This is the first of a new feature on this blog, promised to one of my favorite graduating seniors, who asked me if I might still send her fiction prompts.
This first exercise comes to me partly from Adam Bede, by George Eliot, or, that’s what I tell people. I read that novel in college, and haven’t read it since, so I may remember this imperfectly: In it, one of the characters practices bibliomancy, a form of fortune telling that involves asking God a question and then opening the Bible with your eyes closed. You run your finger down the page and when your finger stops, you open your eyes and that’s your answer.
I always used to browse bookstores and libraries by flipping books open at random, and when I read that in Adam Bede, I suddenly saw my habit a little differently.
Without engaging what a friend of mine calls the “woo-woo” factor (insert scary ghost noise here) the following exercise is what I came up with, based on my library habits.
- Take a notebook and pen and go to a library, to the fiction stacks.
- For 30-45 minutes, wander the stacks, flipping open books at random. Pause before the shelf, close your eyes, reach out with your hand and choose a book. Flip it open and see if there’s a passage on the page that speaks to you. Write it down.
- Do this six more times.
- Read the group of quotes and look for a common theme or themes. Write them down as they come to you.
Part of what you’re doing when you write fiction is making connections between disparate elements, between things that were not previously connected. I often lead this for my beginner class as it gets them into the library, and introduces them to fiction they’ve never found before. Many of them leave the library with books they found in the exercise. The themes that emerge are often unconscious to them, something they’ve been thinking about, not because of any mystical element, but because the arrangement of unfamiliar elements allows them to surprise themselves, and hear this from themselves.
The theme is also very often related to something they’re already working on and often helps them to understand what they’re doing. Or it helps them guide themselves. This can also be used in writing nonfiction. It can guide the creation of an essay.
Also, it’s fun to do.
The only other explanation is that it really is a kind of witchcraft. Which is why Methodists no longer practice Bibliomancy.