“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
A concern I often see expressed often by other artists is that they don’t know how to stand out, or create their own ideas. To me, the key differentiation between yourself and your contemporaries is precisely that–you are YOU. Twenty photographers can be given the same prompt, same model, same environment, and they will use their imagination in 20 different ways.
So where do we find those prompts when floundering in our creativity? I was very candid about my personal lack of inspiration during the end of 2018. It was maybe an all time low for me to the point of wondering if I’d ever have a creative idea ever again, but I kept chipping away the block until it came free–even if that meant dozens of horrible art pieces that I hate now hidden away in the depths of my archives–I just needed to put in the work. Inspiration can come from anywhere at any time and it hits each person differently. Looking at powerful visual art, like great films, or scrolling through your favorite artists’ Instagram can absolutely inspire and raise questions about technique and story that you want to pursue, but removing yourself from visual stimuli is a more surefire way to stretch your own imagination.
Fantasy fiction has always been my flavor of choice, and always has a heavy hand in the inspiration for my own work. No modern fantasy would exist without the expansive world build by J.R.R. Tolkien and the dramatic scenes painted throughout his books.
“In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.
All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen.
‘You cannot enter here,’ said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. ‘Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!’
The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
‘Old fool!’ he said.’Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!’ And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.
Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
(The Return of the King)
And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s side they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.”
Even from the bottom of the deepest creative rut this scene is vivid, and a starting point to visually explore. Literature like this exists solely in a cognitive way, there is nothing tangible at hand to base how we see the story off of. We’re led not by our eyes but by our imagination, and that imagination is different from person to person; great stories are envisioned differently by everyone who reads them. Authors convey the emotion of the scene visually without literally showing us anything, and mirror neurons in our heads actually allow us to empathize and mentally experience what we are envisioning while reading. Even when these places and characters have no basis in our reality, the color, the atmosphere, the light, the language, are all carefully explored, allowing our minds to take the reigns. An author can touch all the senses through a combination of literal descriptions & emotional ones, creating a fully immersive experience. A powerful piece of visual art can do this as well, and practicing visualizing through a reading is a step towards this.
Less visually descriptive writing can help encourage the reader to view more with their imagination and stretch those mental muscles more creatively.
“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”(The Hobbit)
Or for something a little more contemporary….
“We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.”(Chocolat)
Neither of these passages is a literal depiction of the scene, yet both evoke a strong image and feeling. You already associate feelings and colors with a carnival, with warmth, the motions, with the smells and sights and childhood wonder that come with it. You can imagine the drama, power, and destruction that come from the dragon Smaug with only metaphor.
Inspiration can be in wanting to recreate that warmth, that sense of danger, the light you imagine, small pieces that touch you without a full-bore recreation. Indulging in fiction stimulates our imaginations, our ability to empathize, and be overall more creative & innovative.
A few of my favorite fiction reads over the last few years can be found below:
- “Rogues” is a short story compendium (easier to digest in pieces than a 3,000 page novel) featuring several of the following authors, maybe most notably its editor George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. It covers a wide variety of exciting and vibrant modern fiction from high fantasy to mystery.
- “Malazan Book of the Fallen” by Steven Erikson is a wealth of world building and amazing characters that reads almost like exciting history books as the story becomes more complex, the world more strange, and the drama more intense.
- Brandon Sanderson is basically a fantasy god and it’s hard to choose a favorite. The “Mistborn” series is fantastic though the original trilogy are the best IMHO, “Elantris” is an ethereal and emotional quick read, and The Stormlight Archive starting with “The Way of Kings” is wow (see my digital piece above inspired by a scene in the 3rd book).
- For something a little darker, Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series starting with “Prince of Thorns” is really great, though parts are definitely hard to swallow. I loved watching him slowly reveal the world he created over the first few chapters and it’s brilliant. The accompanying Red Queen’s War series is also fun and takes place during the same time.
- Neil Gaiman, yes all around. “Neverwhere” and “American Gods” are my personal favorites, but he’s written so many fantastical pieces.
- For a more modern take on fantasy Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files are pretty fun (really like the modern portrayal of ancient mythology). Similarly, The Hollows Series by Kim Harrison is kinda fun if you’re craving something easy to digest, more like trash-tv.
- “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss and ensuing books are fantastic and brought to life through almost lyrical writing, but waiting for the next one is a special kind of torture.
- The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski is really stunning. The Witcher games are easily the best fan-fiction basically ever, and reading the books adds an even greater depth to the characters and the world.
- “The Lies of Locke Lamora” and the rest of The Gentlemen Bastard’s Series by Scott Lynch are maybe some of the most fun on this whoel list. The first book especially is just magical on every level, from the unique places to the remarkable characters. Definitely worth a read or two.