Inspiration

All posts tagged Inspiration

One thing that really, really bothers me is when people, writers, over-simplify the problem of Writer’s Block. Like:

“Oh I just force myself to write and then I do, tralala”.

Or:

“Here’s a list of frufru prompts like “What if you woke up tomorrow as a butterfly – go!”.

I’m not going to say that those approaches don’t work.  Maybe for some people they do.  But Writer’s Block is not a virus you catch and then cure with a “take two and call me in the morning ” prescription.  Writer’s Block is a psychological condition.  It reflects a person’s life circumstances, their frame of mind and emotional state.  Its’ source can be simple (like, oh I don’t know, having work and home and family matters constantly vying for your attention and babies that won’t stick to a predictable nap schedule and snow days off of school that inevitably fall on the day you cleared so you could concentrate on your writing for the first time in MONTHS- just for instance); or, it could be deeply rooted and hard to define, let alone overcome.

Depression, Writer’s Block… Kissing cousins?

Sometimes, telling a writer “Just write,” is like telling a barren woman, “Just conceive.” For many of us, lack of inspiration is serious business that goes beyond a shortage of will power or ideas.  For many of us, Writer’s Block can be downright crippling.

I was given a couple of poetry exercise books for Xmas, the kind meant to help inspire you and get you writing. I only just now cracked one open – it’s been that kind of winter.

I’m very hopeful about getting something from these books; I was introduced to some of the exercises at the writing retreat in October, and went on to use them, successfully, for a week or so after, until the tsunami of real life reasserted itself.  Le sigh…

Instead of sitting down to bang out some proto-poems, though, I found myself snorting at a comment in the first chapter, and ended up here with a mini-rant on the topic of blasé attitudes towards Writer’s Block.  I guess you could say I was “inspired”…

The author starts out by confessing how he wasn’t writing much at all because he had no time and no inspiration.  One of the things he says helped him overcome the problem was making lists of ideas.  This, he says, eliminated all excuses because he could no longer “play the no inspiration card.”

While I can relate to the concept – and let me just say, I do think it’s a good idea, and I do it, too, and it helps – I just have to point out that having a list of “things to write about” is not the same as being inspired.

For me, having an idea – a theme, a setting, a premise, a haiku moment – is just tinder.  Yes, you can’t start a fire without it.  But what else can’t you start a fire without?

That’s right, kiddies.  A SPARK.

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How cool is this picture?

And therein lies the real problem.  The world is full of things to write “about”.  Learning to see them is a skill, like anything else.  It takes practice; writing lists, yes.  Free association.  Observation.  Journaling, recording dreams, people watching, eavesdropping. Recently I overheard someone say, “Once you start thinking about crows, you see crows everywhere.”

Ideas are crows.

But even if you have so many crows you can’t step out of your house without tripping over one, it won’t make a bit of difference if you’re not inspired.

Inspiration is another animal entirely.  Inspiration is a non-quantifiable, I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it, enigmatic THING.  It’s either there, or it’s not.  Inspiration is why I tend to poo-poo the “Write about a time that you were mad,” kind of prompts and the “Just Do It” sneaker philosophy of writing.  Without inspiration, it’s all just tinder.  Or… crows.  Tinder crows.

So how DOES one set their crows on fire (now THERE’S an image for you).  Obviously, the answer to that is different for everyone.

For me, it’s like seduction.  Firstly, I don’t go for just any idea.  I like the smart ones, the weird ones, the ones that most people overlook.  The ones with lots of layers, inner meaning, a Jungian’s fantasy.

Secondly, it takes time.  I like to flirt with an idea for a long time.  Sometimes days.  Sometimes years.  I like a slow burn.

And the final payoff? Let’s just say it’s a magic combination of timing, setting, opportunity, and mood.  And coffee, or a cigarette, or… something to put in my mouth.  I’ll just leave the rest to your imagination.

 

Gnomes_plan

Step One: Write a List. Step Two: … Step Three: Inspiration.

But that’s just me.  For you, it might be something totally different.  Maybe lists ARE your thing – that neat, orderly, tantalizingly visual representation of thought.  Of… possibility.

Or maybe you’re into butterflies.  I mean, whatever – to each their own! My point is just that, as writers, we are all keenly aware of how personal the creative process is.

 

 

No matter what we write, or how, we invest so much of ourselves in it.  We are all beautiful unique snowflakes and, as it happens, some of us snowflakes have Writer’s Block and it sucks, so shut up with your platitudes already and have some compassion.

