Turning the Question on Myself: What Inspires ME?

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Talking about what inspires me to write is really talking about what makes me a person. It goes back to the beginning, to who I used to be.

I’m often asked when I decided I wanted to become a writer. That’s a funny question to me, because there was no conscious decision. I didn’t actively choose to be a writer, or come to it after trying other things. There was never a time when I didn’t want to write. Sure, maybe what I wanted to write evolved from one thing to another: poems, short stories, novels for adults, novels for young adults… but the writing itself, the desire—no, the need—to express myself in words was always with me.

Just because you want to write and always have doesn’t mean publication comes easily. So maybe that’s why I’m asked the question so often. I published my first book beyond the arbitrary line I’d drawn for myself: I was older than thirty. So maybe it seems like this is something I came to later in life.

It wasn’t. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write, even in my journals, only for myself, but always, always, I was writing. I’m a writer first, and then a person, even though this can be—is—a very dangerous thing.

I wrote before I thought of publishing. I wrote because reading stories was my escape, and so writing my own stories became the next step toward that escape. I wrote to make sense of things. To reimagine. To re-remember. To hold close. To push away. To live again. To invent. To fight and to win.

At some point I became aware that writers wrote to publish and have people read them. So I tried that. And sometimes I succeeded, but mostly I failed. I wrote when I thought it would be easy, and I wrote when all I heard was: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Still, I kept being inspired to write.

But what inspired me? What pushed me to keep telling stories? When I think of all my years of writing—the good, and the bad—I feel that fire of inspiration that consumed me and made me want to keep making art from the absolute scratch of a blank page.

I think of what got me up at five o’clock in the morning so I could take the subway to my writing space before my full-time day job, even if I only had an hour or two before I had to get back on the subway and go to work. I remember those half-asleep mornings, the sky dark as I made my way to the train, only the people begging for change and the people waiting for the nearby methadone clinic to open were awake with me at that hour. I remember falling asleep on the train and then jolting awake when my stop came. I remember sitting at that writing desk with the morning hours ahead of me and feeling so perfectly, wonderfully alive, the inspiration to write worth everything.

It’s important that I remember this.

To remember being at work. At the artist’s studio. At the educational publisher. At the comic-book company. At the children’s publisher, the first one and then the second one. At all of these places over the years, being in the midst of doing my job—checking the mailroom, marking up the proofs, lugging the heavy piles of pages up the stairways—and having to stop in the hallways, in dark stairwells, in corners, or hide myself in bathroom stalls, in elevators, scribbling a few fevered words down. The inspiration to write followed me everywhere.

I think of what kept me at the writing when I had a box of rejections, stuffed full. When staring at a five a.m. dark city morning when all you hear is No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No still seems worth it somehow. Still seems necessary.

I think of what keeps me writing now. Now, when I’m trying to make writing a career. With deadlines. And reviews. And paychecks depending on what I can produce. With all the doubt that threatens to ruin me.

Because the truth is, I don’t write for you. Or you. Or you. Or you.

I write for myself and always have.

What originally inspired me to write was the simple fact that writing was a way for me to speak when I didn’t know how.

Writing gave me the voice I couldn’t find any other way—and this is where I find my inspiration.

* * *

We’re going back in time. There I am in the nondescript middle of a classroom. I am holding myself very still while the teacher scans the room for someone to call on to give the answer. It is math class. It is social studies class. It is science. It is even English, my favorite subject. I am eight. I am eleven. I am thirteen and fifteen and seventeen and eighteen. I may know the answers. I may have opinions or things to say. But I can’t utter them, not in front of all these people.

I can’t lift my hand or open my mouth to speak. I can’t even look up. I hope against hope that I won’t be called on. I keep my eyes from meeting the teacher’s. I hold my breath. I shrink.

What am I afraid of? Being embarrassed. Being thought of as stupid. Being uncool to the kids I want to be friends with in class. Being someone no one ever wants to hear speak again. Being me. Having people know who that is.

The teacher’s eyes fall on me. My stillness hasn’t kept me from being seen. “Participating in class” is part of my grade—sometimes it’s what brings my grades down. But there comes a time in every classroom, maybe once a month, once a quarter, when my name is called and I am forced to talk without prior warning in front of everyone.

