How Does She Come Up With This Stuff?

This is probably the second most popular question people ask me, ranking just below, “Who, or what, is the Nightwolf?” and just above, “Why do you…(insert creative verb here)?” So it seemed only fitting that I take a moment to satisfy this ever-present curiosity.

The simple answer is that all my inspiration comes from music. All of it. I would be severely handicapped creatively if I suddenly went deaf. All my muses would disappear and I’d have to find a new career path to chase after.

Where does the specific inspiration come from? The music itself. I would say that this is where my natural talent steps in, derived from an innate sense of musicality– definition to be blogged about in detail later. The short explanation is that it’s a person’s ability to hear nuances within music and extrapolate emotion (or in my case, stories) from them. (That’s entirely my own definition, by the way, don’t quote me on that.) And it’s a gift more commonly associated with dancers and musicians. But every concept I create is the direct result of this same ability, representing the visual, written, or moving interpretation of the sound itself. A somber, melancholy piece of music will likely inspire a sad, tragic, emotionally heavy story. Something fast with high intensity will likely equal a fight scene or action piece. Haunting and dramatic music? Something creepy and mysterious. I think you start to see the point. The “feel” of the inspiring music has a direct correlation to the “feel” of the idea.

As for where the actual concepts come from…your guess is as good as mine. Did I expect Linkin Park’s “New Divide” to turn into a Sci-fi story featuring shape-shifting liquid aliens? No. Could I have guessed that Havanna Brown ft Pitbull’s “We Run the Night” would spawn a story about a nightclub full of Succubi? Definitely not. And if you had told me that Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” would spawn an as yet, undefined, cheesy paranormal romance, I would have laughed and said, yeah right. But those are all true. Along with a plethora of others equally as strange. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say they probably come from a voracious appetite for reading a broad mix of genres, a love for good storytelling, an almost pathological need to tell stories myself, and a keen ability to soak up reference material like a sponge, spinning it into new, weird combinations of fantasy, and a strange quirky brain that views imagination through a camera lens. Other than that, all I can say is…practice?

Creativity is a skill. True, some are born with a natural affinity for it, but it still takes time to develop. And my particular reliance on music for inspiration is no different. Just because I lucked out and was born with a slight advantage, doesn’t mean it’s a skill that can’t be learned. Where did I learn storytelling-by-music? Stuck in the back seat of a mini-van 9 hours a week, with nothing but a walk-man to entertain me. This, children, is what happens when your parents decide to live an hour from civilization in all directions. And yes, I did say a walk-man. As in, that archaic device that played 30 minutes at a time on a cassette tape. (Now I feel old. Thanks for that.) Don’t worry, I eventually graduated to a portable CD Player, and have long since traded those in for Ipods.

The point is, I have those long periods in the car to thank for my ability to write, draw and choreograph. So it wasn’t all bad. Except for the car-sickness. That part was always bad. Nothing like an hour on winding roads to teach you how not to throw up.

But back to the music.

I’ve never actually tried to describe my process with words. I’ve always just left it at “music inspires me.” But since this blog is supposed to be about offering advice along with my snarky trips down memory lane, I figured it was time I gave it a try. You will likely think me an absolute freak and in need of psychiatric help after you read this. But it’s my process, so leave it alone. It works. Who knows, some of you out there might even want to try it for yourselves.

Obviously, I start with a song. I call them Spawners, because, you guessed it, they spawn ideas. (I’m sure my penchant for ridiculous nicknames continues to impress you. But no one ever said the inner quirks of an artist’s process had to be brilliant, did they?) Is there a set formula that identifies these Spawners? Nope. They’re completely random, ranging from classical, to movie scores, to pop songs, to dubstep. Some stories require full length CD’s, others a single song. If I really dissect it, I suppose there may be a theme that runs through most of them–somber keys, dramatic drums, multi-layered melancholy. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Maroon 5’s “Payphone” spawned two stories, for example, and I wouldn’t describe it as fitting any of the above criteria. (It’s also the only one to ever spawn two completely different concepts. So something about it must be special. I just don’t know what.)

