Something Inspiring for Nova Ren Suma, or The Art of Being Dumb: Guest Blog by Timothy Braun

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

You tend to meet the most inspiring people at artist colonies. Timothy Braun, a playwright I met in 2005, is one of those people. He’s also very talented, hilarious, and wise. Let’s see what he has to tell us about inspiration:


“I need your help…” said the email from the relatively famous writer that I have decided not to identify. “I’m having dinner with Kurt Vonnegut tomorrow night. What do I need to know?” I got this email at an artist’s residency on an island off the coast of Maine in the dead of winter. I was the playwright-in-residency. The woman who operated this place insisted on using only a dial-up Internet connection in fear the artist would do nothing but play on the Internet and look at porn and hockey scores all day long. I would like for it to be known I don’t look at hockey scores, and this web connection became problematic in communicating with the outside world. It would take four minutes and twenty seconds to send and receive a single email. Thus, brevity in communication became desired:

“Read the last chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, and his eight rules of writing from Bagombo Snuff Box. In return I want to know what you eat for dinner.”

Now, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Timothy Braun. I met Ms. Nova Ren Suma at the MacDowell Colony in Peterbourgh, New Hampshire (although we think we attended Columbia University at the same time as well). I’m mostly a playwright (mostly), and I now live in Austin, Texas, where I teach, have a lovely dog, a banjo, and many vegetable plants. Oddly enough I don’t “care” to read, and what I mean by this is that I’ve read something by just about every author you can name; from Judith Byron Schachner to old-dead-white people we all take too seriously. I just don’t “care” for most of what I read. I find most writers to be boring and uninspired and arrogant, but when I do find an author I like, when I do find a voice that speaks to me, when I do find a writer that can hold my attention and inspire me to keep reading, that, ladies and gentlemen, is gravy.

The writers I “care” about the most are my “dumb” students. I teach a class called “developmental writing.” This class features students admitted to college under academic probation. Most of them speak English as a second language, are the first of their family to attempt college, and many have never met their fathers. They write not to get a good grade but because they need to, or want to. They write stories just for me to read. And they write the most fantastic stories. I have a Chinese student who has written on how the mountain by her town “crumbled” and killed many children in an earthquake. I have a young man from Saudi Arabia who was struck by a car and lost the use of his legs. That was a hard story to read. And I have a student who has come to college by way of prison. He beat his cousin to a pulp after he found him in bed with his wife. He is in college to show his daughter that men can make changes in their lives. When these students write I can see anger and frustration. These students are the “losers” at the university, and they know it. Most people don’t like being called “dumb.”

I like my “dumb” students because I was a dumb student. When I was in the fourth grade I was sent to “special class” because I see certain letters backwards. That year my “special teacher” asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a writer. Although I had a hard time reading, I still enjoyed it. She told me I would make a good garbage man. This made me very angry and in response I refused to read anything for years. Then, in high school, my ex-girlfriend called me, randomly, and she had something for me. She had just read a book she wanted me to have, a collection of short stories called Welcome to the Monkey House. It was weird and wild and wicked. It was very inspiring. The author was something of a loser, like me. He had been to war, but never shot anybody. In fact he was quickly captured and put in the meat lockers of a slaughterhouse. This writing had anger in it. I learned this author had a teacher who thought he wasn’t that smart either. And this author grew up only one hour away from me. It was as if he wrote these stories just for me to read, and no one else. For the first time since the fourth grade I wanted to be a writer again.

When my students ask me why I became a writer I tell them it is the only job I’ve had where I get to be “dumb.” That, and I tell them I’m angry and I can’t play guitar. But I’m teaching myself how to play the banjo. I only know three notes or chords or whatever you call it, but I play to amuse my dog and my plants. I’m dumb when I play my banjo, and it is rather nice. There is nothing wrong with being dumb and angry. You just have to be patient and pick and choose your words carefully to communicate. “Veal, peas, and a bottle of scotch.”  That was the email I received back the next day from the relatively famous writer. It took four minutes and twenty seconds to receive that email. And on an island off the coast of Maine in the cold of winter, little else needed to be said.

—Timothy Braun


Timothy Braun is writer from Austin, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter at @timothybraun42.

To learn more visit timothybraun.com.


