Inspiration is a word writer’s use with regularity, sometimes attributing the awakening of imagination as a thunderbolt or a spiritual visit by their muse.
While having a conversation with a fellow writer about this subject, she threw up her hands and hurled a random arrow at my argument. “Easy for you to say; you could write about wax in your ears,” referring to my ability to write on demand. And, she was right, I could, but who would spend time reading about my mining expeditions with a Q-tip?
Still, my suggestion to her when she was uninspired or as she called it, suffering writer’s block, was to write about her lunch. “If nothing else,” I said,” If you write about your noon-day meal every day, you might be inspired to eat better—find more appetizing choices to select at the diner or pack in that brown bag.”
Writing your way out of a slump, is like walking off a cramp—just keep moving.
Everyone writes differently. I rarely know where the story is going when I sit down to write. Other scribes will react to a tragedy or victory they see on the evening news and begin to imagine the back story, the victim’s flashbacks, their last thoughts and regrets, the final moments before the tractor trailer came hurtling down I-95 that made air bags an unneeded accessory on their newly purchased SUV.
Staring at a can of soup the other day, I thought about how Andy Warhol changed the art world with his Tomato Soup canvas. Even Madonna and Bono value rehearsal, but writers, as a general rule, somehow think our first effort should be a masterpiece, a stand-alone statement of our talent. Writing for practice is a part of the job.
I was still looking at the can of soup when the memory of migrant workers flashed across my mind. Killed in a van, a car accident, crammed so full of bodies there were simply not enough seatbelts to save any of them. They were here to harvest the tomato crop. I thought about the family sacrifice, the desperate poverty and the lack of employment opportunity in Mexico. I saw the soup can differently.
Characters started to bubble before the soup boiled. But, I wasn’t in the mood to write that day.
I chose to do market reconnaissance—research-- for lack of a better phrase. I wanted to write something funny, light-hearted and silly. Needing inspiration, I closed my laptop and went outside to play with the kids.
♦ After a thirty year career as a sales and marketing executive, Ingrid Thomson is a top-ranked author in a website writing community and a published short story author who is working on the final draft of her first novel.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
One year ago, I lived in Washington, D.C. I walked amid suits and skyscrapers, museums and monuments. Every building declared that this was a Very Important City, and every politician and think tank and NGO affirmed it. Congress wrestled with the budget, the bureaucracy implemented infrastructure projects, the Pentagon directed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lobbyists pressured the government to fund X and support Y and oppose Z. Everyone pushed their pet cause.
“For the betterment of the country!” they all cried. “For the betterment of the world!”
I stepped into this bustle as often as an unpaid intern working for an environmental nonprofit could, but most of the time, I skirted around it. I built a daily routine for myself. Each morning, I woke up early and wrote. Usually short stories, but sometimes poetry. I discovered some of my ideas about life and love and self as I watched my thoughts appear in words, and then in sentences, and then in paragraphs. Some of those paragraphs were published, where they hopefully helped other people figure out thoughts of their own. I read, too, before I left for work. Usually something by Hemingway.
One story from those months stands out: “Cross Country Snow.” It was not a famous story, at least not compared to “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or “Big Two-Hearted River,” but it meant something to me, because it was about saying goodbye. I was getting ready to say a lot of goodbyes when I graduated in May, and Hemingway’s story made the prospect easier. I found it comforting, hearing someone else describe the pain of separation.
Then I would finish breakfast, close my book, and walk to work. Orderly mobs with parted haircuts crowded the sidewalks, each member with an agenda of social change and economic prosperity. I waded through briefcases and laptops, ties and lapel pins. I passed millions of dollars in business casual clothing every day. And I passed millions more in salaries, and many millions more in power and influence. The people around me understood the policies and programs that most of us only heard about while flipping through radio stations. Half a block from the White House, I would escape that mob and duck into 729 15th Street NW.
I would spend the day researching tree-planting projects and taking minutes at environmental coalition meetings. I followed two dozen blogs during those months, which gave me a basic understanding of climate change, illegal logging, and advancements in green technology. I wrote my own blog posts, too, which highlighted environmental problems and proposed solutions. Meanwhile, emails and reports flurried throughout the office. It was a nonstop information exchange as we raised awareness and coordinated action.
“We need pest control!”
“Support CFLR projects and SUFC!”
