When I began my first residency at a respected art colony in New England, one of my earliest, dazzled impressions was that of how hanging out with people working in other forms seemed to knock down the walls in my own mind.
I’d be gathering coffee in the morning and casserole at night with composers, architects, playwrights, painters, sculptors, choreographers, and filmmakers.
I found that I did not have to understand the finer points of their craft struggles to appreciate them. It was good just to be near them, listen to them, and whenever possible, look at (or listen to) their products.
It was like hearing a number of languages in the room. You didn’t have to speak them fluently to feel enriched by their music, provoked by their subjects, and by a collective sense of progressive energy.
Taking yourself to museums, concerts, and other showcases can crack open your mind the same way—but more, it can spark ideas for new work, demonstrate a way in or out of ongoing work, or just inspire you to carry on when you feel stuck or discouraged.
Case in point: I was lucky enough to be wandering the Musée D’Orsay some years ago, when it featured a special exhibit of the work of Thomas Eakins. One wall showed three small photographs Eakins had taken of three separate scenes: two women on a beach; a spot under a tree; and a nicely-dressed gentleman, I think.
Then the viewer arrived to a painting Eakins made incorporating each of these three photos into one composition.
The result, a striking depiction of the two women and the man under a tree near a beach (or something like this) stood my hair on end.
I understood in an electrifying instant that I could do this in a novel. I could pluck disparate characters, settings, and events, and fuse them into a seamless story; a discreet, coherent world of its own.
That idea, of course, is hardly new. I’d known it rationally forever. But the visual suggestion entered me in a way that words could not.
Music does this for us, too: the gift of cross-pollination.
All we have to do is get out there, and pay attention.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.