Cultivating The Compost Heap

Sprouting Up from the Compost Heap, Process in Pastel #1, Hard Pastel in A5 Journal

A compost heap is basically rotted down food scraps or organic rubbish used in gardening to fertilise soil. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass on writing (the Art of Storytelling), he encouraged viewers to gather sources of inspiration through the apt metaphor of the compost heap.

“And I think it’s really important for a writer to have a compost heap. Everything you read, things that you write, the things that you listen to, people you encounter – they can all go on the compost heap. And they will rot down. And out of them grow beautiful stories.”

Neil Gaiman

I have found the following ways helpful in growing my compost heap:

  • Declutter the “monkey mind”: Fill 3 pages of your unfiltered steam of consciousness on a daily basis or when you have a creative block or feel the need to purge your mind of unhelpful thoughts, ruminations, and the like. Commonly known as Morning Pages, you may write them upon waking as part of your morning routine (I prefer to do them when I’m most productive – in the wee hours of the night). Put pen or pencil to paper and purge the mind. Thereafter, bin it, burn it, just do not trouble yourself with re-reading it. Out of mind, out of sight. Do this often enough and you may notice a theme running through your daily cleanse that might help you arrive at an epiphany or go deeper into some of the issues that might be holding you back. On multiple occasions, I have found this experience to be rather cathartic.

(Source material: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron)

  • Keep a Bibliography Journal or Commonplace Book: Essentially, this is a place where you can record your literature notes from your readings (quotes that inspire you, food for thought, etc) and reference the source (so you always know where to go if you need to delve deeper on the subject). In the Renaissance and 19th century, commonplaces (or commonplace books) were used by readers, writers or scholars to systematically compile valuable knowledge. Each collection is unique to its creator’s interests, often made up of poems, prose, images and quotes from sources of inspiration accompanied by written reflections. In classical rhetoric, commonplaces were statements or nuggets of knowledge/wisdom shared within the community – a creative melding of ideas and thoughts. For the past few years, I have made the habit of reading with a pen and journal to record my adventures in reading and to point me towards areas for deeper reflection. Recently, I have been inspired to consolidate them all into a slip-box akin to the one used by sociologist Niklas Luhmann. It would be interesting to see what would sprout up from this technique.

(Source material: Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England by David Allan & How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens)

  • Keep a Visual Journal: This is home for personal insights, images, symbols and metaphors – a book to contain your unique lived experience and emotions. A classic example of this would be psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s The Red Book. In its epilogue, Jung commented that the 16-year endeavour was a “confrontation with the unconscious”. Writing and creating images of his lived experience helped to contain the “overpowering forces of the original experience” and arranged them into a whole. This process enables me to actively engage and respond to mental imagery through art.

“Images generate stories, imaginal dialogue, and other forms of artistic expression, but they also act directly on our bodies, minds and senses.”

Shaun McNiff

(Source material: The Red Book: Liber Novus by C. G. Jung)

Hopefully the aforementioned sources would help you grow your compost heap as it has for me. Cheers to a journey toward bolstering creative synthesis!

Enjoy the harvest.

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