The pain of this can be excruciating. Heat fills my body, bubbling and fizzing and clenching around my heart. It rises to my face and then the color blooms. Kids in class point out, “Look how red she is!” I open my mouth to talk and the teacher often asks me to speak up. I try to be loud, but I can’t. Still, I give the answer. Sometimes it’s the right answer. I can’t hear it, though, because my ears thrum with blood. My eyes tear from the heat. I want to never have to see any of these people ever again.

This doesn’t get too much easier over the years, because we keep moving. We move in time for first grade. Again in time for seventh grade. We move just before ninth grade, the first year of high school. We move one last time before tenth grade.

So how do you rise out of debilitating shyness to show that you are a person worthy of opinions, a person with a voice who has things to say? To show you are worth something. You are someone.


In my case, you write.

There was a short story unit in elementary school. There were papers in English. There were my journals, my pages of poems. There were my short stories about disappearing girls—I still write these stories; now I can even publish them as novels. I once wrote a paper on female mathematicians for math class—my former math teacher came to one of my readings because she remembered me and this paper. I wrote at every opportunity, happily, on anything. It was the one thing I did that made me feel like myself.

The writing was personal, too. I wrote everything and everyone around me. I wrote the things I couldn’t say out loud. When painful things happened to me (family that hurt me, boys who hurt me) I wrote them down and wrote them away. I wrote what I couldn’t say.

My mom—a voracious reader—saw this and encouraged me at every turn. Eventually, it was my writing that gave me the inspiration and the courage to speak. To even be loud.

Now that I can talk in front of people, now that I have, on uncountable occasions, stood before of a room of people and talked about myself, my books, revealing who I am to strangers, you may think I’m a different person. It’s miraculous to me, how much I’ve changed.

But it all goes back to that girl sitting very, very still in the nondescript center of the classroom. Hoping no one will notice her while she burns up with all the things she’s noticing inside.

It is the act of writing that inspires me. The idea that I didn’t feel like I had a voice, and I did.

I write for that strange, uncomfortable girl I was, the beet-red face in the classroom, filling up with the shame and fire of wanting to disappear. I’m inspired by the girl I was who thought she had nothing worthy to say.

She did. She does. We all do.

Thank you for reading November’s “What Inspires You?” blog series! And thank you to all the writers who wrote guest blogs for me. I’m honored to have been able to post them.

Here, you can read the entire blog series:

Guest Post: What Inspires Michelle Aldredge

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Today is the last day of the inspiration series on my blog! I love the following essay by Michelle Aldredge, creator of the new arts site Gwarlingo. She speaks to art and life, creativity vs. commerce, and so much more in this eloquent piece on what inspires her to create:

—We are only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved

A visual artist I know once told me about an audit she endured with the IRS. My friend is a professional artist in New York City with her own studio. Her work is shown at galleries and museums. She has received grants, been accepted to artist residencies around the world, and every now and then, she even manages to sell a few pieces of artwork.

During the audit, one of the IRS employees explained to my friend that she couldn’t keep declaring a loss for her business year after year. “This looks more like a hobby than a profession,” the auditor said.

My friend attempted to explain the financial ups and downs of being a working artist. Yes. There had been a dry spell in the “income department” in recent years, but her expenses were legitimate. Art was her business, her life, her passion–not a mere hobby. The auditor was completely puzzled. “But if you aren’t making any money creating art,” he asked, “why do you keep doing this year after year?”

I love this story because it says so much about the profit-oriented culture we inhabit as artists (and when I say “artists,” I define that term broadly to include writers, performers, designers, filmmakers, composers, visual artists, etc.).

For most artists I know, money is a constant source of anxiety because most creative projects don’t make economic sense. As artists, we have chosen an alternative paradigm to the profit-oriented one. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be smart about the business-side of art making, only that money isn’t our primary motivator.

The concept of creating for its own sake remains a radical concept in our culture. This is one of the central rifts we see playing out now between Wall Street bankers and supporters of the Occupy movement. One camp places a higher value on profits, while the other a higher value on more elusive qualities like imagination, empathy, and justice.

Of course, if you have your money invested in the stock market, then you want your broker to be greedy with your money—you want to earn 6%, not 4% like everyone else. But when it comes to art, greed turns the best ideas sour. It isn’t hard to sniff out the difference between work that was created from a free, deep place, and a blatant commercial commodity.

