Much like the mythic Spring of Eternal Youth, the secret source of humanity’s ability to be creative continues to evade us. However, there is another question that I think can be answered: When do ideas appear? The answer to that question, and our willingness to adjust our lifestyle to it, may be the ‘secret’ that so many seek. So if you are not currently living a creative life and would like to I am offering a concrete, cost-less step that you can take on that journey.
"If you are not currently living a creative life and would like to
The Other Big Question: When do ideas appear?
My Answer: Microspaces.
Microspaces, as I define them, are all the insignificant moments of the day. Taking the elevator. Stopping at a red light. Brushing your teeth or standing in line at the grocery store. Tying your shoes. Sitting on the toilet. Microwaving your lunch. Waiting for the bus. Watching a laggy webpage load.
Microspaces offer brief moments of mental liberty. They are the empty ‘inbetweens’ in our days that so easily go unnoticed. They are the white space between the letters. They are the silence between notes. They are the breaks in the pattern and the place between strokes.
"Microspaces offer brief moments of mental liberty.
In my experience these microspaces are exactly when my best ideas appear. Not during dedicated brainstorming sessions. Not during my scheduled writing time. Not while doing research or hammering out words on the keyboard. They float into my mind during those empty moments. But look carefully at the microspaces listed above and you may find that those moments are not so empty for you.
When all the white space on the page gets filled the text fades into chaos. Without the silence between notes the concerto becomes a cacophony. But that is how most people are living right now and human creativity suffers for it. So what’s the good news? We are all in control of how we manage our microspaces.
"Advertisers and developers pride themselves on filling every unclaimed surface and second in our lives with noise."
If you are serious about being a creative person you need to actively cultivate your microspaces. Don’t fill every moment looking at a screen or gawking at photoshopped models in advertisements or on magazines. Just let your eyes rest on those round buttons in the elevator. Stare at the seagulls outside while you wait in line at the store. Don’t make a habit of checking your phone in the bathroom and look out the bus window rather than up at the ads.
"If you are serious about being a creative person you need to actively cultivate your microspaces."
Nothing has been more rewarding in my creative journey than protecting my microspaces from mental clutter, but don’t interpret this advice as dismissive of the hard labour that goes into being creative. Ideas are raw materials that need to be shaped and refined through hard creative labor. However, if you don’t allow room for microspaces in your day you’ve cut yourself off from that mysterious spring of ideas somewhere beyond our reach. Embrace your microspace.
To experience the benefits of microspaces in your creative journey Joshua challenges you leave your phone turned off for a day.
In a viking’s mind the sword lay next to the spoken word. Wielding words with skill was as important as wielding a blade; a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke. If injury was intended then every viking knew that a well-crafted insult aimed at an enemy could fly farther and sink deeper than any hand-fletched arrow. Intelligence could be measured by one’s ability to interpret poetic riddles and, for those seeking glory, a deed enshrined in verse would outlast the richest treasure. Therefore, no study of the Viking Age could be complete without considering their poetry.
"a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke"
The end-rhyme pairs love/of and day/say in an ABAB scheme satisfy, to the modern ear, what poetry should ‘sound’ like. Each line has either six or seven syllables which demonstrates a fair amount of consistency between lines.
"Modern song lyrics and traditional Western poems are primarily defined by
By contrast, the skaldic poetry enjoyed by vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration instead. Both of these were made easier by the fact that Old Norse as a language has less phonetic diversity than modern English. Since there are literally fewer sounds within the language it is much easier to find rhymes and alliteration in Old Norse. Skaldic poetry also featured over one hundred distinctive structured verse forms, each of which had its own strict set of rules. One of the most popular forms was dróttkvætt, also known as ‘court metre’.
"the skaldic poetry enjoyed by vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration"
While it is nearly impossible to re-create within the English language I will give an approximation of my own making based on a set of five dróttkvætt-like rules.
With those five rules in mind, here is an example of how they can be applied and what (with a great stretch of the imagination) viking verse might have sounded like.
Attempt to construct a verse of your own with these five rules and you’ll find it a synapse-stretching task. However, a skald would not consider the verse above to be dróttkvætt at all as it does not strictly follow the additional rules of the form. In conversations with doctoral students of Norse literature I have heard these skaldic forms described as ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however, Viking Age skalds were famed for being able to improvise such forms on the spot.
