Week nine: Filling up the well

It is week nine of 2019. It’s that tricky period when the shine of the new year has worn off and the calamitous Ides of March is looming. Whenever possible, I try to change my longitude or latitude at this time of year to shake up my routine and refill my creative well.

This year’s trip – a meander through London and Edinburgh – was especially wonderful because inspiration for writers and readers is thick on the ground. Here are a few of my favorite discoveries.


This is the desk where Charles Dickens composed four million words, more or less. Nearby is a wall plaque with this quote: "Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it but to delight in it when it comes." When I sat down to check the accuracy and find the source (editing reflex!), I was surprised to learn, thanks to the work of Sue Brewton, that these words don't belong to Dickens at all but rather to Douglas McGrath, who wrote the screenplay for the 2002 film adaptation of Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby. The Charles Dickens Museum doesn't explicitly attribute the quote to Dickens, but it is implied. Lesson: always check your quotes, y'all, or hire a copyeditor who will do it for you!


The Writers' Corner in Edinburgh's St. Giles Cathedral includes a tribute to Margaret Oliphant, whose work was widely popular in the nineteenth century (she was reportedly Queen Victoria's favorite novelist) but little-read today. Widowed early, she wrote a hundred books, mostly novels, and managed to support her three children with the income from her writing. She wrote in her memoir that her family "were quite pleased to magnify me, and proud of my work, but always with a hidden sense that it was an admirable joke, and no idea that any special facilities or retirement was necessary." I want to travel back in time and give her an office, with a door, and maybe give her children a stern lecture too.


Greyfriar's Kirkyard, in Edinburgh's old town, was one place where I could feel and see all of the layers of the city's long literary history intersecting. Scott's characters regularly passed through this spot and, almost two hundred years later, J.K. Rowling found the names of two of her characters on the gravestones here.

The Writer's Museum in Edinburgh is full of delights (including a nineteenth-century printing press), but one of my favorite pieces was this sculpture. It is one of a series which was left anonymously by the artist "in support of libraries, books, words and ideas." The sculpture depicts a scene from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's an evocative piece, but the best part is that the artist created it using a copy of Ian Rankin's second Rebus novel, Hide and Seek, which was inspired in part by Stevenson's novel.


The statue of Sir Walter Scott, topped by an elaborate Gothic tower, is one of the first sights you see when leaving Edinburgh's Waverley Station (itself named after one of his novels), but I preferred the bust of poet Hamish Henderson, made from the pages of his own books, which is tucked away in a corner of Sandy Bell's pub – a bottle of his favorite Lagavulin whisky beside him.


On my last night in London, I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon. It's a remarkable adaptation, full of stage effects and movements that dramatize the inner experience of the protagonist, who has Asperger Syndrome.

In a note in the program, Haddon writes that he now regrets that the phrase 'Asperger Syndrome' appeared on the cover of the novel when it was published. He prefers the protagonist's own description of himself as "someone who has Beahvioural Problems." Haddon writes, "I like the way it gently mocks diagnostic medical language. I like the way it includes all of us (who doesn't have behavioural problems?). But I like it most of all because it is Christopher's own phrase. Labels tell us very little about the person who has been labelled and a lot about the people doing the labelling. If you want to find out who someone is, just ask them."

In a coincidence that I found thrilling, I discovered a very similar sentiment in the author interview at the end of Alex Reeve's The House on Half Moon Street, which I bought at Heathrow for the plane ride home with the last of my pounds. The novel is set in Victorian London and the protagonist is trans. But, Reeve stresses in his interview, "this isn't a novel about being trans, this is a crime novel featuring a man who happens to be trans. Most characters in fiction seem to default to the so-called norm unless there's a plot-based reason for them not to. But the so-called norm isn't reallynormal at all. People come in lots of different flavours. Why should including a trans or gay or disabled or any other kind of character require the plot to centre around that attribute? I think we need to move beyond all that and include every kind of people in our stories as a matter of course."

It takes bravery and sensitivity, but I wish more authors would follow the advice of Reeve and Haddon. 

If the words are stuck or your mind is feeling dull, think about what you can do to shake things up and refill your well. You can keep it simple: a hike you’ve never done, a museum you haven’t visited, a drive you’ve never taken, an afternoon at the library with a book you’ve never read. Almost anything works, as long as it involves novelty and motion. I think Elizabeth Gilbert is right here: “any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.” Get your blood stirring and your brain working and creative magic will come flooding in.

Here’s to refilling the well, y’all,

PS: How do you refill your creative well when it’s running dry? I’d love to hear about it! Let me know in the comments or drop me an email.

Next week’s book: Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

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