 

snowflake

My snowflake is cranky when she doesn’t write.

Five years ago this month, I retired from my full-time job as a bookkeeper.  My son was my main reason for taking the leap — he had spent half his life in daycare at that point, and I wanted to be the one to raise him — but finding time for my writing was a close second.

I remember driving home from work one day, getting an idea, and reaching for a pen at the stoplight, only to realize that not only did I not have a notebook with me, but it’d probably been months since I’d thought to carry one. As someone who has often relied on writing for survival — quite literally — that was a major wake-up call.

My salary was a good one. Giving it up was hard, and definitely came with emotional struggles as well as financial ones. But we were able to make it work, and for that I will be forever grateful, because I feel like the most important part of my life started the day I traded my calculator for a keyboard.

One of the first poems that I submitted for publication was to a literary journal called Kaleidoscope, published by United Disability Services in Akron, Ohio.

kaleidoscope 620

The poem, “Portrait of a Woman Drinking Coffee,” is a somewhat goofy but earnest reflection on unipolar disorder, also known as cyclical depression, dysthymia, or whatever label the DSM wants to give it this year (basically bipolar disorder with no highs, only lows) – a condition I’ve struggled with since I was a little girl.

My late-teens and early twenties were the hardest (they typically are, aren’t they?) I lost a great scholarship, some good friends, and several years of writing  — almost lost my life, too.

By twenty-five I had my shit (mostly) together (chain-smoking notwithstanding), graduated college with honors, and was working a good trade. Just as important, I was finally able to hold a pen again and start picking away at the emotional scabs that had been keeping me from putting down words in a coherent and meaningful way (and isn’t that an attractive metaphor? pick, pick).

Once I would have tumbled into this emotion
a storm’s eye sitting
in a broken coffeehouse chair
once I would have seen it as poles colliding
closing in on every last spark of joy
but now I see it as an old
familiar friend;
the kind that puts out a cigarette in your coffee
and reminds you
of everything you try to ignore

“Portrait of a Woman Drinking Coffee” is from that era, written in the corner of the Brew Ha Ha balcony in a messy notebook with an ashtray full of clove cigarettes in front of me.

ashtray-295028_640Though it took them nearly five years to publish it (five years!!!), I let UDS take their time (with only minimal grumbling) because I couldn’t think of a better home for a poem like this than Kaleidoscope, a magazine “creatively focuse[d] on the experiences of disability through literature and the fine arts.”

Putting aside the notion that many of the best artists, writers, and performers are/were nut jobs (though they totally are/were), the arts themselves are an important means of therapy and self-expression. This is true for everyone, but perhaps especially so for those whose ability to function day-to-day is a constant challenge. Kaleidoscope provides a forum, a spotlight, for artists with disabilities, including the so-called invisible disability of mental illness. As a survivor, I am happy to be living in an era when the stigma of difference is being tested, shaken, picked at like an ugly scab on our social conscience (see what I did there?) I want to thank projects like Kaleidoscope for adding to that momentum.  I am honored to have even a small part in it.

To download this (Issue #70, “Journeying to Acceptance”) or other issues of Kaleidoscope, visit http://www.udsakron.org/kaleidoscope/issues.aspx.

 

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With MiniWriMo come round again, I’ve been thinking about what to write this month – which led me led me to look back on what I have written, and, more specifically, how those stories came to be.

head-113927_640Sometimes, stories are NOT born because a mommy story and a daddy story loved each other very much.

Sometimes, story ideas come about fully-formed, like little gifts from fiction heaven. (And isn’t it peachy when THAT happens?)

Other times, it takes a lot of forethought and muscle on the writer’s part – like, conjuring one’s inner Frankenstein to hack and sew words together and scream at the Gods until the Thing takes a life of its own.index

And then, sometimes, the process falls somewhere in the middle. A little prompting, a little “hmmm-ing”, a little pen-to-papering, and then… hey, look. An idea begins to grow.
For me, this often takes the form of a “What If” story.

What If… Bad Was Good?

In April of this year, my flash fiction story, DEFIANCE, appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine.

Issue 11 Cover Preview

DEFIANCE is a fun little piece. Written in late 2012, it predates – I swear! – the Syfy show of the same name. While both the story and the tv show involve alien invasions and pockets of humanity that remain, erm, defiant, that’s pretty much where the similarities end (at least as far as I’m aware – I lost interest in the series halfway through the first season. Sorry Rockne).

