I'm always looking for ideas to use in writing: for that prompt at which I first gulp and then slowly retrieve some thread of an idea, for the poem I need for the Monday morning poetry group, for an essay that's due in two days.
I've heeded artists' advice and taken excursions. To art galleries. On field trips to museums, a cruise on Lake Winnipesaukee, to a playhouse. Infrequent flights out West when I peered down at meandering rivers, knobby mountain ranges, the scattered lights of tiny towns on a vast dark prairie and wished I knew where I was on the map.
When I've walked through nearby state parks or parked at the lake, I've pondered which words to use to describe the settings. Later, what I remembered were the brilliant red maple leaves carpeting the dry grey sand and a red squirrel quarreling with me over an acorn. And sitting on a green bench set along what used to be the tramline to the Poland Spring Inn when a midsize dog jumped up next to me, its toenails clicking on the boards, its owner not far behind. "Pay attention," I'd reminded myself after that.
I'd gone on one field trip in which the drive through western Maine and into New Hampshire was one my husband and I had taken many times but this time the route seemed unfamiliar and I'd wished I'd brought a map—wherever we'd driven, I was always the copilot with an atlas and a folded map in my lap—because I'd felt a bit lost, as if I was searching for my bearings.
I haven't fared better in meeting with friends or in groups because I'm focused on our conversations, not on gathering impressions and descriptions to use later.
Yet there have been Sundays when I had a poem due the following morning, and since I don't like coming in empty-handed, I've looked into my yard, gathered thoughts line-by-line, and searched through them for a thread. Free-floated from the late-fall landscape to what was there a few months ago in late September when the pink cosmoses peered over the six-foot-high trellises as if they wished to be freed to roam. Of the wildflowers I plant each year, these are the ones that seem in no hurry to bud, growing taller and taller while the days shorten as if they're betting frost will never come as long as they keep putting out buds. Each year, they're mistaken.
Perhaps that's what I've done in turning to my yard—that by happenstance I'd seen enough to use—and given up too soon on following a map or designing expeditions during which I'd check off points for descriptions, specifics, settings. After all, there were only so many details I could use about the birds, small rodents, and trees in my yard and the same was true of drives into town, shopping, and the changing Maine seasons.
Yet, I'd recognized when I actually began to work on a prompt or sketch out my observations, memories sometimes arrived, sliding in as easily as if they'd waited for that moment. Other times I'd look out through the windows at only the gray squirrels feeding at the birdfeeders, chickadees
But neither were any of my other observations until I puzzled through them, for beginnings, to unfold arcs, to discover connecting threads; and searched them for the reasons why they caught my attention. I'd begun this essay hoping I'd discover ways to improve my gathering methods to collect more experiences to turn into stories. Instead, I saw I was gathering vignettes, descriptions, details from everywhere; that the processes of gathering and writing were separate. I'd mistaken looking into my yard and then using what I saw as a cause-and-effect sequence, forgetting that everything in my yard was connected to home, my need for ongoing projects and that watching wild animals and birds there was a gift and happenstance.
Bio: Brigitte Whiting lives in Maine and often uses settings and experiences from her backyard in her writing. She earned Fiction Writing Certificates from Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA-Ext and is working on her WVU-MFA Certificate. In addition to facilitating WVU classes, she meets weekly with two local writers' groups.