Landscape Journals: What’s in YOUR Noggin?

For the last few months I’ve been participating with my partner Melanie in the Montana Artrepreneur Program (MAP), a business course for artists who want to make money doing what they love. I’m attending the workshops both as Mel’s business partner in her photography career and in the hope of learning things that I can apply to my own business as a writer. There are a number of business tools that must be completed in order to finish the course, and one of these that I think is particularly valuable for writers is the Landscape Journal.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s the question that all creative people dread, but that doesn’t mean it’s a nonsensical one. The truth is that you pick up ideas all over the place: news articles, personal experiences, stories from friends and family, magazine covers, songs, photographs, paintings, other people’s fiction, and countless others.

All of these influences and inspirations come together in your head to form an artistic landscape: the things that surround you, inform your art, and shape your ideas, philosophy and values. They are the mental milieu in which your creative process takes place, and they have a substantial role in shaping the kinds of art that you create.

A Landscape Journal is a place to keep track of these sources of inspiration. Some people keep their journals as physical scrapbooks, clipping and pasting in copies of the things that inspired them and scrawling in handwritten notes about their thoughts and feelings when they experienced them. Others prefer an electronic journal, a combination of blog entries, bookmarks, and files saved for later reference.

Not everything that goes in a landscape journal immediately inspires a story (or other piece of art). Sometimes they’re just things that grab you and make you feel something strongly: wonder, curiosity, empathy, outrage. Sometimes you might not even know why you’re drawn so strongly to the item in question; maybe you can’t put a word to the feelings it conjures. But you know it’s important, and that in itself is reason enough to include it. You’ll figure out what it means later, when it becomes grist for the creative mill.

There are two main reasons for keeping a Landscape Journal:

1.) A memory aid. You’re bombarded with information every single day, much of it trivial and fleeting. It can be hard to remember the things that matter in the face of all that noise. By making note of the things that affect you on a deeper level, you can go back to those things later when you have more time to mull over them. Later, you might see connections between items in your journal that will spark ideas for new creative projects.

2.) Proof of provenance. Suppose you write a story, send it off to a publisher, and it’s a huge success. The magazine that carried it sells out. You win the Hugo, or the Nebula, or both. A Hollywood agent beats down your door to represent you, and soon there’s a bidding war between studios to adapt your story to film. People are talking to you about seven-figure contracts.

Now, suppose that some established Hollywood screenwriter comes out of the woodwork and claims that your story is a ripoff of a script he wrote ten years ago but never sold. He’s got a big-shot lawyer and he’s willing to spend whatever it costs to sue you into oblivion. You haven’t got that sweet Hollywood cash in hand yet, and the studio is starting to get uncomfortable. What can you do?

Well, if you’ve documented your sources of inspiration as you gathered them, you can show people where your ideas came from. Odds are good that there were two or three major ingredients that went into making that story, and a bunch of smaller ones. You could just tell people where the story came from, but if you’ve got the physical evidence to back up your story, it’s going to hold a lot more weight in court.

You might think the scenario described above sounds outlandish, but things like this happen more often than you’d think. You never know which of your creative works is going to be a breakout hit, and the last thing you want is for that dream-come-true to turn into a nightmare because of an opportunistic lawsuit. Keep track of your sources of inspiration, give credit where it’s due (which is what the Acknowledgements section of your book is for), and your ass will be covered.

Obligatory legal notice: I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice — it’s just a smart idea I’m passing on to you. Talk to a lawyer well-versed in copyright law if you need specific advice on how to protect your intellectual property.

Oh, and if you’re an artist living in the state of Montana and you’d like some help getting your business started, I highly recommend applying to MAP. It’s a great program and an incredible value for the money.

Posted by chriswlester