You may be able sell the end product of art—the concert ticket, the photograph, the book—but the idea itself is free. Art is a gift. It is an elusive mystery that thrives only when it’s shared.

Being an artist is hard because we’re operating in a parallel universeone that values imagination, creativity, and ideas more than money or status. But a true creative exchange—one in which art is given and accepted without obligation is a way of side-stepping the soul-crushing grimness of consumerism. I would go so far as to say that it’s an alternate way of being. It’s this free exchange between artist and audience that creates movement, provides pleasure, provokes change, and offers meaningful connection.

As writer and MacArthur fellow Lewis Hyde says in his classic book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, “The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is great it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us.”

“Motion” is a key word here, for an artist needs this movement to thrive. “Make the work,” said Walt Whitman. “Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!” wrote artist Sol LeWitt to his friend Eva Hesse. “Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you—draw & paint your fear and anxiety…You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!”

“No art is sunk in the self,” says Flannery O’Connor, “but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.”

In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton writes: “There is only one real deprivation…and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most…The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.”

“The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market,” Hyde explains. “He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

From an early age, I understood that art possessed its own strange power. Growing up in a conservative, fundamentalist family in suburban Atlanta, I was taught that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and that its words contained the literal answers to all of life’s problems.

I was also taught that many books, songs, movies, and artworks were dangerous and capable of damning you to hell for eternity. During my childhood, art was like a red-hot burner; its mysteries and dangers were a constant lure.

This idea was further cemented when a group of angry citizens demanded that the public library I worked for remove several “pornographic” books from the shelves. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries were the two books that sparked this ugly censorship battle. It was a divisive fight that dragged on for years, but the death threats, mudslinging in the press, and outraged library customers who screamed in my face and accused me of hurting their children taught me that the freedom to read should never be taken for granted.

While I didn’t support the group’s efforts to ban books, I did understand why some members of my community were afraid. They understood the old cliché that knowledge is power. They were afraid that what happened to me might happen to their own children—that all of their efforts to instill “family values” might be undermined by the freedom to read contrary opinions. For some parents, there is nothing worse than having your own child “backslide” into a state of doubt.

After so many years of seeing the world in crisp black and white, I’ve learned to value the beauty of the gray areas. I can still find solace in the woods, in a sacred space, or a room of friends sitting silently together, but the gift of art remains central to my well-being. I hate to think what my life might be like today without it.

It’s the hard, deep, uncomfortable work that inspires me most. Easy answers, like easy art, make me suspicious. I’m in awe of writers like Darcy Frey, Adrian LeBlanc, and Jeff Sharlet who spend years on a single book. They have devoted years of their life talking to people, shadowing them, researching their subject, listening, and writing in order to shine a light on a subject that was previously invisible.

But art doesn’t have to have an overt social conscience to be meaningful. A short piece of music or a seemingly simple painting can be as powerful or transformative as the thickest Tolstoy novel. By choosing to pay attention to any piece of art, we are acknowledging the value of imagination. To look, to listen, to attempt understanding is to participate in this free exchange.

My new arts site, www.gwarlingo.com is also an exchange of sorts—a way of giving back to the artists who have given so much to me through the years. I created Gwarlingo because I was tired of seeing the same movies, music, shows, and books covered in the mainstream press again and again. There are a lot of exceptional alternatives out there, but the trouble is knowing where to look. My idea was to create a place where art lovers and artists of all disciplines could discover compelling work. I wanted to go deeper than the average blog—to have real conversations with real artists about ideas and process. To break down the barriers of genre, geography, and age, but to also have a little fun along the way.

It is difficult to talk about the meaning of art without sounding fanciful or foolishly idealistic. We’re all afraid of sounding uncool or demystifying the creative process by talking about it too much. And yet, I know artists are hungry to discuss these ideas because they’ve told me they are.

The best art emerges from the tension of opposing impulses: discipline and play, solitude and community, intellect and emotion, success and failure, fear and fearlessness, giving and receiving. I believe this, and yet, I still find it difficult to fully comprehend the creative process. I have learned to be satisfied with these mysterious gray areas.

“The passage into mystery always refreshes,” says Hyde. “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies…It is when the world flames a bit in our peripheral vision that it bring us jubilation and not depression…for we are only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved.”

