When I die, I want to be composted. My mum, who has already booked and paid for her burial plot, would be horrified by this idea. I’m all too aware this body I inhabit is a loaner, and I’m all too happy to slip it into the returns bin on my way out.
Composting takes the original thing – shrub, carrot, person (sorry mum) – and breaks it down to its most basic parts to form a natural fertiliser. The combined nutrients then feed back into the soil and eventually, these parts get new life and grow into something else.
Keeping a creative compost heap – of quotes, snippets and scraps of ideas – is just as important to nurturing your writing as it is for gardeners in feeding their garden. Writing is in many ways a form of recycling; taking something from real life and breaking it down and reusing it in story form. Good stories grow from rich beginnings. While nothing will replace the importance of sitting down and writing (ie/ doing the work), this heap will feed and nourish your creative work in surprising and novel ways.
We planted out one of our vegetable beds this week, but not before preparing the soil with worm castings and compost, a rich mix of broken down vegetable matter, newspapers, and chicken manure from our hens. It struck me as I spread the mix – noticing last summer’s mango pips and avocado stones – that it was comprised of last summer’s fruit, of which we are yet to enjoy this year because it’s still growing somewhere in this big land. A bit like those big stories which haven’t come to us yet, they’re just fragments floating around, waiting for connection, growth and the moment of realisation when they turn into something else.
10 things to add to your Creative Compost Heap
Like a traditional compost heap, newspapers are a great source of material in a creative compost heap. Full of human stories, pain, suffering, success, struggle, newspapers are the well we draw from. Keep a clippings file to draw upon when you’re combing for ideas.
Take notes, everywhere.
Take notes, everywhere. In the supermarket. The doctor’s surgery. At the tip. The sly glance of the girl on the bus. The way the old man feeds the ham to his dog under the table in the cafe. The terse words overheard at school pick up. This is all good material. If something strikes you, write it down and toss it into your heap.
Read good books
This one is a no brainer, right? Learn from the masters. Once upon a time there was no such thing as studying creative writing at university. All the greats learnt the craft from sitting at the feet of the masters and observing their movements. If you have a library card, you’re well on your way.
Read bad books
I love reading good literature, but sometimes bad books can teach us just as much about the writing process as good books. If you find yourself stomping through a crap book, try to pin point the qualities that make it bad. Prose? Plot? Characterisation? Structure? Voice? Try not to do those things in your own writing.
Listen to your good ideas
If an idea or image or character won’t leave you alone, it’s probably worth pursuing. Write it down! By following your gut, you’ll soon develop a knack for knowing which ideas to keep, and what to toss.
Allow yourself some clutter. I know the dominant trend in our busy, work and style obsessed world is to kill the clutter, but creative people need clutter. It’s like oxygen, and forms the basis of stories that live and breath. Keep scraps, ideas, half formed sentences. You absolutely never know when these things will pop up again. If you feel the urge to keep something – a photo, a ribbon, a button – do it. If space is an issue, take a picture of the object and file it on your computer. Or if you work on paper, keep a visual diary – sketch, clip, paste, print, write, play.
Music can take you out of your own head and into someone else’s. The right kind of music (depending on the piece of writing you’re working on) can motivate you to keep working.
This isn’t so much an ingredient for your compost heap as a technique to encourage your creativity to flourish. When you can’t write, go for a walk or a ride or a run or a drive. Catch a train to nowhere, then come home again. Consider it like turning your heap, churning things over to allow a change of scene, of temperature, to encourage further development of ideas and voices. Whenever I get stuck, a walk will always yield new ideas or a fresh perspective.
Be a passive observer
Turn on your listening ears and open yourself up to the stories around you. Really listen.
Take your time
Enjoy what you do. Writing is a craft. If you are heavy handed and rush yourself, it will show. Keep your touch light, and your creative compost heap will grow dense and rich and continue to feed your writing, so long as you continue to feed it. Good things take time.