In my DEFIANCE, the main character is a soldier in Earth’s resistance against aliens that have enslaved most of humanity. Poised for a sniper attack on the roof of an old elementary school, Jackson recalls his pre-invasion childhood of classroom tantrums and frowny-face notes that made his mother cry. While we learn that it was his inherent defiance that got young Jackson separated from his mother in civilization’s final hour, it was also what spared him from slavery – and presumably it is what helps him thrive in an alien apocalypse.

So how was this a “What If?” Back in 2012, my six-year-old had a disciplinary record that could put any teenaged hoodlum to shame. He is a brilliant child and the apple of my eye, but our boy was (and still can be) a holy terror to his teachers. A year later, he would (finally!) be diagnosed with Aspergers/Autism Spectrum, but at the time the “whys” of him were a mystery. One of the labels bandied about was Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which is another way of saying “irascible, recalcitrant little butthead syndrome”.

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irascible, recalcitrant little butthead syndrome

On the verge of seeing my baby expelled from first grade, I spent one afternoon crying into my hands until, when my own brand of stubborn kicked in, I poured myself a glass of suck-it-up and sat down at my computer. “What If,” I pondered, “being a born butthead was a survival skill? What would that look like?” An hour of fevered-typing later, the world of DEFIANCE had taken shape. Murky shape, maybe – it is only 800 words long, after all – but lo, I’d invented a possible future for my son that wasn’t all bad.

 

WHAT IF can offer new ways of thinking about old problems – and conjure up kick-ass stories, too.

 

What If… Left Was Right?

Science Fiction is an especially appropriate Petri dish for “What-Ifs”; it is, after all, speculative by definition. What if we had the technology to…? What would the future be like if ?

My story, GHOST-WRITER (published thiScigentasyWEBheader2s month in Scigentasy) tackles the Sci-Fi challenge of “What If” in a couple of ways. The primary question, dealing with possible technologies, comes from a note-to-self I found while flipping through old files in search for story ideas: [sic] what if someone’s brain hemispheres suddenly switched dominance?

For those of us who aren’t psychology nerds, “lateralization of brain function” describes the different but complimentary personalities of the left vs right sides of the brain. Though the subject has long made my geek happy (google split-brain experiments), I had recently read a book that was a game-changer for me: My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, in which a neuroanatomist describes how her life was enriched by a stroke that disabled her left hemisphere. Free from the constrains of language-labeling and logical thinking, Dr. Taylor describes a world she perceived as free-flowing, creative, and spiritual.

Blausen_0215_CerebralHemispheres
With my, “What If”, inspired by Dr. Taylor, I tried to imagine what it would be like not to lose the functions of one hemisphere or the other, but to have the hemispheres up and trade places – prince and the pauper-style? Would wacky hjinks ensue? Would the body even notice, short of some vertigo, a Matrix-like glitch? The brain is superbly plastic; science has shown that under the right circumstances it can recover from grievous wounds, basically re-wiring itself to restore lost functioning.

It was from this line of thinking that GHOST-WRITER was conceived. In it, my neuroscientist, Carla, has invented a means of restoring function to brain-damaged patients by getting the remaining, healthy hemisphere to annex the dead tissue and graft its own programming there. Though the titular “Ghost-Writer” project is still in its exploratory stage, wrapped up in the proverbial red-tape, an inoperable brain tumor and a pending divorce compel Carla into taking matters into her own hands.

All fiction can be a “What If” playground; as writers, we can pose the question and invent answers within the parameters of any genre. Science Fiction just happens to lend itself particularly well to pushing the boundaries of possibility.

 

What If… Maybe Was True?

For this reason, a lot of Sci-Fi doubles as social commentary: if we can imagine a future or world or an alternate universe with even a minor shift in our cultural norms, what would that look like? Sometimes this socio-political exploration can be overt, with plots that cover the author’s agenda like a dancing green alien’s chemise (*cough* Star Trek *cough*).

In other cases, like with GHOST-WRITER, the questioning can be more subtle. My “What-if” about the brain’s hemispheres was my primary reason for writing it, but because my main characters are gay women, the story naturally raised questions about the future of gender and sexual politics, in particular same-sex marriage (which was not recognizedl in most states in 2011, when GHOST-WRITER was written).

Gaymarriage

So I wrote Carla and Maggie as a married couple –more significantly, I chose not to comment on it. I wanted to create a future where same-sex marriage is not only legal, it’s a non-issue. And I wanted to allow for fluidity, too: when Maggie turns down a date with another doctor it is for emotional reasons – not because he’s a he.