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Finding Inspiration in a Year of Suck: Guest Post by Stephanie Kuehnert

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Reading this deeply honest guest blog from Stephanie Kuehnert about her struggles writing over the last year is so helpful and inspiring to me, I can’t even tell you. I have a feeling I’m not the only one who needs to read this one:


Last October I was more frustrated than I’ve ever been as a writer. I wasn’t happy about my writing career in general and the book I was working on in particular.

My first two books had been out for a year and two years respectively at that point and I didn’t feel like they’d been “successful” enough—not that I even knew how gauge success because unlike in school and at my other jobs, no one gave me any standard of measurement, but I hadn’t earned out my advance, had multiple print runs or anything like that, so I was pretty terrified that it would mean the end of my career if I didn’t pump something amazing out soon. So I convinced myself I could write a book in six months (so many other writers do!) even though I’d never written one in less than a year before.

That book, which I publicly referred to as The Bartender Book (it has a real title, but I’m oddly superstitious about sharing titles of books I’m working on) during my many rants about it on Twitter and my blog (one of many can be found here), had stalled out right around the time that I was hoping to finish the first draft of it. I’d had two other ideas bouncing around in my brain and started toying with the idea of giving up on The Bartender Book and working on one of those for NaNoWriMo. After reading my many Twitter rants, a lot of my writer buddies were saying it might be a good thing. They told me to think of it as taking a break, not quitting. But I was distraught. I’d never abandoned a manuscript in the state that The Bartender Book was in. I’d given up on ideas after fifty or seventy-five pages before, but I was three-quarters of the way through The Bartender Book. I’d set things aside before, but again not in this unfinished state. My second book published, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, was actually the first book I’d ever written. After my first draft, I’d realized that that version of the story (which was called “The Morning After”) wasn’t working, so rather than revising I shelved it until I could figure out how to make it work. I felt like if I was going to shelve The Bartender Book and actually come back to it, I would have to write a full draft. I also worried that if I couldn’t finish The Bartender Book, it would prove that either my first two books were total flukes or I’d totally lost my writing mojo.

These were all the wrong reasons to keep plugging away at a project that was sending me deep into the pits of writerly despair. Everyone kept telling me so and I finally listened after a couple of my particularly wise writer buddies, Jeri Smith-Ready and April Henry, found a way to make the separation easier. They encouraged me to “have an affair” with my other ideas. Cheating on a book is not like cheating on a significant other, they said. No feelings get hurt, but it will help you figure out where you stand or it will just give you a little bit of relief. So I told myself I was going to have a torrid month-long affair with a fabulous new idea and then I’d see where I stood with The Bartender Book.

Though I did write a couple of killer scenes and character descriptions, the affair didn’t even last a week. My characters from the bartender book, Zoë and Ivy and Bender and Eli, kept popping into my head. I missed the little town and the bar I’d created for them. I kept thinking about the ways they made me laugh, and because I’m such a sadistic writer, how much I enjoyed putting them through the ringer. I wanted to see where they ended up. And I knew that that was the right reason to stay with a project. So I bid the affair book adieu, thanked it for reminding me that I could write, and dove back into the mess that was The Bartender Book.

Against my better judgment, I fast-drafted and forced myself to plow through to the end even if the last act of the book was mostly a rough sketch made up of a lot of dialogue and notes like [INSERT MEMORY HERE]. And how did I feel when I finished that rough draft? EVEN SHITTIER THAN BEFORE. The book was a whopping 60 thousand words too long as I’d known it would be. One of my critique partners had been hinting at what she thought I would need to do, but I’d ignored her because it meant major surgery. I would have to remove what I thought was an important character and storyline from the book. Poor Gabe. I loved him so much. He’d been one of my favorite parts of my initial idea. “I love him, too,” my smart critique partner said. “But I don’t think he fits in this story. Maybe there can be a sequel or maybe he can go in another book.”

“This book will not have a sequel,” I’d told her repeatedly and I held firm to that even when I saw the enormous word count of my rough draft. I couldn’t chop the book in two. There wasn’t a way. But finally I agreed, “You’re right, Gabe doesn’t belong in this story.”

