Writing that has something to say borrows and blends ideas. Great writing demands that we dabble elsewhere, get inspired by the cornucopia of wisdom out there and combine elements of it in inventive ways.
We’re in the period of the grain harvest, the time just after Lammas in the Celtic calendar. It’s a time of celebrating the sun, as summer wanes towards autumn, and the fertility of the earth.
The riches of harvest are there because of synergy, the working together of seeds and earth, sun and rain, nutrients and insects, planting and protecting the crop. Environment and labour, nature and skill, have come together to ensure the harvest.
Like the crops that nurture our bodies, the stories, poems and ideas that nurture emotions, intellect and soul will be all the more powerful if they are synergistic. A synergistic story delves into history, muses on the future, teaches us new things, mixes science with awe and reverence for nature. It is promiscuous with concepts, and makes wild leaps that allow ideas to collide and synthesise.
The fertile mind
A couple of week’s ago I wrote about how writers need cross-pollination. None of us can hope to be expert in many fields, but we can be expert in one or even a few, dabble in others and mix to astonishing effect. To quote from the previous article:
We live in a time of more knowledge than any single person can accumulate, but we can be true to a quest without putting blinkers on and shutting out the world.
One of the books that has most impressed me recently is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a professor of environmental and forest biology. She is also an extraordinarily gifted writer and storyteller. In the book she plaits together science, traditional lore and story to produce a lucid and beautiful call to live on the earth differently, with gratitude and reciprocity.
In an essay for The Clearing, as part of a series in remembrance of lost species, Kimmerer writes:
Biodiversity is the imagination of the earth. It is the source of innovation and adaptation and evolution that enables the ongoing flourishing of life. Every species lost is the loss of an entire library of knowledge, it is the loss of ones who could teach us about new medicines or carbon capture.
The earth we inhabit has a fertile mind full of wild and riotous ideas that blend in all kinds of amazing ways. It’s perhaps not unrelated that as we become more and more focussed on productivity, on staying on message and being highly specialist, to the point of isolation and even dissociation from our environment, the fecund planet on which we rely is being increasingly impoverished.
In the race to be singular experts in one field, not looking to the right or left, we risk stripping out both imagination and connections. Writers should be at the forefront of those who stand against this trend. We need to be people who are not distracted and concerned with too many things, yet fascinated by others and the world we live in, constantly making new links and associations.
Innovation, adaption and imagination flourish when we make connections — what is true of the earth is true of everyone of us. And this means that writers have to be synthesisers and blenders. They have to be people of voracious curiosity. Clearly, as writers we have to hone our craft. We have to know how to work a sentence and make language supple. Writers have to be on quest to write well.
But we also have to have subjects and those subjects are likely to leap from the page with more liveliness and conviction if they come from a collaboration of ideas or genres.
The writer Oliver Sacks was a remarkable neurologist, but he was also a science historian and naturalist with a love of language and art as well.
The physicist Alan Lightman is also an award-winning novelist and a poet, as well as the founder of an organisation supporting female leadership in South-east Asia.
The list could go on. Novelists, like Margaret Atwood, who also writes poetry and non-fiction and whose work ranges from contemporary to historical fiction and into apocalyptic dystopias, display an enormous range of interest and expertise. In the MaddAddam Trilogy Atwood engages with issues of genetic modification, pharmaceutical and corporate control, and human-caused ecological disaster. She notes in the acknowledgements that:
Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory.
Writing of this quality and scope relies on an enormous amount of research and engagement with multiple disciplines. Writing that has something to say borrows, blends and braids together a diversity of ideas.
Making connections to new directions
The figure of the Renaissance Person as someone with profound learning in so many fields that there seems to be nothing she doesn’t know is untenable in the twenty-first century. Both the sheer explosion of knowledge and also an increasing awareness that there is so much we don’t know make us justifiably leery of trying to know it all.
But we don’t have to stay locked in tiny boxes of single-focus expertise either. As I noted in the article on why a writer needs a cross-pollination of ideas:
The opposite of inattention and distraction is not focussing on only one thing, but opening yourself to ideas from many places.
Opening ourselves up can take us in unlooked for directions. When I first moved to Wales almost 18 years ago my life was at a cross roads. I was seriously ill and had left behind a vocation I’d once imagined was for life. As I began to piece life together the areas that fascinated me were writing and publishing and herbalism. The latter seemed impossible to access, especially when the only course I could find was off the beaten track for public transport. I did an MA in novel writing and set up Cinnamon Press.
Cinnamon Press continues to delight and engage me but recently my reading has nudged me back towards the healing powers of plants. With courses online or in places I can reach by train and bus, I’ve signed up. It’s not an either/or. Nor is it a competitor for my writing time. Something will have to shift in how I use time, but it won’t be Cinnamon or my own writing. The time will have to come from those things that are best missed out on anyway, the myriad distractions that can be set aside.
Most vitally, as someone close to me pointed out, the courses, in aromatherapy and herbalism, open up a world of connections that will flow into my writing (both fiction and non-fiction), into the courses I teach and into how I relate to others and to the environment. On one level it’s a new direction. On another it’s simply a deepening of a direction that was already part of my quest.
As writers, we can’t know it all or be it all, but we can open ourselves to new ideas that enrich the path we are already on, that stretch us as writers and as humans. Writing that has something to say does so because the writer is ever-curious, ever making new connections.
An invitation to transform your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself.