I’m reading the current issue of Poets & Writers, and the theme is inspiration. I don’t do anything special to find inspiration. I mean, I don’t sit and meditate or take long walks or drive around waiting for ideas to strike. And I haven’t noticed a tendency for ideas to strike when I’m doing some specific activity. Inspiration seems almost random and mysterious; however, I have noticed a few things over the years of developing stories.
• Creative work creates work, or ideas generate ideas.
There was a time in my 20s when I worked a full-time office job and a part-time coffeeshop job. At the end of my day, I didn’t have any energy left for creative thinking, never mind actually writing anything. It was a miserable and creatively barren time of my life. When I was finally able to get back to writing, I hardly had any ideas at all. Nothing inspired me. And what I wrote was by and large total crap. I gave myself permission to write crap, just to the mojo flowing again. I got a copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and I kept my hand moving. As my practice developed, so did my prose, and the ideas started to flow.
Similarly, when I entered the MFA program at Hamline University, I had been working on the same novel for a couple of years, and before that another novel for more years. Short stories were something I wrote occasionally when “inspiration struck.” They were a respite from the long form of the novel and all the characters I’d been working for so many months. My first semester, I took two classes. I wrote thirteen stories, nine poems, and a long CNF piece all in about thirteen weeks. I don’t remember the last time I was so productive and felt so good about the work of writing.
Part of that hot streak was entering a community of writers, and part of it was the fact that writing became my work, my practice–not my sideline. It’s like this: when you spend some energy exercising, you gain more energy overall; by spending the time and energy to write, you gain more energy to write, and more ideas.
• Good ideas need to percolate in order to become good stories.
At least once, but perhaps only once, a story came to me “in a flash,” so to speak. I was in a coffee house in Uptown and decided to write something in the voice of a woman with a southern accent. (You might try this: describe the sound of a voice and when you say “Go!” let the voice start talking and write down whatever comes.) The things this woman had to say were incredible and well beyond my years at the time. This story is about twenty years old, and it remains a piece I’m quite fond of. Almost all of my work from my youth is what you would expect and best forgotten.
That was a moment of genius, when I just stepped out of the way of myself and let the words come while I tried to keep my hand moving fast enough to jot them all down. This was pure flow. While in it, the cafe around me could have melted away without my noticing. And when I finished the piece, I felt spent and exhilarated, which is similar to how I feel after a long bike ride that has challenged me in a good way.
Mostly, however, a story begins life as a coffee bean (trying to not mix metaphors here). It’s not much good to you until it’s been alchemically processed and percolated. Saving Annabelle began with the line, “My sister has haunted me ever since the day I saved her life.” I have no idea where that line came from, but there it was and I had to do something with it. That sentence stayed with me for a long time before I wrote a story with two girls and a wet nurse’s ghost. Years passed before I began the novel. The time between that first sentence popping into my head and the characters and plot taking shape in a meaningful way is the percolation. It’s time for an idea to come alive as it filters through my thoughts and experiences over and over again.
Not every idea takes that long to percolate, of course, but when something has demanded my attention for a long time, I know it’s a story that I need to tell.
• Revision is just as important as inspiration.
I have written stories that don’t need more than a light tweaking after the first draft. Mostly, everything needs several rounds to make it shine. I find that my eyes and mind get tired of looking over the same piece of writing a dozen times. Friends, classmates, writers’ critique groups are invaluable. People with fresh eyes and different perspectives can tell me all the places my prose is lacking, as well as where it’s succeeding.
I don’t always agree with the feedback I get. I’m grateful to receive it anyway, and move on. But when there’s consensus in a workshop, or a reader I trust points out a flaw, I’m thrilled. It’s a shortcut to the finish line. I want my stories to be tight, to make sense, and to affect a reader. I hit a point in the reading of my own work where I often sense that there is a problem, but I can’t quite name it. That reader who’s coming to a brand new work often finds the flaw immediately. This is one reason why writers should be generous: we need friends!
I have also found that when a reader points out the flaw on the page, it’s like someone shined a beam down the path I need to take. Of course Greta needs to spend more time in her own head, telling the reader what she thinks about her mother and Lucy, making it clear why she’s the narrator and not another character. Of course! Once on that path, I can attack the revisions and progress speeds up.
Inspiration comes in many forms, from that out-of-nowhere flash of insight, to the daily work of writing, to the percolating of ideas, to the friend with the flashlight. Writing is a process, a generally long, involved process. I, for one, require inspiration at many points along the way. If I were to distill it into a tidy little alliterated threesome, I would say that writers need Contemplation, Commitment, and Community.
And when the flash happens, count yourself lucky!
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