So I cut all of his parts out and started to stitch the book back together. It was easier than I thought to remove him because DUH! he really didn’t belong. Things were smooth sailing until mid-January when once again I was three-quarters of the way into the book and at another self-imposed deadline for finishing it. Then I panicked. The word count was still too high, I couldn’t figure out how the last act was supposed to evolve, and I suddenly realized that one of my two main characters might have done something completely unforgivable. I cried to my mom, my husband and my writer buddies about this. I threatened to quit—not just the book, but writing in general. I was not cut out for it. Between the icky career part of it and the writing being so damn difficult, it was no longer fun.

Then one lovely writer buddy said, “I’ve got a couple days off, let me read it and help you brainstorm.” So I did and she and I went back and forth over the phone, email and Skype until I felt confident enough to push ahead. I did this more slowly this time, setting a third and final more realistic deadline of mid-March, which would mark roughly a year since I’d started the book. Not actually bad, I told myself. I am not a fast writer and I am fine with this.

I felt relatively decent when I finished that draft and even more so when I finished a third draft at the end of May. But the career stuff came into play again when I had to find a new agent. It wasn’t as easy as everyone kept telling me it would be since I’d been previously published. I went about it very slowly, because with my self-confidence at an all-time low, it really freaked me out. But once I met the right agent things happened very fast. She loved the book. Her ideas about it were in sync with mine. She only felt it needed a few little tweaks. So in October, the anniversary of what I felt like was my lowest point as a writer and with that book in particular, I took a deep breath, opened my latest version of it and prepared to tackle what I hoped would be the final issues before The Bartender Book could go on submission.

It took only two weeks, but they were probably the happiest two weeks of my entire writing career. Being back in that story was like a reunion with my very best friends. I laughed and cried with them. I dreamed about them. I lived in their world—a fabulous world that I’d created. I kind of didn’t want to leave because we’d gotten to know each other so well and they were so much fun, but they smiled at me and said, “You told our story right.” And in that moment it was all worth it. In fact, even though a year earlier I’d been saying how much I hated that book and how there was no way in hell I’d write a sequel to it, I told my characters, “I really hope a publisher loves you as much as I do and they will let me write a sequel.”

While I wish I could end this story with some fantastic news about how it sold at auction and I’m definitely going to write that sequel, all I can tell you is that it’s on submission now, but whether or not it sells, I can already say the experience of sticking with this troublesome book was worth it. I came out of it with several valuable lessons. I learned to cheat on my ideas when I’m feeling burned out, to fast-draft when I need to push through, to STOP fast-drafting when my instincts and my critique partners are telling me to stop, to listen to advice even when it hurts if I know deep down that the advice is right, and most importantly when the story and the characters are crying out to be written, not to give up on them. From now on whenever I’m struggling with a story that I know must be written, I will remember those glorious two fall weeks when I realized I’d nailed the story I thought I could never get right. That feeling will be my light at the end of the tunnel, my inspiration. So do whatever you need to do—because there is no one “right” thing or any “wrong” things you can do, every book and every writer is different—to enjoy that feeling yourself. Trust me, it’s worth it.

—Stephanie Kuehnert


Stephanie Kuehnert got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist ’zines. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her first YA novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE was published by MTV Books in July 2008, and her second, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, was published in July 2009. She lives in Forest Park, Illinois with her husband and three cats. In addition to writing novels, she is a bartender, teacher, staff writer for ROOKIE, an online magazine for teenage girls, and an award-winning columnist for her local paper, the Forest Park Review.

Read Stephanie’s blog at stephaniekuehnert.blogspot.com.

Follow @writerstephanie on Twitter. 


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Two Bubbles: Guest Post by THE INTERN

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

I’m a longtime fan of THE INTERN’s brilliant insider publishing blog, written from the perspective of an anonymous publishing intern. Now, not only can we see what THE INTERN thinks about writing inspiration… if you scroll down to the end of this post, you’ll find the link that unmasks her true identity, too!


In INTERN’s imagination, human existence is made of up of two bubbles. There’s the cramped, worried, worldly bubble where you fret over book sales, deadlines, and when you’re allowed to take a break for toast. That bubble looks (and feels) like this:

When you spend too long in that bubble, that thing called inspiration can shrink away to almost nothing, crowded out by your own sense of self-importance and your willingness to distract yourself with things like toast breaks.