“skaldic forms [were] ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however,
In addition to these challenging structural complexities skalds were famously known for their use of a unique poetic device known as a kenning. Kennings were metaphorical phrases that alluded to Norse myth and culture. For example, the ‘whale road’ is a kenning for ‘the ocean’; the ‘sea of swords’ is a kenning for ‘battle’; ‘Freya’s tears’ is a kenning for ‘gold’. The best skalds might employ a double kenning, a reference to a reference. A phrase like ‘the venom of the battle snake’ employs the kenning ‘battle snake’ for ‘sword’, presumably making its ‘venom’ a kenning for ‘blood’. Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’. While triple or even quadruple kennings may have existed, scholars such as Peter Hallberg declare that the intimate knowledge of Norse culture and skaldic traditions needed to decipher these kennings makes them practically inaccessible to the modern reader.
“Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’”
For more on poetry in the Viking Age Joshua recommends Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse by Peter Hallberg.
It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact, tell you far more about that culture than the stories themselves. What kind of stories do we tell today? I sense futility, anger, hopelessness, selfishness, and defeat in most of them. A sense of embarrassment about the story we are currently telling through how we live is already openly acknowledged: how often have you heard people shudder as they ask what their grandchildren might say of us and how we treated the environment, or nuclear science, or genetics research? But there are other cultures and with them other stories that we might tell instead.
"It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact,
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose? Couldn’t the strength of Thor, the cunning of Loki, the beauty of Freya, the keen senses of Heimdal, or the wisdom of Odin divert this terrible disaster? No. The gods are doomed and each must live under the shadow of this impending apocalypse. Does that sound familiar? I think we might have more in common with the ancient Scandinavian story-tellers than most people imagine.
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose?
So what is the response of Odin and the gods to their plight? Do they give up? Do they lay down their swords and surrender to their inevitable end? Do they drink themselves blind in light of the doom that awaits? No. Odin plots ceaselessly to seek out the bravest and wisest warriors to join him in Valhalla where they constantly prepare for Ragnarok. Thor continues to beat back the frost-giants with his hammer Mjolnir and Heimdal remains ever-watchful at his post atop Bifrost. And, of course, the iconic viking warrior emulates the Norse gods: despite the odds he fights, more concerned about finding a good end than in trying to avoid it.
So I offer this thought: if the stories we are telling today are not the sort we’d like people to remember us by then let’s look back and find stories worth telling. After that, when we are ready, we’ll embrace a new way of looking at the future and learn face the inevitable challenges that lay ahead with courage instead of cowardice. Then we’ll start telling stories worth living.
For more on Ragnarok Joshua recommends Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of the Norse Myths.
My first lesson was this: inspiration feels more like rowing and less like the weather. I used to sit around in my writing chair as if it was a sailboat. There I would wait for inspiration to fill my sails and whisk me away on the adventure that was my story. Gusts of inspiration came intermittently but with such infrequency that they carried me nowhere; even worse, they often blew me right back to where I started. But when I learned to row, to start tugging at those oars despite the blisters and the rain, I started to make real progress. Then when a blessed gust of inspiration did come I was ready to take full advantage of it.
The second lesson I learned is going to sound strange, but I’ll share it anyways because this is what really changed the game for me: imagine there is a force that is actively and insidiously working against you finishing your book. You don’t have to literally believe this (I do) but it will put you in the right mindset. The creative process, like actual birth, isn’t a pretty, passive act. You won’t want to Instagram the reality of it. It’s a gritty, greasy slog that will take everything you’ve got, and then some. So forget all the perfect pictures of laptops and lattes that other people post online and brace yourself for all-out war.
"The creative process, like actual birth, isn’t a pretty, passive act. You won’t want to Instagram the reality of it."
My last piece of advice is for writers in the digital age: treat social media like sugar. It feels great to have your Facebook page liked, your Twitter announcement re-posted, or your podcast shared. However, nothing is going to crush you like a bad review or a rejected query letter if you’re relying on praise from strangers; it’s like trying to run a marathon on a stomach full of halloween candy. Instead, ground yourself in your work, believe in its intrinsic value, and invest in a support network of analog friends (preferably writers) rather than banking all your hopes on one-shot viral success online.
Not everything that works for me will work for you. But I do think your story is worth telling and I don’t think you will finish it in a reasonable amount of time without becoming a resilient writer. So ignore the storm clouds on the horizon. Nevermind that the breeze is blowing against you. Chalk up those hands then grip the oars and get writing.
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.