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I've been thinking and wondering a lot lately about inspiration and writing. Part of it is wondering where it comes from for me, and why. In the Literary Criticism class I'm taking, the professor is asking us to write a "critical manifesto" at the end, where we explore in a paper our own critical len or lenses that we use...this can be how we would teach a work, how we write, or even just what we pay attention to when we read. I think it will be a fascinating exercise, and since I'm not quite halfway through the course there are still many approaches I haven't explored. Since this professor has encouraged creative responses and examination of our own creative writing if we're so inclined, it has me thinking about how I write and what I write, and what I pay attention to when I'm telling a story.

I know very deeply that taking all these English classes has immeasurably affected my writing and how I think about craft and storytelling. Identifying the critical lenses people use to study literature (or any creative text...we've discussed TV, film, photography, lyrics, and pop music!) has only brought more forcibly home the close attention and vision toward literature that I've gained through many of my classes and professors. I'm not sure I spent much time contemplating the reliability of the narrator or what the author means by writing in an intrusive or unstable marrative voice. Ditto that I never looked this hard for the symbolism in a pine tree (I'm thinking of Jewett's remarkable "A White Heron"), or how the arrangment of a novel shaped or commented on its meaning (pretty applicable to many, but I'm thinking specifically of a small paper I did on Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which was divided into chapters in order to tell each townsperson's particular tale, with one character running through them all. It enforced the sense of their unique isolation.) I never heard someone break down Cinderella's slipper to me so down and dirty, or so delightfully, before studying fairytales with a professor here, and I didn't pin down and articulate the relationship between Jane Eyre's subconscious and that "madwoman in the attic" before Victorian Lit. I had never made a connection between works like Island of Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the appearance of that same madwoman, Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre to unease over colonialism and its effects or the new scientific and decidedly religion-questioning Victorian conscious. I hadn't fallen in love with magical realism, because I hadn't found the things that were delivered into my greedy and grateful hands. I've just been reading, with delight and fascination and utter excitement, short stories by Kate Chopin (*love* her) and Faulkner, and I don't think I'll ever approach writing prose as I did before that experience. All of this, all this new awareness and consciousness of craft as I hadn't experienced it before, has contributed so very much to how I want to write. I am more mindful of everything about telling a story.

And I am more frustrated. I am more uncertain in a lot of ways. You know, I am actually a very lazy writer. I love words, and I love to find the metaphor that rips the heart open where it has scabbed and then pours a balm over top, or the one that ripples across the mind like a belly laugh or hits you over the head and catches your breath in your throat. That's why I mostly write poetry. Sure, these days I'm busy with papers and course work, and poetry allows for this, but it's also a laziness. I'm not downplaying the craft of poetry in the slightest, or poetry itself because I truly believe very deeply in the medium, but the poems I write are pure feeling, not structure and hard work. Yet I want very badly to write short stories and I want very much to write a novel. I have found it much harder than I thought it would be, though.

And maybe that's where I'm heading with a topic like inspiration. For me, a poem is an inspiration...and by that I mean it is the fruit of an inspiration I had, very much like I happened to be standing in a certain place and a star fell into my hands, like my icon. It never feels like work, or even something I squeezed out of my head. If I'm struggling with a poem, I let it lie, and someday I get hit with it, and there it is. Even looking back on it, and cringing at it and being unhappy with my own fashioning of it, the core is still there, still powerful in a way I just didn't do justice to...and it still doesn't feel like mine. I've written short stories that feel that way. But a novel feels hard right now. It wll take more craft and work than I'm used to. Sometimes I wonder if I have it in me at all. More often I wonder how to crack it, feeling like breaking through that first time will open the gates and I'll be ready. I think waiting for a feeling of inspiration is a dead end road. Writing should be made a habit, and it should be something I do even when what comes out is crap. I know that when I took a writing class and was "forced" to produce, I produced. There is something to this. How can I harness that again?

But beyond that...where do you take inspiration for your writing? What moves you to try a new form or experiment with craft? I know I find a lot of this sort of thing from other literature, which I'm sure is run of the mill. Right now I'm trying to write a long poem patterned on and exploiting the basic common structures of epics. I think writers must draw it from everywhere...I read an interview where Gregory Maguire said he was inspired to write Wicked when two incidents met in his mind; the characterisation of Sadam Hussein by the media prior to the first Gulf War and that news story of the two young people murdering the toddler near where he was living at the time. He said he realized how ready and willing he was to make inferences from a headline comparing Hussein to Hitler and from there make conclusions about the war...and the other story had him contemplating the nature of evil. To explore these things he came to rest on the Wicked Witch of the West. He didn't want to deal with a novel about Hitler, and as he said (I'm paraphrasing), "Who sticks out to the Western mind as more evil than the WWoftheW?" And from that, we have Wicked. This kind of thing fascinates me.

What about you?


Mar. 8th, 2007 05:19 am (UTC)
Damndamndamn ... how did I miss this. And if brevity is the food of life, I'll go starving!

This idea of the critical lenses we apply when we write ... well, really when we exist in the world (I can't quite see the two as separate, which I think qualifies as a source of madness) ... is fascinating. Makes me want to start exploring that in posts, even though I haven't sat in with you on your class. I will very much enjoy seeing how you answer this challenge!

I adore the intellectual challenge of academe, and I can say, alongside you, that my university experiences have made me into a different thinker. Perhaps they have made me into a different writer (that would have to be indirectly though, as I've never had a lit or writing class in my life). But so often I find myself falling back on the somewhat juvenile question, "How do you know all that stuff is in there? How do you know that's what the author intended?" Of course, fathoming the author's intention is the province of rhetoric, which says it is possible to divine what the author really meant you to walk away from the text with. I'm just not so sure. Coursing parallel is the idea, perhaps far more modern (post-modern?), that whatever we take from a text has value, that the ability of an author to "speak" to us, especially across vast expanses of time, has more to do with our susceptibility and intellectual hunger than with any overt intentionality on the part of the author.

We cannot separate ourselves from our own contexts, historical, social, cultural, etc. For example, I'll never "hear" Renaissance music as a person living during that time did. Of course I can hear the same notes, but they won't and can't mean the same thing to me. So sometimes, deities help me, I find myself wondering the extent to which these analyses are merely games we play to amuse ourselves.

I know that when I write, I have ideas that I am shaping, and I try to choose a structure I hope will carry those ideas and show them off to best advantage. I will make connections in my mind about what I am doing, what is happening in the moment or in the narrative. But then I'll throw it out into the public arena (or its equivalent) and discover through feedback that I've said a helluva lot more than I imagined I did. Feeling like a fraud, I'll sit around nodding, "Yeah, that too!"

My inspirations? They almost always come from real life experiences. And they almost always take form while I'm driving alone on a long road trip.

When my grandmother had to move out of the home she had lived in for almost 40 years, I went with my father to clear out everything that was left. In the bottom of a closet that was in the room of her second son who had died early and tragically there was a box of old photographs. They showed my dour grandmother when she was 17, glorious, full of life, beauty and love ... for these photos were of a man I had never heard of.

When I cleared out her storage room, I came upon a rude cedar chest. On the unfinished underside of the lid was an inscription in pencil: Made by Golden Webster for Inez Tingey ... a date ... then: for her dowry.

I tried teasing the story from my grandmother, who was unable to differentiate fact from fantasy by that time. So I spoke with her sister, and learned a fascinating tale of love denied for the sake of propriety.

Now there's a novel I must write. I just haven't found the inspiration for how to frame it.


that girl with the guinness

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