Guest Post: What Inspires Christine Lee Zilka

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

I first connected with Christine Lee Zilka because her blog inspired me—this was years and years ago, before I ever published any books and was facing quite a few rejections. We’ve since become friends in real life and now we write together in the same inspiring location. No way could I host a blog series on inspiration without asking her to contribute! Here’s her beautiful post:

Dark moody sky

What inspires me?

I’m inspired by Autumn and Winter, the seasons I define as my “writing prime time.” By quiet mornings. I’m inspired by music; Jónsi, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Journey. By running. By sunrises and sunsets. By long drives through the countryside. By shores. By bodies of water. By bridges. By snow. By mountains. By quiet landscapes. By people. By my parents. By taking photographs. By Rothko. By words. By amazing books and writers. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. The Great Gatsby. Middlesex. Great Expectations. Brilliant characters. Jay Gatsby. Don Draper. Miss Havisham. Incredible opening paragraphs. Going to bookstores and just opening up books and reading random first paragraphs at will. And buying the books with lines that knock the wind out of me and leave me with bliss resembling falling in love at first sight (isn’t that why we all read?). I’m inspired by old encouraging notes from incredible writing mentors. By good jokes. By overcoming hardships. By watching gold medal ceremonies. By watching underdogs make comebacks. By watching South Korean and North Korean family reunions. By tasting honey; that a bee could gather pollen and make something so sweet.

But when I am in the act of writing, I am inspired by darkness.[1]

When I am writing, I am at the bottom of a deep dark hole; I am nowhere near my aforementioned objects of inspiration. This darkness is not a bad place, although sometimes it gets very uncomfortable and lonely. And it can be intimidating. The darkness is unending and unknowable. There are no seasons. No sunsets. No long drives. Not even any books. Just myself. My thoughts. Memories. Questions I ask myself.

It took me a while to devote myself to fiction writing—I didn’t find my way to creative writing until I was over 30. I avoided writing because I had a fear of this very act of sitting with myself in silence in my early adulthood. Of sitting still. By myself. In
silence. It made me feel like I could break. Like I was glass in a room full of swinging hammers.

It was frightening, because I’d built a life in which I ignored my dreams and desires. I did this, in part, because I was afraid to fail at my dream, which is to write. It was, I thought, better not to dream and fail, than it was to dream and struggle at all; boy was I wrong. And it took a lot to leave that life, and specifically that business career, even though in hindsight, I don’t know why it took me so long. And it wasn’t just the leaving, it was giving myself permission. To play. To dream. To take risks. To be brave. To embrace the dark.

I can now sit in the dark with myself and my writing. I’m glass in a room full of swinging hammers and I make a beautiful sound as I shatter each time. I am as many glasses as there are hammers.

The darkness gives me a lot of freedom to do things that I would not be able to do in the light. In this darkness (which you have permission to call my subconscious if you so desire), I can play without humiliation or judgment, naked or costumed. It is a pure kind of play, the unashamed kind that defines childhood, and I have to lower myself into this darkness to achieve this level of freedom.

It is not like being blind, that darkness; it is a level in which I can imagine rooms and worlds that never end. I can walk inside this darkness without stubbing my toe or hitting my shins against a coffee table. Eventually, I become lost in a way that I find blissful and fulfilling. Eventually, I create a world in which it is possible for me to become lost.

This place is where I can examine the underbelly of things, and ask the questions I dare not ask in my conscious world like, “Did Grandma really die of a stroke? I thought Dad’s first scream when he discovered her in the backyard was, ‘She hung herself!’” Who knows? In the darkness, I can discuss that question, and search for the truth in safety. Or imagine truths.

I deal with my pain and happiness and all the notes and chords of my life, some of which I don’t realize exist when I am aboveground, down there. There were so many instances in childhood when I lay crying or worse, even numb, that my mother would whisper as my only comfort, “Someday, this will become a good story.” And they do.

I wonder, without worry, about finding my way out. Each time the way out is different. And each time, it involves telling a story filled with all the things I’ve distilled from all the things that energize my conscious aboveground.

When the words are right, when they fall into place, I feel like I am lifted out of the darkness. When I’ve told a very good story, or written a very good scene, I emerge with a deep satisfaction that can’t be rivaled by any other achievement in my life.

It is not unlike Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter, who spend decades in Narnia, only to have to return to England, back into their school-aged bodies. And how Narnia is only accessible in childhood. I can only imagine that C.S. Lewis felt the same about his writing and imagination and inspiration.

[1] Yes, I know this sounds a little like Allison Harvard of America’s Next Top Model bleating her love of “blood”—i.e., it sounds weird and twisted and gross. But the reality is that I’m weird and twisty and gross inside. And so is writing.

—Christine Lee Zilka

Christine Lee Zilka is the Editor-at-Large at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVA, VerbsapYomimono, and Men Undressed: Women Authors Write About Male Sexual Experience. She was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook in 2006, placed as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009. She has a novel-in-progress.

Read Christine’s blog 80,000 Words at

Follow @czilka on Twitter. 

Christine has sought inspiration before, and it has evolved from different forms in previous years… Read her own blog posts for more:

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