But lurking just beyond the boundaries of the first bubble is another, bigger one, where everything is dancing and nobody gives a crap about your book:

When you’re in that space, you remember how small you are in the great scheme of things, how fleeting your concerns, and how silly and magical and sinister and ecstatic the universe is when you give it half a chance.

You realize the fate of the universe doesn’t hinge on your book. Spiders will keep making webs. People will keep falling in love. Everything in nature is going to keep on doing its thing, and you’re going to keep on doing your thing too.

INTERN is inspired by the people who dwell in the second bubble—the mystics, dervishes, poets and musicians whose art beckons to us from the other side. They remind us there is something bigger than the next book deal, deadline, or toast break—and that’s the kind of inspiration you need to make great art.

—THE INTERN


If you read THE INTERN’s bio, you’ll get to find out who she is!

THE INTERN is a former publishing industry intern and the author of Midnight at the Radio Temple, forthcoming from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books in 2013.

Read THE INTERN’s blog at internspills.blogspot.com.

Follow @internspills on Twitter. 


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Guest Post: What Inspires Kathleen Duey

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

I absolutely love how Kathleen Duey talks about inspiration—what it is, and where it comes from. Dare I say it inspires me? It does. Here, let it inspire you, too:


Inspiration.

It’s an interesting word with as many definitions as there are artists. It also has ancient roots. I stopped researching it because I was getting dizzy, but this much seems clear: The word “inspiration” comes from the Latin “inspirare” which meant both “to breathe in” and “to breathe upon”—causing the religious/scholarly debate that dizzied me. But “inspirare” also meant this: “to draw in a breath.”

That’s how inspiration has always felt to me. It’s unexpected, quick. It requires me to pull in that breath, to square-up my stance, ready myself to receive something precious, fleeting, meant for me, but ready to run past if I fail to receive it. It’s distinct—very different from getting a good idea. It isn’t like watching the bus driver who ate his sandwich, then pulled a rose out of the bag to tuck behind his ear. It’s different than talking to the young man wearing sand-colored camo in the Dallas airport, then walking away wondering if I could/should/would ever be capable of writing some part of his reality—because someone needed to. Inspiration, for me, isn’t simply the result of every artist’s endless noticing and cataloging of everything in the world.

We all build an imaginary back-lot where memories and scenery are stored, where extras from everywhere we have ever been await a chance to shine, and possible protagonists develop into people, some of whom will demand attention. Voices come to writers, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in the grocery store. So many stories need to be told and there are so many ways to tell them. Writer, painter, sculptor, musician, film maker, dancer, playwright, costumer, silversmith…all kinds of artists notice everything. We all distort reality, too, to make people stop, look, listen, discover something, laugh, cry, and perhaps quiet their own worries long enough to rest. All of that is a function of both art and craft, things that have absorbed thousands of my hours but still baffle me about half the time—and feel like my real family the other half.

Inspiration is different. It appears. Or at least that’s how it feels to me. It’s quick and strange and I have to chase it. It took a long time for me to get better at tackling it without bruising it, better at hearing it without interrupting it. Sometimes it brings me missing pieces of a story I set aside five years before. Sometimes it brings me a protagonist I seem to already know. Sometimes it drops off something so new and odd that I am pretty sure it missed a turn and came to the wrong house.

But no matter what inspiration brings, there is a silly, sweet afterglow during which I know I am a writer, a storyteller. Doubt is gone. Motivation feels like it will last forever. These are the moments when I am SURE I can write two amazing YA books in the coming year, that the sky is bluer than it has ever been. Delusional, sure, but so what? For me, the experience of inspiration supports and informs every other part of my job.

And it is my job.

The only one I ever wanted.

—Kathleen Duey


Kathleen Duey writes for early, middle grade, and YA/adult readers. She tries (very hard) to write books that matter.

Visit Kathleen at  kathleenduey.com and read her blog at kathleenduey.blogspot.com.

Follow @kdueykduey  on Twitter. 


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On Inspiration: Guest Post by Alexander Chee

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

I couldn’t have a blog series on inspiration without asking Alexander Chee to contribute. Those who’ve read his novel Edinburgh, or keep up with his blog Koreanish, or follow him on Twitter and elsewhere, they know why. Everyone else, I want you to know why.

