Sunday, July 17, 2011

Finding Inspiration

When poet and children's author David L. Harrison invited me to share some thoughts on writing over at his blog a few weeks ago, I sent him a piece on finding inspiration. I'm reprinting it here for readers who may have missed it.

Where does a writer find the inspiration to write?

I’m not talking about inspiration for stories. Stories are everywhere. If you look closely at the world and the people around you, you’ll see them waiting for you.

Stories about the things we love and the things we hate. Stories about the people who make our lives a joy and those who make each day a trial. Stories about storms and shipwrecks and homeruns and touchdowns. There’s so much drama in the world around us, if only we open our senses and allow ourselves to look, smell, hear, taste, and feel it.

I’m talking about inner inspiration, the motivation and drive to sit down at your desk or in a coffee shop or bookstore and open your notebook and begin writing.

Where does a writer find the urge to write?

And how does a writer sustain that urge from the first word of a story to the last, all the way through the first draft and the second and the third, through however many drafts it takes to reach a final draft?

These are the kinds of questions that every writer confronts, and each of us finds a different answer because that’s the way writing works: we find our own road, carve our own path into a story and out again.

Many writers are drawn into a story by a character who comes to them in a dream or walks out of their life into their imagination disguised (thinly or not so thinly) as fiction. Others are drawn by settings or find themselves weaving a plot of “what if” questions that lead them into a story.

Sometimes I’ve found my way into stories this way.

But more often I find the inspiration to write, the urge to tell a story, in the process itself and in the emotions that surface as a result of the process.

Most of the time when I begin writing–just as I began this piece–I don’t have the slightest clue about what I’m going to write.

It takes a number of false starts, a willingness to head down dead-end roads any number of times, before finding the road that feels right, that doesn’t end in a sinkhole or steep cliff.

It’s in the process of writing–the process of finding my way, taking this step and then another, retracing my steps, setting off in another direction, backtracking, trying yet another route–that I discover what I need to say. And what I need to say arises out of the emotions that surface as the words appear on the page.

There’s an interesting frisson that occurs as my hand moves across the paper, or as my fingers type the letters that form the words which appear on my computer screen. The combination of thought (“where am I going?”) and feeling (“does this feel like the right direction?”) leads me to a place where I find a thread of something to follow.

In the case of this piece, the thread was a question: where does a writer find inspiration?

But the thread can be anything–a sudden glint of light on the surface of the sea, the flash of a memory, the picture of a familiar (or unfamiliar) face, the taste of mint on your tongue, the feel of a spring breeze on your skin.

Whatever piques your curiosity is the key... and then you need to be willing to follow that thread wherever it leads.

The glint of light on the sea might lead you back to a memory of a boyhood vacation and a peaceful summer day on the beach with your father.

The flash of memory might be the red geraniums that you remember on the windowsills of your grandmother’s apartment in the Bronx.

The picture of a familiar face might be your eighth grade English teacher inspiring you to write.

The taste of mint on your tongue might lead you to the time you sampled freshly grown mint from your brother’s garden.

The feel of a spring breeze might remind you of the last spring your mother was alive before cancer took her a month later.

Each image contains the seed of a story if we can immerse ourselves imaginatively and emotionally into the image and find its emotional core.

This process of immersion is what revisions are for.

Each draft of a story takes you deeper. Like peeling an onion, you peel away the layers of memory or darkness to reach the reason why the scene or image is emotionally meaningful for you.

Each word, each sentence, brings you closer to the emotional core of the story.

At the heart of the writing process is this ongoing process of discovery as we learn what’s meaningful to us and to our characters.

We write to find meaning, and in our search for meaning we make meaning of our lives.

That’s where a writer will find the inspiration to write every day–in the ability to see the blank page as an opportunity for exploration, and in the ability to see the process of revision as an opportunity for discovering something that he or she didn’t know before.

That’s where I find inspiration. What about you?

You can find a wealth of information about writing at David's blog, so check it out when you get a chance: (And thanks again, David, for inviting me to share my thoughts with you and your readers.)

1 comment:

Pamela Gottfried said...

I am so glad that you reposted this piece, as I missed it on David's blog. I am working, intermittently, on an essay that was inspired by the smell of frying bacon in a diner. (It's kind of a long story...) I find that smells are especially evocative, but my urge to write can be a response to any of my five senses being provoked. Recently, I grabbed my writer's notebook during the intermission of a play because the facial expression of one of the actresses reminded me of something that I needed to say. My daughter was startled and asked me if I was writing about the play. "No," I told her. "About life."