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February 10, 2011

In writing my July blog on the children’s book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, I ran across some fantastic advice on the creative process written by Steven Spielberg. What’s the connection between the book and Spielberg? Morpurgo’s book, written in 1982 and never a best seller, was adapted into a play that became a hit on the London stage and is now readying to open on Broadway (mid-April of this year). Spielberg is directing a movie (due for release in December 2011) based on the book. Anyway, Spielberg writes of keeping his “well of ideas full” – something I tell my Arcadia University students all the time. Writers can’t just sit and stare at their computer monitors; they need to get out and experience the world to spur their creativity. Watching the London theatre production of War Horse did just that for Spielberg. Attending concerts, visiting a new city, or attending a social function can have the same effect on a writer. One never knows when the creative muse will strike. My next book idea comes from an exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show a few years ago. The seed of the idea for my YA historic novel Grace Rising arose from an encounter with a woman in her 80s who had lived in my current house during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Spielberg also writes of some unbeatable advice given to him by the late Ted Hughes, English poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. Hughes advised writers to “record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadness’s and bewilderments and joys.” Getting those impressions down on paper seems to be key. As children’s writer Richard Peck says, “A writer is always watching and listening.” Of course, keeping a journal is standard advice for aspiring authors, but it doesn’t have to be a journal in the strictest sense; a small notebook in which you make random notes will suffice.

Though it may seem a trifle voyeuristic, listening to other people’s conversations can be hugely beneficial to the writing of natural dialogue. A writer thinks as she listens. What makes this fellow tick? How does a young girl sound when she’s striving to project confidence but is deeply insecure? What makes the speech of someone born in the South sound so distinctive to a native Philadelphian and how in the world does a writer get that down on paper?

Writers naturally draw from their own experiences to understand the psychology of human emotion, but that’s not saying we have to write only “what we know” – also pretty standard advice to novice writers. If we write only what we know, we’ll run out of stories fairly quickly! Yet it is character and emotion that underlies all quality writing and we all know a lot about those topics. We only need to be attentive and draw it out of ourselves and those around us. That, and live life to the absolute fullest so the well never runs dry.

Read more of Steven Spielberg’s advice on creativity here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2011 12:57 PM

    Good advice, Gretchen. A lot to think about.

  2. February 12, 2011 9:05 AM

    Good advice, Gretchen. “record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadness’s and bewilderments and joys.” I used to do some of that, but in this busy world I’ve gotten away from it. You’ve reminded of the value, rather like stopping to smell the roses. I’m getting out a notebook now.

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