“Save the longleaf pines!”
We waged a campaign for the forests. We marketed ourselves through social media and mailing lists, magazines and blogs. It was the battle to be heard, to be read. Progress—anyone’s progress—would only happen with support.
Eight hours of work left me exhausted. As I walked back home, I listened to music or poetry on my iPod. I heard “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” quite often during those months. The speaker confesses his normal life, his old age, his unattained greatness. It was that poem, along with the book Blue Highways and a few others things, that eventually inspired me to flee the city and hitchhike across the country for two months.
But during one of those afternoon walks, long before I left Washington, D.C. to travel, someone stopped me on the sidewalk. He wore an orange shirt and held a clipboard. I knew he wanted me to sign a petition or donate to a cause, but I still paused T.S. Eliot mid-sentence and took out my earbuds.
“If you could change one thing about the world,” he asked, “what would it be?”
“I’d need time to think about it. But it’s a good question.”
“Just one thing,” he pressed. “One thing to make the world better.”
“There are a lot of good options.”
“The first one that comes to your mind.”
“I don’t know…”
“End hunger, stop pollution, ban nuclear war?” He smiled encouragingly.
“I guess—I guess I wish people would read more.”
The man made a face. “That they’d read more?”
“Books, poems, newspapers. Basic literacy.” I shrugged. “Just more reading by everyone.”
“It slows you down,” I said. “And I think it would make people more informed. And more empathetic, too, but in a way that’s better than just being automatically informed and empathic. Because I think the process matters.”
“Well.” He glanced at his clipboard. “Okay, then.”
“Our organization brings food to children in Third World countries, and we’re asking people to donate just one dollar a day.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m an unpaid intern.”
The man said he understood. I put my earbuds back in place, and as I walked home through the crowd of politicians and lobbyists and nonprofit workers, I listened to the rest of the poem.
previously published on Calvin College's alumni writer's blog (The Post Calvin) on March 6, 2014.
Josh deLacy graduated from Calvin College in 2013, hitchhiked around the United States for two months without using money or interstates, and now lives and writes between the Olympic and Cascade Mountains.
The poet from across the sea
Penned a tale for you and me
Of strife and loss and victory.
Won our contest handily…
…And now you know why I don’t enter poetry contests.
Many thanks to all our Story Poem Contest contestants. Lee and I appreciate all your effort and enjoyed reading every one of your creations. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner.
So, without further ado…
Congratulations go to…Sandra Stoner-Mitchell!
Over the past several years, Sandra has published seven books including the poetic children’s series Hedgerow Friends and several collections of adult short stories, all available from amazon.com.
Read her winning story poem The Strike on our Poems page July 18th.
Again, thanks go to everyone who entered, and to Lee Allen Hill, who helped me make this very difficult choice.
Next month, we’ll announce two new contests…with much bigger prizes. Don’t miss it.
Okay, I admit it. Writers are quirky people. We have an emotional attachment to the tools of our craft that would raise the eyebrows of most psychologists. We require a specific place to write, or a certain pen to write with, perhaps on a particular color paper. Maybe we have to write our poetry during certain hours, or we can only produce decent stories on our own laptop, and only in the familiar program we've come to love and trust. Anything unusual or unexpected distracts us and makes it impossible to do our job.
Among our own kind, we talk openly of disappearing hours and characters who speak to us or hijack our plots. We live for the times a story writes itself. Some of us, who obviously don't have enough to do, invent an entity to personify our imaginations—a Muse.
Why does any writer feel the need to indulge in fantasy in order to be creative? Are we so unsure of our ability to weave words that we have to ascribe at least part of our talent to someone else?
Silly, right? Well, maybe. Since we credit our Muse with inspiring our work and blame her—or him—when our personal well of creativity runs dry, they're handy to have around. Try blaming your significant other for your inability to string three coherent sentences together and see what happens.
Who wouldn't want someone to blame when imagination overpowers caution and causes us to write something that would embarrass any sensible, grown-up person? Or someone to curse with impunity when a story idea turns to dust after the second paragraph? If a writer can't create someone like that, who can?
Mentally and emotionally, a Muse is a writer's creative partner. Or, maybe they’re just the imaginary friend we never outgrew.
copyright © 2014
N.K. Wagner is the publisher and executive editor of Page & Spine.