It’s because of THIS:


“I Just Feel Like It Is Going In A Really Random Direction”

by Alexander Chee

“How’s the writing going,” I get asked, so many times, I want to get t-shirts that say “The Writing Is Going Okay I Guess” or “The Writing Is Not Going Well” or “…”.

I never want to say, because whatever I say feels like a lie.

*            *            *            *

Over time I’ve decided the idea of inspiration is a terrible burden, to many. A cruel one. A myth, or even a cult, sometimes. I think people are haunted by it, as they are horoscopes that say they’ll meet a lover this week, or that there is a perfect someone out there for everyone, that maybe there is a god, but maybe not, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Santa Claus. Maybe there is inspiration. Maybe there are just ideas. Maybe it is just the world. Maybe there really is a jolly fat man in a red suit and a beard with a gift just for you.

Maybe just go make whatever it is you are waiting for that man to give you.

The idea that anything I do as a writer needs inspiration to move forward makes me feel like not just a gambler, but a monk in the garden, searching for the faces of Jesus and Mary in the grass and roses, but with the urgency of searching for money.

I do not think inspiration can be chased. I do think much of the work of writing involves putting yourself where it can, if it exists, find you.

This is often in your chair. But sometimes it is not. And in the meantime, I look for ideas, which seem to me more durable. Inspiration strikes me like a fever and leaves. An idea is like a new friend who could, with time and attention, become an old one.

*            *            *            *

Somewhere in all of the insane writing advice that surrounds me (there is so much advice!) I remember someone saying that Joyce Carol Oates had advice for writer’s block. When I get to this part invariably someone always says “She never had it.” In any case, whether or not she’s ever had it, and whether or not she said this, it’s good advice: “Writer’s block comes when the writer believes the idea is fraudulent.”

I have always liked this quote.

Whenever I get stuck, I see myself staring at the idea. Looking for the seam of the wig.

So then, sometimes you are not out of ideas. Sometimes you are afraid of the idea you have. This idea, it is an imposter. It will ravage your life. Undo all your hard work. Destroy you. You’re sure of it. At the least it will humiliate you. Are you really not inspired or are you afraid of being the person who will write the thing that will come if you sit down with the idea you have? Who do you need to love you so much that you will hide this idea from you and act like it doesn’t exist?

Which is to say, sometimes you need to be destroyed. The person you are is in the way and the person you will be is waiting on the other side of the shell that you call you.

*            *            *            *

Sometimes people say “I just haven’t found myself yet” and what they mean is they have and they don’t like the answer. Do you not like the answer? What did you think you would write? Where did the answer come from? Did it come from you? This is a leading indicator, if it came from you. “I just feel like it is going in a really random direction,” students often say to me when they get depressed about their work. They act as if their work is someone who has stopped paying attention to them, someone beloved and suddenly indifferent to them.

In fact it is usually the opposite. The random direction is the rejected one, the one you fear because what if you are the person who wrote that?

The random direction is the inspiration. The fear is “I am not the person who writes that kind of thing” which is the obstacle. The inspiration lays there, neglected.

There is what you plan to write and then what you write, always. What comes out is not wrong if you don’t recognize it. It is called inspiration, after all, and not “totally recognizable thing you always knew would be there.” The thing you don’t recognize waits, waiting for you to pick it up and finish.

This is part of what’s hard: there is a middle part to the work you do when it is neither what it was nor what it will be and seems terrible and certain to betray you. But it is only unfinished.

*            *            *            *

When I need an idea, I will often go out. Or stay in.

I go to museums I would never think of going to, I call a friend I haven’t spoken to in ages, bookstores, a library I’ve always neglected.

Or I stay in. I cancel. The idea has been waiting for me to tell everyone to please leave the room for a while, ok? It just wants to talk.

I take a train. A subway, MTA North, Amtrak, wherever. I bring a notebook and a book. Turn off the phone.

Whether at home or in a bookstore, I go to my bookshelves and flip books open at random, reading what I find there.  The book often makes it to my To Be Read (Or To Be Re-Read) pile and then eventually returns to the shelf. All I needed was that paragraph. But this is partly why my apartment resembles a small bookstore.

I am looking at a book right now, right above my desk, that I have not read since the snowy day I was in the used bookstore and I opened it and stood enthralled and the paragraph told me something I needed to know and so I left with it. We were running away together then. Now we are here in the place we ran to.

