Lin-Manuel Miranda was on vacation from performing in his first Broadway musical, In the Heights. He was exhausted and looking for a big, fat book to distract him, so he picked up a copy of Rob Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton in the airport bookstore.
Later, sitting on the beach, reading Chernow’s book, Miranda began hearing Hamilton’s life in song. By the time his vacation was over, he was on the road to creating his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning hip-hop musical Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda discovered his masterpiece like a seashell in the sand.
Inspiration can be found in unlikely places. I’ve discovered poems while jogging, watching the film Citizen Kane, and baking a pecan pie for my mother. In fact, when I feel creatively stuck, I purposely take a break from my normal activities. I do something as far away from poetry as I can, and that is when poetry usually finds me.
If you are looking to jumpstart yourself creatively, here are prompts for how to find your seashell:
Pick up a book by one of your favorite writers. I love the poet Sharon Olds. When I read her poems, I find myself opening up like a tulip bulb.
Go for a walk in the woods or along a beach. If you are a writer, don’t bring your notebook with you. Instead, take your phone or a sketchbook. If you are a photographer, leave behind your camera. Bring a journal instead. Try your hand at a different art form to record your stroll in nature.
Todd Kaneko, author of the acclaimed poetry collection The Dead Wrestler Elegies, once told me his trick for finding his seashell. He said that he comes up with the absolute worst idea in the world (in his case, it was a series of poems about dead professional wrestlers), and then he pursues that worst idea.
When she feels creatively stuck, writer Natalie Goldberg makes a date to meet with one of her writing friends to share new work. Simply having a deadline can be enough of a kick in the pants to get started.
Listen to music that moves or inspires you. For me, recently, it has been the cast recording of Hamilton. However, I am equally moved by Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma or Billy Joel crooning “Captain Jack.”
Take a class in something you’ve always wanted to try—cooking or quilting or gardening or speaking Italian. Again, it’s about shaking the cobwebs out of your head. Forcing yourself to think “outside the box.”
Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, pick up a book you would never ordinarily read. I recently read a study of journalism at the turn of the 20th century. It ended up providing the background for an essay I wrote for Christmas.
Go someplace you have never been before, even if it’s a simple day trip to a local waterfall. A change of scenery often sparks new ideas. I once struggled with a poem for three months. I didn’t know how to finish it. Then I gave a reading in Sault Ste. Marie. As soon as I checked into my hotel in the Sault, I sat down at the desk in my room and wrote the ending to that poem.
Eat some dark chocolate. Just because chocolate helps everything.
Finding seashells is easy. They come in all shapes. All sizes. Tonight, I’m going to sit down and start reading a 1200-page biography of Charles Dickens that’s on my bookshelf. Who knows? I might find a poem or painting. Or maybe, just maybe, a Broadway musical.
U.P. Poet Laureate Martin Achatz teaches at NMU. He has published a collection of poems, and his work has appeared in anthologies and journals. Also a musician, Martin has released a CD of Christmas music and essays. Martin also enjoys hunting for Bigfoot with his son.
Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Spring 2018 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.