The Writer's Compost Heap
An author offers tips on using abandoned projects to fertilize new ones.Where does inspiration come from? As authors, most of us are keen observers of the world around us. We might see the shadow a building casts, or notice an interesting person at a coffee shop, or hear a song that immediately makes us think about a book or story we are writing. These sprinkles of inspiration get piled together into what I think of as a metaphorical compost heap that is there waiting for you to continue to draw on as part of your creative writing practice, whether you write fiction or nonfiction.
When you have a compost heap in your garden, you are putting everything into it, the kitchen scraps of the things that you mix together into delicious culinary masterpieces to nourish and delight your friends and family. When it comes to writing, the creative compost heap functions in the same way. Sometimes you pull an idea and create something you don’t want to publish, and that’s part of the journey, too. Those abandoned projects get turned back into the metaphorical compost heap until they are able to fertilize something new, a flower of a book that blooms exactly as you want to write it and as your readers want to experience it.
In my home office, where I write my books, I like to be surrounded by my plans and ideas and inspiration. My creative compost pile is very physical.
To contain the ideas, I have a corkboard in my office that is filled with scraps of inspiration. Photos, postcards I have been sent or that I have picked up on book tours and other travels, things ripped out of magazines, quotes that I come across, and ideas for projects that I would like to take on but maybe don’t have capacity to start writing yet.
I will also write down bits of dialogue between characters that come to me while I’m walking my dog or riding my bike. I’m always thinking about my characters and my projects and finding ways to incorporate them. Recently I purchased a small dollhouse to live on my desk and have assigned little dolls to each of the characters in a novel that I am working on, so the characters and their home are always surrounding me as I write.I think of writing a bit like going on a treasure hunt. You are collecting clues along the way, not knowing whether or how they will help you to write the full book later. Ultimately, you never know what will be useful for you as writer.
Digitize your scraps
I’m a very physical writer. I like to save scraps of memories, quotes written on paper, trinkets from quarter machines that I think a character in a novel would collect, the tide chart from a small coastal town’s newspaper that maybe a character of mine might also see—but you don’t have to collect physical artifacts to develop a writer’s compost heap.
If you are someone who is more interested in digital collecting, you can use such sites as Pinterest or a blog, or even a folder on your desktop where you can save quotes, starts of stories, photos, news articles, and so on. If you are finding yourself mostly taking photos that inspire you to think about an in-progress book, a fun way to develop a digital compost heap would be to create an Instagram account dedicated to a particular book (this could also include photos of blocks of text) connected to that project.
As an indie author, this could be a great way to build a following for a book before it even releases. The more clues you share about the book’s aesthetics, the more chances there are for your readers to become invested.
Compost in the Covid era
The past two years have been challenging for everyone, including authors. In addition to living through a global pandemic we’re faced with how to write about that experience, and also how to write around it, how to create compelling stories that are not locked into this present moment.
Having a robust compost heap to continually be inspired by has been especially useful for me during the lockdowns. In those moments, I could look at my wall of ideas and find inspiration for both fiction and nonfiction projects that I was writing that helped me to feel connected to a world that I could no longer physically be part of, but one that was there waiting for me—and ready for me to write about.
Although the literary compost heap sustained my writing practice during the pandemic, I’ve also focused on adding to it with pandemic-related memories. I have been saving artifacts, notes, news clippings, photos of aisles without toilet paper, and other memorabilia.
I suspect that the experience of living through 2020 and 2021 will find its way into fictional work for years to come. It’s already hard to remember the details of what it was like when the world started to close down, so I know I’ll appreciate one day being able to return to a compost heap of memories of what life was like during the strange and early days of a global pandemic.
Composting around blocks
The creative compost heap is not only a great way to immerse yourself in the inspiration that you have for the book: it can also help you get words onto the page.
This isn’t about copying what you see in the world—rather, it is about appreciating that we don’t write books in a vacuum and that we are influenced and inspired by the world around us. Keeping a digital or physical creative compost heap connected to ongoing writing projects can also be a helpful strategy for getting yourself out of writer’s block. Diving into your compost heap and treating it like a writing prompt by picking an artifact, a quote, a line of dialogue, a postcard, or a photo and using that as a jumping-off point can be a great way to stretch your creative muscles.
Your compost heap can help you refine a project, or even dive into something new. As this year draws to a close, remember that there is no wrong way to collect ideas or to become inspired.
Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.