I also have a collection of postcards entirely made of cards bought in the act of possessing the idea I got from the image there, a tone or a sense of a character or a charge. They sit in an old Japanese pencil box on the shelf over my desk, as if owning them this way was owning them. I take them out and look at them. Sometimes I’ve gone along with the ruse that I can send them to people, and I write messages and even addresses on their backs, and never find the will to send them. Because of course I did not buy them to send to other people.

I smile when I see these, a little sadly.

An idea sometimes like a postcard you forgot you send, but to yourself.

I go through my old magazines. I go through my old notebooks. I try to chart a course across what I have forgotten and what I have not yet seen.

So much of being out of ideas is simply a need to make your way out of the little world you are in. The days have made a burrow, and you didn’t notice until you did, and now you must climb out.

*            *            *            *

Writing is the opposite of visual art, I think—the more a writer works on something, the less visible it is, it vanishes before the writer’s eyes, but slowly, until you are like someone lost in fog, who doesn’t dare move for fear of falling down.

Sometimes we think we need inspiration and we need something else. We need for all of the ink to be blue instead of black, for the font to change, for the work to look like something someone gave us to read and not like something we’ve worked on for a long time. In that moment, when that distance happens, both the good and bad that we have not seen before appears.

Or we think we need inspiration to go back to work and what we need is to just go back to work.

Depression and intelligence are apparently linked, according to studies on orangutan. The most depressed orangutan are also the most intelligent ones. When I read this I felt sorry for the orangutan, but I also understood—before you reconcile what has never been reconciled, what you want to do or understand feels impossible. Afterward it is as if it was always there.

And so here is a last trick: that feeling of despair, the depression, is usually a sign that the answer is almost there. The feeling that there is nowhere to go and you can’t get away, that is not a signal to escape. It is a signal to go in, continue, to sit there and finish.

—Alexander Chee


Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and the forthcoming The Queen of the Night. He is a recipient of the Whiting Award, the NEA in fiction, the MCCA in Fiction and residencies from MacDowell, Civitella and Leidig House, and his essays and stories have appeared in The Morning News, Out, The Paris Review Daily and Granta.comand are widely anthologized. He has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Amherst College and the New School. He blogs at Koreanish and lives in New York.

Follow @alexanderchee on Twitter. 


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Guest Post: What Inspires Bennett Madison

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Have you read Bennett Madison’s novel The Blonde of the Joke? You must. This novel took me over and inspired my writing in more ways than I can even articulate. Imagine how amazing it is to find out what inspires its author. Here’s what Bennett says about inspiration: 


When charged with writing on the topic of inspiration, it’s hard not to want to just present an itemization of the things that I like. I’ll restrain myself from writing out the comprehensive list, but the abridged and ad-libbed version would look something like this:

  • Too much eyeliner (preferably liquid)
  • Harmonies, messy ones are better
  • Arms dangling out of car windows
  • Wigs
  • Disco balls
  • Cigarettes: must be either really trashy brands or really pretentious brands (often actually the same thing)
  • Synthesizers, esp. synthesizers paired with fuzzy guitars
  • Reality television
  • You can imagine the rest.

Inspiration is, for me, almost a strange form of acquisitiveness. You get a glimpse of something, say, just for example, a certain quality to the sunlight filtering through reddening leaves and the way it hits your companion’s hair just so as she drags on her cigarette and laughs or whatever. Now and then such a glimpse might trip a feeling, like in this case just being happy and relaxed, and then the two things (the feeling along with the sun/the hair/the cigarette/the laugh/whatever) somehow combine into a third thing, and this is the thing that you can’t quite put your finger on.

Inspiration is what may in certain circumstances follow: the overwhelming desire to own that third thing, to be able to put it in your pocket and carry it around with you, to take it home and place it on a shelf next to other similar things you’ve collected in the creation of a Pokémon menagerie of the ineffable. The catch, of course, is that the thing is not easily ownable. In order to have it, you have to sit down and create it all over again. In a lot of ways it’s a futile task, and the futility is part of the point.

