When you’re not working on a big project (like a novel or a collection of poems), it can be difficult to get to the page and write something imaginative. But sometimes even the most prosaic of situations or items can contain hidden inspiration – just scratch at that surface a little bit, who knows what you’ll find.
Case in point – your work surface. If you’re a nine-to-fiver, you probably spend a large portion of your day confined to cubical walls or (if your lucky) an office with a window. Even the most strident and mercurial of work environments usually allows for some personalization of your workspace: a plant, a photo, your coffee mug. There’s meaning in what we choose to surround ourselves with, and you’d be surprised at the stories that lurk behind the everyday items that surround you every day.
The trick is what Julia Cameron calls “specificity.” In The Right to Write, Cameron expounds on the virtues of specificity saying, “Although we seldom view it this way, specificity is freedom. In the act of naming things precisely as they appear to us, we free our work from misunderstandings, from ambiguity, from vagueness.”
How do you practice specificity? Cameron suggests “taking the general looking more closely.” Write down the details – the size, shape and feel of things – and those details will lead you to the truth, not just of the item, but of the life that surrounds it. And charting those details can lead to a deeper connection with your material because as Cameron notes, “Detail allows us to communicate precisely what we mean.”
“Connecting to our environment consciously and concretely allows us to connect with greater specificity and emotional resonance to our own inner life,” continues Cameron. “It makes for writing of a rich timbre.”
Another benefit to specificity is that it can be used to make your writing routine. That seem counterintuitive – after all, don’t we all dream of being the novelist wunderkind at one time or another – but routine can actually enable a richer writing experience. “Specificity is like breathing,” advises Cameron, “one thing at a time, one thought, one word at a time. That is how a writing life is built.
“Writing, when we let ourselves do it, is like breathing. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It need only be regular and steady,” says Cameron. As such, specificity is just another tool in your writer’s tool box, sitting write along side your morning pages and shitty first drafts.
“If we let ourselves write, we also come to know what we’re doing,” concludes Cameron. “We know how to write because writing is what we do. The more we do it, the more specifically and regularly we do it, the easier it is to do: like hammering a nail, you get the swing of it when you do it more often than Sunday repairs.”
Below are some of the items sitting on my desk or pinned to the walls of my office As you can see, they vary in terms of their creative spark, but even the most mundane items lead me in new and unanticipated directions.
1 – Office blinds
White plastic venetian blinds that are always closed to the view without in a bid for privacy. The sun pokes through, making horizontal lines. The blinds are rustling in the breeze of my fan. Reminds me of the muted feeling of an empty church.
2 – Voss Water Bottle
Tiny bubbles sit all along the inside of the glass. Muted gray writing adds dimension. The bottle’s dark gray, plastic cap sits on the other side of the glass, distorted and mutated by the water’s reflection. Makes me imagine the view from a submarine porthole, like something out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
3 – Business card from Israeli Restaurant
Tacked to my office wall. White letters on a smoky blue background. Thinner white border with circles at each corner adds scale and dimension. The name is written in both English (Goldman) and Hebrew. Whenever I glance at it, I’m back at the Tel Aviv shoreline at sunset, watching surfers catch a last wave and families frolic under a setting sun.
4 – Bamboo Plant
On my desk is an 18inch bamboo plant with light green leaves, many of which are tipped with brown and beige due to inconsistent watering and lackadaisical sunlight. Wet rocks sit at its base inside a white china pot decorated with blue painted flowers. The neon green tail of a plastic cocktail mermaid peeks out from the pot’s calcified rim. I bought the bamboo as a tiny little shoot over six years ago, and whenever I take a moment to contemplate it’s dogged determination, I remember that it’s not just luck, but hard work that pays off in the end (but I still fail to water it on a daily basis).
5 – Keychain Heart
Pewter key chain charm in the shape of a heart, anchored to the rest of my keys by a thick, heavy chain. There’s a circular pattern engraved on the heart’s surface, while it’s edges and points have been dulled and shined by use. I bought this charm on a family trip to Carmel, and looking it at reminds of that cool winter day.
6 – Reed’s drawing.
A house drawn with forest green pen on canary yellow construction paper that’s been cut to fit the house’s shape. There’s a chimney, a circular attic vent, a graph-patterned front door and a window with venetian blinds. On the front port there are two chairs facing each other. Reed’s written “From Reed” and “To Liz” with a sloppy little heart. Both the “to” and “from” are written twice – once in all lower case and once in all upper case. Reminds me of the smell of coming dinner cooking on the stove.
7 – Sevilla postcard – “Courtyard in the Santa Cruz Neighborhood.”
Light beige stucco buildings dappled with dark shadows cast by a midday sun. Black, freshly painted wrought iron shapes balconies and window frames. These shiny black trellises throw up inky shadows along the white stucco walls. A green and yellow awning shades the entryway of a store – Las Cadenas. Mosaic tiles inch halfway first-floor walls…a grey and white triangle print on one, yellow on another. A white and yellow wall rises up along the outside of the courtyard; green leaves, creeping bougainvillea and drooping palms seep out from the garden within.
Behind the balconied house, you can see a decorative Turkish watchtower in more yellow, with dark blue relief and in stylistic contrast, a medieval church spire sits dark and gray against a robin blue sky. The courtyard floor is made up gray and beige tiles in a patchwork pattern. In one corner you can see a woman sitting at a table, probably waiting for her café con leche. A vintage lantern arches out over the sidewalk, ready to spark up a glow once evening has arrived.
This picture brings back the feeling of the hot sun hitting your bare arms when you emerge from a cool, shadowing alley into a bright, summer day.