Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Grist vs. Gift

One metaphor that has never fit well for me is "grist for the mill." For everyone else in the world it means something that is useful for a particular purpose; for writers it's meant to describe what gives us inspiration, ideas or anything that ends up sparking or going into a story. I don't have a problem with the concept, just the word: grist. For me it immediately invokes gristle, which paired with the mill is simply disgusting, imagery-wise. I think grist is a bit heartless, too. It implies inspiration is nothing more than fodder to be ground up and used.

Since I always want to change things to suit myself, I thought about my attitude toward what inspires me. I consider things that fall into the grist/mill category as gifts from the universe. It may be magical thinking, but the universe always seems to be tossing things at me that make their way into my stories: art, Chinese cookie fortunes, colors, critters, music, odd names, phrases, scents, and textures, to mention a few.

Some of the strongest elements in the stories I write are inspired by very mundane things, too. Broken glass and an old pocket watch evolved into a dreadful superpower (Lucan's from Dark Need) and a time travel device (Disenchanted & Co.) respectively. Gifts for the mill can be very small, too, like a character name (the name Mordred from the Arthurian legend, turned inside out + e = Dredmore in my Toriana books) or something huge (apparently the Oregon Dunes helped Frank Herbert create the SF world of Dune).

Such inspirations often have intense, personal meanings for the writer as well. The photo of the pocket watch you see with this post is one I altered and made into a necklace, and is based on the time-travel device in my story, which was in turn inspired by a lovely old pocket watch I saw in an antique store on one of the best days in my life. For readers, it's a time-travel device. For me it's that and a reminder of something wonderful. Gifts remind us to be grateful and appreciative for whatever makes it into our stories, which is a bit healthier than seeing inspiration as something we can use.

So what was the last gift for the mill you received? Let us know in comments.


  1. I love the necklace. I can see how it become inspiration.

    Re: Grist
    How strange that the word gives you a negative connotation. I see grist as something wonderful. It's food, and safety, and the staff of life.

  2. I do love that watch.

    I don't know that I make many specific connections when I'm writing or getting ready to. I do sometimes see things after, when I'm editing, but I think they're unconscious ideas when I start out.

  3. I've actually never heard that turn of phrase in reference to inspiration for writing or anything else. That being said I completely understand how the word could bring to mind what it does for you. The sound of certain words can impact how I feel about them. It sounds like something I associate with something I dislike so I am not fond of the word.
    Inspiration for me tends to come from all over and sometimes from strange places. Most recently, a piece of Labradorite. It's become a magical center piece in a short story.


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