The moment in which I remember feeling this buzz of inspiration most viscerally—the moment in which many of the items on my unabridged list of aesthetic interests converged most perfectly and clearly with my mood—is remarkable only for the impression it made on me. It was sometime in 1999 at the even-then-long-past-its-prime Pyramid Club, drinking a Long Island Iced Tea. (When I was too young to drink legally, I would often order Long Island Iced Teas because I felt that they offered bang for the buck and saved me from having to send my friends with IDs to the bar more than necessary; also I liked the taste.)

So I was standing alone in the corner by the speakers and watching a friend with a glamorously off-kilter personal style and a crazy halo of ultra-blond hair dancing ecstatically (if you can consider a dance that consists almost entirely of shoulder-swaying and hair-tossing punctuated by the occasional hop to be ecstatic) to unfashionable New Wave music, perhaps OMD, while brandishing a Marlboro Light, and the lights were flashing on her face, the real smoke from cigs was merging with the fake smoke from the smoke machine in a way that was both stinky and redolent of significance, and as my attention moved over the dance floor, lingering on different people and faces in what felt like a series of freeze frames, I wanted nothing more in the world than to understand it and write it down.

I’ve never published anything in which that moment is actually dramatized and I’m not sure I could ever really describe why it felt so important to me, but I still find myself thinking about it constantly. It shows up a lot in things I write, always in unrecognizable disguise.

A few nights ago, while watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, it suddenly occurred to me that I had somehow missed ever reading Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” After cursing my incredibly haphazard Sarah Lawrence education—because what, if anything, should a Sarah Lawrence education provide a person other than a comprehensive knowledge of Susan Sontag and camp?!—I decided that it was high time I actually gave the essay a look. Better late than never. And it strikes me now as I’m writing this (is this inspiration?) that the commonality in the items on the short list I’ve made and the much longer one in my head and even in the scene I described above is a sort of camp artifice that isn’t quite artificial and is therefore maybe not camp at all.

Because if we say that camp in its purest form is a mode of sincere or unwitting affectation, maybe it’s also true that the purposeful or semi-purposeful affectation of camp creates a feedback loop that turns it into something entirely different. If camp involves recognizing and celebrating the synthetic in something that’s supposed to seem real, maybe the anti-camp I’m talking about has to do with locating what is genuine and even sublime in the self-consciously synthetic. Blond hair. Smoke machines. Gauloises. Busted harmonies. Those things are all camp, but can be looked at from both angles, and the second angle is the one that inspires me.

In his really nice write-up of my book The Blonde of the Joke, the wonderful writer Matt Gallaway remarked that the girls in the book reminded him of drag queens, who are of course held up often as quintessential practitioners of camp. There are many (infinite?) types of drag, but what the characters in my book have in common with some drag performers, besides a penchant for shoplifting, is that they’re working to construct an identity based on a purposeful aesthetic system that isn’t really their own. This could be called camp, and maybe it is, but what’s interesting is the way it isn’t, the way this jokey artificiality is a strange representation of something that’s too real to express directly. (Maybe Courtney Love, also an expert camp artist, conveyed this tension best when she said, “I fake it so real I am beyond fake.”)

I’m talking about two separate things so far, both the process of inspiration and my own personal sources for it. But, for me, there’s a connection between the two. That connection is probably specific to me and to my own aesthetic obsessions, but whatever.

Because what does inspiration inevitably (or ideally, or maybe disappointingly?) lead to but a kind of trompe l’oeil? You have that initial observation; then you have that feeling; then you have the sparky combination of those two things, the thing you want to possess; and then, as you try to steal it, it transforms again into something that isn’t precisely what you were trying to capture but instead into a picture of it, a picture the usually makes you sigh a little the way you would if you were painting a portrait and got the eyes crooked or made the nose too big.

But on very rare occasions this picture is different enough that any resemblance—artifice—becomes irrelevant. It is its own thing now, a representation only of itself. Maybe by then you don’t even remember what inspired you to make it in the first place. When you’ve done it right, you’ve done the Courtney Love thing: you’ve faked it so real that you are beyond fake.

—Bennett Madison


Bennett Madison is the author of The Blonde of the Joke and other things nominally for young people. His next book, about a mysterious tribe of young women in the Outer Banks, will be released by Harper Teen in 2013.

Visit Bennett at www.bennett-madison.com.

Follow @bennettmadison on Twitter. 


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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 laurelsnyder.com.

Follow @laurelsnyder on Twitter. 


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