If you are anything like me, the second you hear that word, your mind goes blank and suddenly you have no clue at all what gets your creative juices flowing. Fortunately, after hitting mental roadblocks so many times over the years, I have a finely tuned system now and I never run out of ideas EVER. That is a lie. But, what I have done is tried to look at my experience with writers’ block as an opportunity to see what gets me out of it, and keep those tools in my creative arsenal.
I’d say there are a few main ways that I activate my muse:
- Lists. I’m a hardcore list maker. I LOVE lists. Writing lists, drawing lists, drawing someone writing a list. One of my favorite lists is my list of words/things/images that I like. I keep it in the back of my sketchbooks and I just add to it all the time and when I’m done with a sketchbook, I start a new list. When I come across something that peaks my interests, like say “knots in a tree” I add it to the list. Then I have it to refer back to later to help get me going for stories. You never know how the smallest little phrase or image can spark a story or character idea.
Then I will usually draw a character doing one of the things from my lists, which is just really fun and definitely helps build a story in my mind.
- Create a world for your characters. This is something that sort of started to build itself without me really even trying. When honing my visual voice as an illustrator, I quickly felt like I was creating all of these little characters for my portfolio that all came from the same place. I had all these little Woodland critters (that’s what I like to draw—cute anthropomorphic forest animals) doing things around the same forest.
So the badgers could easily bump into the porcupine or the raccoon and they’d all have lunch together (I’m sure this comes from growing up loving Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry).
Now I document these little moments on a map of the place that they live, which for me is a really fun way to keep them talking to one another, to keep my voice consistent, and it gives my characters a chance to come to life and let me look in on that life from time to time.
After a while in this world, they start to tell me stories instead of the other way around.
- Personal history. I have learned that the biggest cliché, “Write what you know” is one so true. If you search your memories, you’d be surprised at how you can turn it into a picture book idea. I’ve said in previous interviews that my debut picture book, Boats for Papa, came from a flash of inspiration one morning. But it didn’t fall out of thin air.
The story of Buckley and his Mama was very much modeled after my own childhood. I was a creative child (aka a busy little beaver) and my mother always encouraged that creativity.
My parents divorced when I was young and my father lived across the country, and passed away when I was 17, so that feeling of absence permeated my life. It wasn’t until I had written this book and it was in the process of getting published that I realized how much from the book was really me and my story. I think that is why it’s been able to move so many people—that honesty came from a very pure place and it resonates with readers. That was something that I didn’t exactly plan, but I know now is the core of why it’s so powerful. So now I try looking to my own past and my own real life experiences for ideas to get me going. Even simple memories can be the foundation for a great story. Staying open to seeing those experiences can be a challenge, but being an artist is about being vulnerable and without that vulnerability you can’t really know who you are or what kind of work you want to make.
I feel like even though these are methods I use to help me generate ideas, I still get stuck and still find new ways of getting ideas moving. Hopefully these inspire you. And if they don’t, read the next blog post—you never know what will spark your creative genius!
Thanks so much, Tara for having me! Good luck to you all!
Jessixa Bagley is a picture book author/illustrator of Boats for Papa, Before I Leave (out February 16, 2016) and Laundry Day (out winter 2017) all published by Roaring Brook Press. She loves hamburgers, tiny watercolor brushes, and repeat viewings of Gilmore Girls. She lives in Seattle, WA with her biggest inspirations—her illustrator husband Aaron Bagley and drooling baby boy Baxter who turned 1 year old the day of this post! Find her online at Jessixa.com and on Twitter @JessixaBagley.
Jessixa is giving away a copy of Boats for Papa and this “30 Boats” poster!
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