Creative Cross-Pollination

Cross-pollination: the transfer of pollen from one type of plant to another type of plant of the same species, often by insects or wind.

When you’re working really hard on a writing project, tunnel vision can creep in. It makes sense. Your life is busy, the publishing industry is slow, and you need to finish your book yesterday. So if you have time to do anything, you focus on books written in the genre and age-group that you’re writing for. You follow writers, editors, and agents in that specific field. And while some of that intense, single-minded focus is absolutely necessary, I’m going to encourage you to be open to cross-pollination.

Cross-pollination for plants is necessary for their survival. Some trees, such as willows, depend on it because willows don’t have male and female plant parts on the same tree. For other plants, cross-pollination ensures that the successive offspring are diverse, robust, and potentially more likely to survive changes in the environment, such as drought.

In order to create books that will stand out in the marketplace, I believe it’s necessary to open yourself up to influences outside your literary ‘gene pool.’ Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games is a case in point. In an interview, Collins noted that she’d read the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur when she was eight and it had stuck with her. And then,

One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.

Collins had already absorbed a literary precedent (Greek myths). Her open mind then took in a story of children in war (journalism/non-fiction) and a story of children in a competition (reality TV): those disparate sources came together to create a literary work that was compelling, complex, different—and an enormous success.

So go ahead, blur the lines. If you write MG fantasy, read PB non-fiction. Read biographies, like the one that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create Hamilton. Read manga and a book of obituaries. Go to the circus and think about writing. Listen to podcasts about the past. Learn a new language, do something you used to do when you were younger, sing in a choir. Take in the ballet, watch a documentary, visit an art exhibit or an ethnic grocery.

I think most writers do this very naturally; but this year, one of my goals to cross-pollinate more consciously. I’ve set aside pages in my journal where I’m listing the disparate things that spark something for me. Interestingly, the more I do this, the more I see.

So, be the bee. Blur the lines. Stay open to the wind.

I’ll be tweeting cross-pollination inspiration under the hashtags #amwriting, #creativity, and #crosspollinate, as well as on my blog. I hope you’ll join in with what inspires you.

This week’s inspiration: a man devotes himself to sculpting espaliered trees.


Further reading:

Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist and his blog

Jessica Crispin, The Creative Tarot

Cheryl Klein, The Magic Words


IMG_1617 GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.












6 thoughts on “Creative Cross-Pollination

  1. Love this concept! I too get caught up in thinking there’s not enough time to read outside my area or even beyond “how to” writing books – yet there’s nothing like being caught up in a new world I know nothing about, whether it’s landscaping with native plants to bird-scaping to vegan cookbooks. So I will accept this as a challenge to consider my wanderings not as ‘wasted’time’ but ‘creative travels’. Thanks for the passport stamp 🙂

    1. I agree! I love your idea to think of this as “creative travel”! Studies have shown that physical travel creates new pathways in the brain and I’d wager this kind of creative travel does something similar. Happy wandering, Eileen!

  2. I love the quote from Suzanne Collin.
    This article was inspiring to me because I believe novels will become more and more crossover 🙂

    1. I’m glad you gathered some inspiration from this post, Sussu! I like the notion that novels—in keeping with their name—will continue to try out new ideas and forms.

  3. I have been a bit miserable for the past week or so since I realized that my newly revised chapter one, which I previously thought was brilliant, wasn’t working.

    This morning after reading this blog, instead of writing I decided to do something different. I turned on the radio, but not to get my daily dose of NPR. I listened to music, not a CD, just whatever music happened to come through the speaker. I rarely take the time to do this anymore. I don’t know why. I guess it seems there’s too much important going on news-wise in the world for me to take time for music. I can’t tell you the name of the group, or the song, or even the lyrics, but the song was a series of simple questions. I just let my mind relax into those simple questions, which brought to my awareness that beauty isn’t always in the details. It can be found in the simpleness also. And then I realized simpleness is a detail and my chapter one was too complicated. I started over, and this time I began the chapter with one simple question. The rest just flowed out.

    I totally believe in making time for cross-pollination. I regularly do this when I’m plotting, but I now see it works for revising too. Thanks, Gita.

    1. I love this story, Michelle! Thank you for sharing — I found it so inspiring. Somehow, that song was just what your mind needed to help it to a solution. I’ll admit that my default setting (isn’t the problem so often about being in “default mode”?) is to listen to film soundtracks when I’m working…the thought of listening to something random is a bit scary, like it might throw me off. But maybe that’s good! I’m going to try it.

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