I have to confess: writing is never a straightforward process for me. I don’t schedule a time of day to write, don’t allot a certain number of hours to invest in my craft per week. I am a spontaneous writer, sitting down at my computer only when the muses call to me. Not even when a story comes to me, when that initial idea, like the smallest of seedlings, begins to sprout (I picture it happening in my stomach–like a swallowed watermelon seed), not even then do I begin to nurture it.
I wait. I wait until it has grown without my conscious effort, without my coaxing. I wait until the story is ready and then I face it and see what the story has to tell me. Sometimes I find myself quite surprised by what my stories have to say.
At the Compose Creative Writing Conference a few weeks back, I was asked to say in two words my advice to other writers. “Look around,” I told them. For most of my recent stories, this has been the advice I have followed. By simply watching the news, I can find the inspiration for my short stories. Last year when Harold Camping “predicted” the rapture, I wrote “After the World Ends,” a story about a teen and her troubled mother waiting for this supposed rapture. Last fall, I watched a story unfold about a man in Ohio who had committed suicide after releasing the wild animals he kept on his property. These animals became the backdrop for my last story, “Mom and the Bear.”
A few months back, I read a truly bizarre story about a small town in Italy that faced a strange problem (the town’s cemetery was full) and the mayor’s even stranger solution (a law stating that no citizen could die). I thought to myself, this sounds like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. Then I thought, this could be my story. What would it mean for the residents of this town to be told they could not die? Wouldn’t they then obsess about death? It would sweep the town like a disease, like the worst of emotional plagues–death being forever on the horizon, taunting them, haunting them.
“It is forbidden for residents … to go beyond the boundaries of earthly life, and to go into to the afterlife,” reads mayor Fava’s order to the 4,000 citizens of Falciano del Massico. How could I pass this up?
It still amazes me where our stories come from, the inspiration they choose to bear them. In an undergraduate English class my professor shared a story with the class about John Milton’s method for writing Paradise Lost. He wrote Paradise Lost–his masterpiece and one of the English language’s most important works–while blind. His routine was to wake up in the morning and dictate the words to his daughter or another assistant. This in itself is impressive. But the part that always stuck with me was that he said the story would come to him at night as if by divine inspiration. He believed God told him the words to write and he merely had to be the transcriber. Now that is quite the inspiration.
John Milton, or writing as revelation.
I once visited the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and while I can’t quite remember the painter or the name of his series of paintings, I remember the plaque describing the pieces said the painter claimed the gods in his paintings came to him at night and told him how to paint them. I’ve never quite felt that I can contribute my writing to divine inspiration (my stories are probably a bit too earthy for that), but I do believe inspiration is something bigger than me. I can’t pinpoint it–it comes from the stories on the news, from my relationships with my family, sometimes from the dreams I dream. But it comes from somewhere else too, some indescribable place. Art is bigger than the artist. The artist is simply the medium, the translator, the channel through which art reaches others.