I’ve always found I write best when I get a certain feeling in the pit of my stomach.
It’s hard to explain exactly, but it’s a feeling that combines the nostalgic pangs of a sad sort of longing, frissons of excitement, and a deep drive to do something in the world.
This feeling can be hard to come by. It doesn’t conform to schedules, and it won’t be summoned easily when the task at hand seems uninviting (I’m looking at you, literature review).
I used to get it by listening to film soundtracks. There was something about soaring violins and epic orchestral themes that really turbocharged my emotions and inspiration levels for a time. I’d listen to compilation videos on YouTube (’22 Most Heartmoving Soundtracks of the Millennium’, for example) and pour my movéd heart into whatever it was that I was working on.
The quest to find The Feeling never ends. It’s a moving target – it’s only a matter of time before each source of inspiration loses its impact. The Outlander soundtrack worked wonders for a while, as did the Titanic soundtrack. I found a candle that somehow generated all the right pangs every time I caught a waft of its glorious sage and lavender scent. After a couple of weeks, The Feeling fades. The search begins again.
Writing my PhD thesis has taught me a lot about creativity and inspiration. I’ve learnt that I love my work most when I immerse myself in it as fully as possible, and that my ideas flow best when I devote time each week to research-related adventures.
While working on a chapter about nostalgia, cultural tourism, and heritage, I spent some of my afternoons wandering the halls and gardens of local National Trust properties. The Feeling came in waves as I thought through what it was that drew me and so many others to these carefully curated places, and how the same desires might be fuelled by historically-inspired stagings of Shakespeare. Back at my laptop, I wrote to the sound of period drama and heritage cinema soundtracks (Poldark, Jane Eyre, War & Peace, The Crown, Pride & Prejudice).
When I switched over to a side project about Hamilton, I started out by following The Feeling all the way back to the eighteenth century. A day out at a William and Mary-style house, a trip to the V&A to gaze at eighteenth-century clothing and objects… I felt like I could reach out and touch the period I was trying to capture in my writing.
I’m now writing about Shakespeare as fantasy, and how design has been used to make sense of otherworldly spaces and figures in the plays. Perhaps inevitably, I’ve fallen down a rabbit-hole into dreaming about fantastical lands. I write my chapter in the morning, and in the afternoon I take myself off to the glades of some nearby woodlands or into the pages of a fantasy novel. The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are currently my soundtracks of choice. The Chronicles of Narnia will probably come next.
I suppose I’ve learned that my research and writing process really comes to life when I let my imagination and emotions into the mix. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and my brain keeps on ticking away while I venture out to interesting places. Each thesis chapter exists so vividly in my mind because it has such distinctive, genre-/period-specific associations. It feels like I’ve been on a series of real-life journeys.
I’ll just keep on chasing that feeling, wherever it takes me. To the Misty Mountains and beyond!
(But first – coffee.)