These were little things – I think I said more on the topic by not saying much – but the fact that beta readers were surprised when Carla’s spouse turned out to be a female pleased me, because it means my  take on “What If” here had the power to challenge assumptions.  And that’s, well, something.
What’s great about “What If” is that it inspires us, as writers and readers, to consider possibilities. Not necessarily large or paradigm-changing ones; we should not expect, when we sit down with our laptops or pens, that what we write will save a life or change the world. But, then again, we can always ask:  – What If it could?

What_if_I_ask_for_help

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Demeter mourning Persephone (Evelyn de Morgan, 1906)

The special promotional period for my poetry collection, UNDOING WINTER, ends this Friday, April 25th.  To mark these final days, I thought I’d say a few words on one of the central themes of the book – katabasis, or “descent”.

From the Greek word for “down”, katabasis is a term beloved by psychologists and scholars (especially Jungian lovers like me).  It refers to a downward journey – “a descent of some type, such as moving downhill, or the sinking of the winds or sun, a military retreat, or a trip to the underworld.”  (See the Wikipedia article on katabasis here.)

The Easter holiday just passed celebrates a katabasis of sorts, and my favorite kind: the ancient story of rebirth, or return.  Like Christ, many figures of myth undergo a journey into death, darkness, or despair, often in order to accomplish something superhuman – to resurrect a loved one, perhaps, or to bring a message of love and hope to mankind.

The titular poem in my collection, “Undoing Winter”, explores several other examples of katabasis.  Perhaps the most obvious to fans of Classical myths is the story of Demeter, Goddess of Agriculture and mother of Persephone, a hapless maiden who was abducted in the bloom of her youth by Hades, Lord of the Underworld.  As the story goes, Demeter in her grief defies the mighty Zeus, leaving the earth to languor in a perpetual winter so long as Persephone remains in her dark prison (spoiler alert: eventually Demeter wins her daughter back, though at a cost).

I faced the shining wrath of the sun
on your behalf
while you cried your soul away.
I made excuses to the earth and sky
and fed the peasants gravel.
Give it time, I said. She is composting.
Come again tomorrow.

Ishtar_goddess

Burney Relief / Queen of the Night

– from UNDOING WINTER*Finishing Line Press

Ever the fan of layers, I wrote UNDOING WINTER with other versions of the descent in mind as well – specifically Orpheus (the mythic Greek musician/poet) and Inanna (Sumerian Goddess of Awesomeness), both of whom braved underworld trials in order to bring back lost loves.

Arno_Breker,_Orpheus_u._Euridike(1944)

Arno Breker, Orpheus en Euridike (reliëf 1944)

 

 

 

 

 

It should be no surprise that such stories hold a constant place in the repertoire of faith– (and art, for that matter!  How many modern fictional heroes can you think of who manage to fight their way back from certain death – and at what price?)  As mortal beings, we face the loss of loved ones and of self at every turn.  The hope that there is life beyond death is naturally something that occupies our collective psyches.

Yet stories of resurrection needn’t always be taken literally, nor do they only belong in the realm of heroes and gods.

In psychological terms, katabasis can be a metaphor for depression.  This, too, is one of the central meanings of UNDOING WINTER, both the titular poem and the book as a whole.   Though for me, the journey in and out of clinical depression happens to be a lifelong condition, many people (most, even?) have or will experience the long dark night of the soul.

This, I think, is another reason why stories of katabasis are so eternal.  Life is hard – so hard, sometimes, that giving up or giving in seems preferable.  Like the heroes of myth, it often takes great will or faith to overcome the lure of the dark.  Sometimes returning to the light hurts like hell.  As lovers of stories, we’re not just hoping to hear that death is not the end of us – we’re looking for reassurance that we have it in us to survive.

 

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Ultimately, “Undoing Winter” is about self-rescue.  The poem gives homage to – and takes liberty with – a powerful archetype found again and again in our collective archives.  The collection, UNDOING WINTER, carries the idea even further.  In this arrangement, I hope to bring the reader into some dark places… echoes of where I have been, and what I have endured… but there’s a reason for it.  I promise.  Because, for me, katabasis is not just about the journey down.  It’s about coming back… by tooth and claw, if necessary… to find we are stronger… better… more ourselves than ever before.

COVER FROM WEBSITE

 

 

Want to show your support for UNDOING WINTER? Pre-order your copy today at Finishing Line Press.