoples of all walks of life, bringing them happiness and saving them from the suffering through the generations to this day.

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I’m pondering the idea of incorporating a magical fox with multiple tails in one of my upcoming middlegrade books. I think my many students with Asian backgrounds (not to mention my son!) will like it, though I know my magical fox won’t be an antagonist, but rather a helpful character.

The multiple tails also seem to match up very nicely with another main idea I’m developing for the book. I don’t have much else to say on it at this point, but let’s see how it goes . . .

Our magical creature camp in Korea

Our magical creature camp in Korea

I’m just catching up on organizing photos after our whirlwind trip to Korea and Japan this past summer—which means I’m finally getting around to blogging about the Magical Creatures creative writing camp that I taught along with my actor/playwright wife Marcie Nestman and fellow children’s author Kallie George.

Marcie and I are used to spending time in Asia—personally, I’ve been there over thirty times, most of it to teach creative writing camps or workshops. What WAS new this time was that we took our one-year-old son, Hiro, with us. So, seasoned travelers that we are, we had a very different type of adventure!

A magical theme

Since Kallie and I both recently released books featuring magical creatures—Kallie’s Wings of Olympus and my The Secret of Zoone—we thought that would make the best theme for our camp.

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Of course, there are plenty of books and films featuring magical creatures, so this was a great way to connect with and inspire our students.

 

The magical menagerie art exhibit

In The Secret of Zoone, one of the characters references the “Multiversal Menagerie,” an art exhibit featuring paintings of different creatures from across the multiverse. I thought I would take a cue from that and have my students do a creative writing project in which they produced artwork of a creature then wrote the information card that goes with it.

You see, I have this belief that not every writing assignment has to be a proper story. I worry that my students get so focused on plot, that they forget other elements of writing—such as description, setting, character development and BEING CREATIVE. I call this “plot paralysis” because students get so caught up in that ONE part of writing that they start ignoring everything else.

Projects like the multiverses menagerie are meant to help the students wriggle free of the shackles of plot and just have fun.

Our project started with brainstorming creatures  . . .

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Afterwards, the students turned their attention to final artwork. Some students chose to draw, some students chose to sculpt, and others chose to do both.

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The Eye of the Dragon

Another project I rolled out at camp involved writing a scene in which a character finds or steals a magical gem that gives that character the power of connecting with a creature. The students got to choose the aspect of that connection—it could be transforming into the creature, controlling it, or even seeing through its eyes.

Step one, however, was painting the gem of power!

I really love this project because it is relatively simple, but produces stunning results. In fact, many of my students end up wearing their jewelry afterwards (it’s easy enough to glue the gems to a metal ring or amulet).

The gems themselves are glass cabochons, which you can get in different shapes (such as oval or round) and the paint is simple nail polish. This project is very forgiving—even those students who don’t consider themselves artistic can create abstract designs. Also, if you make a mistake, a little nail polish remover helps you start over!

Here are some of the gorgeous designs produced by my students:

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The magical market

We delivered many other projects at the camp, but there is one other event I wanted to blog about—and that is our magical market night. Our camps our long—often six or seven days, and we find we need some sort of event in the middle to help break it up and provide a “boost.”

We usually host a tournament or some other team-building exercises; this time, Marcie had the brilliant idea of putting on a magical market. This was brilliant for a few reasons—not the least of which was that we could do it outdoors and avoid the intense summer heat and humidity. Also, we corralled our older students into coming up with the ideas for the stalls, and then running them during the event itself.

So, we ended up having all sorts of fun stations consisting of games, face painting, fortune telling, and—my favorite—food! We invented a new fizzy drink by combining soda water and pop rocks and also had glow-in-the-dark cotton candy. We gave the students fake jewels to use as currency, so they got to stroll our market and decide how to spend their loot.

Marcie had led a project in which the students designed their own lanterns for a made-up magical creature holiday, so we already had some decorations ready to go.

It was a HUGE success!

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