Guest Post: What Inspires Laurel Snyder

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

I’m inspired by author Laurel Snyder—by her books, by her essays and her tweets, and by her generous and wise responses to my publishing angst. Since she inspires me so much, I asked her to tell me what inspires her to write:

I struggle with the idea of inspiration, because it sounds like a magical word, a faith word. And as much as I’m in love with the idea of magic, I don’t actually believe in the muse at all. I believe in hard work.

But I have to admit that there are those moments every day when I’m struck by the need to write something down. Like a flash! Someone does something funny, or sad, and I want to capture it. The sun rises or sets, and I see it differently than I’ve ever seen it before. My kid says something absolutely baffling, and I want to get at that.

Usually the thing I want to capture is something I don’t quite understand, something beyond me. Something I can’t really write down yet, because first I need to puzzle it out. Something I don’t exactly have the words for.

So I guess that’s what inspires me—the work I don’t know how to do yet, and all the things each day that remind me of how little I know how to do, what an idiot I truly am. Ideas that are totally beyond me are inspiring—anything to do with religion or physics, math or politics, history or human emotion. But also—anything I just don’t have the words for. I’ll scribble down something weird and stoned-college-freshman-y like “How do people keep breathing?” Of course I’ll never ever figure that one out, but if I’m lucky, something will come of the question.

I tend to begin each book or poem or essay with tiny details. I start with one of these weird moments or thoughts, and as I fail to describe or explain or figure it out, something ends up on the page anyway. For about a decade I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the difference between stay and last, and I haven’t gotten anywhere with it, but I keep trying…

Does that sound freaky? I think it sounds freaky. I’m almost embarrassed to type it.

What else?

Also, boredom inspires me. Silence. I’m such a total extrovert that I can talk to anyone. But when all the people go away, and I’m left alone, and I get bored, I turn the conversation inward. It’s like the page is another person, an interlocutor. I sometimes wonder if this is why I write in the first place, because the page can’t ditch me when it gets irritated by my constant stream of chatter. Not exactly a flattering thought, but there you have it.

Unfortunately silence is an increasingly rare thing. Between the TV, the computer, and my kids, I’m rarely alone. So I keep a tape recorder in my car and try to make that my alone time, my solitude.

The thing is—my own idiocy and silence are things I have little control over. They are, I suppose, akin to that muse I don’t believe in. Moments of resounding boredom and the flash arrive when they want to, and sometimes they don’t.

So, when I feel the need to be inspired, and I want to force it along—I turn to the books that are totally beyond my own skill level. Because the other thing that inspires me is better authors than me.

I do a lot of rereading. I go back to the books I’ve been reading for decades and still haven’t quite figured out. I read Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety every year. Every damn year. Same for Berryman’s Dream Songs. And Brideshead Revisited.

Last year I read Harriet the Spy and Dicey’s Song over and over. This fall I’ve been chewing on The Canning Season, with its insane blend of humor and sadness, oddball setting and absolute realism. I read, and think, and think, and reread, and struggle with the fact that I may never be that good. Sometimes it makes me want to quit, but more often it makes me want to start over.

And when all else fails, there’s poetry. Listening to poetry especially. Tight language, revised into these perfect little boxes. I can sit in a good reading, and everything else melts away, and I’m left with this sense of challenge, this desire to get the words right. Poetry makes my own prose feel so sloppy and haphazard. But it also makes me feel hopeful, excited. Like maybe someday I’ll be smarter than I am today…

—Laurel Snyder

Laurel Snyder is the author of many books for kids, including her newest middle grade novel, Bigger than a Bread Box (Sept, 2011), and a forthcoming picture book, Good Night, Laila Tov (March 2012). She also writes poems for grownups, and occasionally she rants about things online. Laurel lives in Atlanta with her husband and two fantastic (but very grubby) little boys. Sometimes she hides in the shed.

Visit Laurel at

Follow @laurelsnyder on Twitter. 

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