The way I know something’s a Spawner is actually kind of weird, and the part most likely to make you think me insane. It’s actually a physical reaction. Now, I know that “feeling” the music isn’t that odd, but just wait, I’ll try to describe it for you. It goes something like this: song plays, catching the attention of my internal ears (think the way a dog’s ears prick when they hear something interesting), goosebumps shiver down my arms and the hair on the back of my neck stands up, the right side of my scalp literally tingles, my eyes unfocus, shifting to peripheral vision, and images start to play in my head, like a daydream on steroids. I don’t know exactly why it happens, or how. Maybe I have a brain tumor, or an aneurism that gets ever closer to exploding when I hear certain notes. Maybe I’m a superhero with a super-evolved storytelling ability. Maybe I’m just a freak. All I know is that it’s a sure-fire signal something creative’s about to happen.

After that initial physical response kick-starts my inner projector, I just wait and the stories come to me. Sometimes I’ll only get a fragment, a brief scene, a still shot of a character or landscape. Other times it’s an emotional context, or thematic element that will run throughout the story. And more rarely, it’s just a character. The layers and nuances of the song become an intricate map of the action, syncing to the story the way a movie score does to a film. The melody itself is my narrator, creating a cohesive storyline that embeds itself into the music so thoroughly, they’re a seamless entity.

Last week I wrote about the idea of  summarizing a story with a single phrase and this is where that actually comes into play for me. I literally have hundreds of ideas– 168 and counting, to be exact– and I can’t possibly remember every detail about every one. I don’t even pretend to try. Some writers keep journals or computer files with notes for all their ideas. My system is more primitive. I keep them all in my head. How is that possible without overloading the hard drive? Because I only try to remember the gist of each story, which boils down to the title and a brief sentence describing the main goal. Each one of those summaries becomes inextricably tied to the music that inspired it. So by the sheer power of association, I never forget. Every time I hear that song or CD, even years later, the story that’s tied to it plays in my head like a movie. Spiffy trick, wouldn’t you say?

Now that I’ve thoroughly convinced you I’m strange, we’ll wrap this up. My intention was never to say that I’m the only creative person who relies on music for inspiration. That’s definitely not true. I think most of us do, honestly. But I also think that after reading this you’ll agree that my process may be a little on the unique side. And if not, please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from others like myself– help me feel less like a weirdo, you know? At the very least, I’m sure everyone who’s ever asked how I come up with my ideas is regretting opening that can of worms now. Bet they thought the answer was simple. Showed them!

Music Inspires T-Shirt Design“Music Inspires”

by Kisa Whipkey

Copyright 2012
All Rights Reserved

3 thoughts on “How Does She Come Up With This Stuff?

  1. Kisa, that all makes perfect sense to me. And I’m soooo sad that no-one else has commented or empathised with you. 😦
    Did you spend a year and a half wondering is you were weird. Or did you already know? 😀

    I have learned to listen carefully to contemporary music these days, always seeking that gem of a phrase which inspires. In earlier times, when work allowed, I would enjoy MTV (bear with me here) videos. They are an art form in themselves, inspiring stories with a mere flash of a brilliantly-directed music video. Simple example? One second a singer jumping from a wall to roll on the ground in the dark whilst smoke blows around him. I thought ‘where have all the people gone? Is the world burning? What’s happened? And why?
    Sadly, I can’t remember the artist, but it’s an image (like your song lyric) that has remained, 22 years later.
    I adore soundtrack music (my growing list can be seen at http://www.andrewtoynbee.wordpress.com/music-that-inspires-me-to-write-betterer) and was stunned by the line ‘The spark that lives in the heart of everyone, can become like a flame, like the sun.’ I was instantly inspired to see all humans as potential angels (in a scientific sense) who would gather together after all life had ended and the Earth has expired, as an infinitely bright spark which would outshine the sun – right before they soared off to find a new world to seed.
    All that from a line? ‘The Angels of York’ will embody that concept. Hopefully. If my nailed down snake co-operates.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Andrew! No, I didn’t really spend a year and a half worried that I was weird. I embraced that fact a long time ago. 😉

      But it does sound like we have a very similar process, both in writing and in finding inspiration. I’m continually amazed at the things my brain will come up with from a single image or phrase. Creativity is an amazing thing, isn’t it? I’ve only ever had one story spawn from an image in a music video, but I do agree that they can be great sources of inspiration.

      The more I read about your series, the more I’m looking forward to reading it. 🙂

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