—Michelle Aldredge

Michelle Aldredge is a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, an arts and culture website that covers music, books, film, visual art, and the creative process. Since 1999, she has worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony founded in 1907. She has also worked as a librarian, a docent at The High Museum of Art, an English and literacy tutor, and an editorial assistant at an arts magazine. For two years she cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. She also likes sailing, bird watching, hiking, and Southern barbeque. She has received two fellowships from The Hambidge Center and recently finished her first novel, Promiseland.

Visit Michelle at www.gwarlingo.com.

Follow @gwarlingo on Twitter.

Or follow Gwarlingo on Facebook.

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“Inspiration” or “What I Found at the Victoria and Albert Museum”: Guest Post by Sabina Murray

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Today is the last day of the inspiration series on my blog! I love this surprise zing! of an inspirational moment that author Sabina Murray describes… You never can tell when one will hit you:

This past summer I was in London at the V & A attending an exhibit about beauty: an impressive showcase of pre-Raphaelites, people like Morris and Rossetti, that also presented the decorative arts in a lovely wash of stained glass and Arthurian verve. Regardless of the excess of beauty surrounding me, I was not inspired. I was somewhat jet-lagged and despite the fizzy, grape-flavored liquid cheerfully administered by my friend Liz earlier that morning, still a touch hung over. While explaining to my kids the importance of sculptural elements and repeated imagery in Pre-Raphaelite visual art, my phone had gone off: my cousin’s son (in Philippine culture this is the equivalent of an identical twin) was traveling Stateside with his daughter to show her Deerfield Academy, where he’d studied, and wanted to visit. I was facing a dilemma firstly because I wasn’t at home to host him, but secondly, since I was in London and hadn’t contacted his cousin (also the equivalent in Philippine culture of one’s identical twin) who lives in London, with whom I should have made a plan, and would now be exposed. So, I had trans-Atlantic guilt, with a jigger of family, all poured over some nice cubes of hangover. While I was trying to get off the phone with my “nephew” a disapproving museum guard had taken me by my elbow and was steadily leading me to an exit that certainly led to some Doctor Who-like fourth dimension, and, no doubt, once I had been expelled through it, I would never see my family (nor fizzy-drink dispensing friends) ever again.

All to say I was not feeling inspired. And the odds of me getting inspired (for those gamblers amongst us) were very, very slim.

Everyone will be happy to know that I am not posting this from the Doctor Who-like fourth dimension. I was able to get off the phone with my nephew before reaching the “portal of banishment.” More importantly, as I was making my way back to my people, I paused by an unassuming pen and ink drawing, and by the image read this quote:

“All art consistently aspires towards the condition of music.”

This was penned by a Walter Pater, whom, Wikipedia later informed me, was an eminent Victorian famous for being an eminent Victorian, although perhaps not eminent enough to be recognized—without further scrutiny—for much else. Suddenly I found myself inspired. If the room had begun to spin about with me as epicenter, it would have been no less remarkable. This simple sentence sprung before my reasoning and distorted and sharpened every struggle and triumph I’d ever had while writing.

I am a writer of ideas and am inspired, in a loose sense, by injustice and history and art. But when it comes to the finer sense of inspiration, I am interested in taking these large notions, creating characters moved by these forces, and bending the sentence to most approximate fine music. This is my goal on a daily basis. Filling pages has never presented much of a challenge to me, but what makes it sublime is to try to make the words sing on a page. I am not impervious to the “gotcha” moments in life, but in a refined sense, the “state of music” is my writing compass and what keeps the challenge and focus—the inspiration—real.

—Sabina Murray

Sabina Murray is the author of three novels and two short story collections, including the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Caprices. Her work is included in The Norton Anthology.  She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation and Radcliffe Institute and is on the fiction faculty of the MFA program at Umass Amherst. She wrote the script for Beautiful Country, a Golden Bear contender, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Her latest, Tales of the New World, was recently published by Grove/Black Cat.

Visit Sabina at sabinamurray.com.

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Guest Post: What Inspires Jamey Hatley

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Jamey Hatley is such an inspiring writer. I love the image of her reading as a child, and I love knowing how it made her into the writer she is today:

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them—with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.”

~Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

One of my first clear memories is of my mother reading to me before bed. When I was old enough to read on my own, I would often recline upside down in our big armchair with my head resting on a footstool, my body in the seat and my legs up the back. My mother wouldn’t ordinarily allow me to sit in any chair like that, but I guess she indulged me since I was reading. My nephew said recently that I would pull a book from a tall stack and throw the completed ones over my shoulder. I dispute that I would ever throw a book, but I concede to the precarious stacks.

I relish the delicious sensation of entering the world of a book and letting the “real” world slip away. When I read something wonderful, I feel this wild flutter in my chest as if the story is alive inside me. I could not imagine stirring another human with my words, so I studied marketing and public relations instead.

Since books didn’t grow out of the ground, I turned my attention to their makers. Book jacket bios and author photos were never enough to satisfy my curiosity. I learned to scour the public library’s old-fashioned card catalog for books by and about my favorite writers. From those carefully typed see, also cross-reference cards I discovered that there were whole books with interviews of writers. Conversations with James BaldwinBlack Women Writers at Work, Interviews with Black Writers and books like them enthralled me. I devoured these interviews.

At the time this was really the only way I could hear from the writers I loved in their own words. Lines from those interviews shaped me as a writer before I ever wrote a word. For example, in Black Women Writers at Work, Toni Morrison says, “My stories come to me as clichés. A cliché is a cliché because it’s worthwhile. Otherwise, it would have been discarded.” This is most likely the seed that got me thinking about clichés and archetypes that appear in my work.

In a way, without even knowing it, my favorite writers became unwitting mentors to me—answering questions that I didn’t even know to ask. These tiny details about the daily work of writing convinced me that perhaps I could write, too. These interviews provided a tiny, tiny window for me to peek through to find out about the invisible world of the writer.

I still love a smart, rigorous interview. The ones in BOMB are really nice because they intentionally pair certain artists together. These interviews always seem to go deep, and most times in ways you could not predict. I have the four-volume Paris Review Interviews boxed set on my wish list (hint, hint). I also plan to have a Proust Questionnaire party sometime in the near future.

I’ve come a long way since my see-also card-catalog days. I now know all too well that books don’t make themselves. Now that I am a maker of books, when I’m feeling stuck I almost always seek inspiration from writers and artists who have gone before and managed to make art of the world.

—Jamey Hatley

Jamey Hatley is a native of Memphis, TN, who believes fiercely in the power of sweet tea and stories to heal. Her writing has appeared in the Oxford American and Torch. She has attended the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Voices of Our Nation Writing Workshop and received scholarships to the Oxford American Summit for Ambitious Writers and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In 2006 she won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for a Novel-in-Progress, which is still in progress. After an undergraduate degree in marketing and a masters in journalism, she received her MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University. She makes her home in New Orleans, LA.

Read Jamey’s blog at jameyhatley.wordpress.com

Follow @jameyhatley on Twitter.

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Guest Post: What Inspires Julia Karr

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

On this beautiful Tuesday morning, Julia Karr reveals what inspires her to write. I think many of us may share these inspirations:

It’s so sweet that Nova asked me to write a post on what inspires me. I have to say—Nova’s a pretty good inspiration on any day! But, I’ll try to go beyond that… because there was a time when I didn’t know Nova, or any children’s authors except as names on the spines of books that I devoured.

First off then, I’d have to say that reading inspires me. There are so many fabulous books out there in the world—old, new, fiction, non-fiction, digital, papyrus—you name it. And, first and foremost, the written word inspires me. It inspires my creativity and my life. Which, honestly, are one and the same. I would be lost if I weren’t creating something—be it a pot of soup or a pot-boiler!

Add in other creative arts, such as music, paintings, sculpture, performance art, dance, etc.—those, too, are inspiring to me. Maybe it’s because they are created by other people—human beings—just like me. That is inspiring because it lets me know that I am capable, too. Capable of expressing the creative spirit that’s in me.

Then… there’s Nature—capital “N” Nature! From a snowflake to a hurricane—a ladybug to an elephant—there is nothing more inspiring to me than nature: the crisp clean air of an October morning, the dripping humidity of a midwest summer night, the air filled with bird songs on morning in April, or a quiet snowfall on a January night.

And—not to deny the inspiration of love—whether experiencing it firsthand, or seeing the expressions on the faces of a mother with her baby, a dad watching his “little girl” get married, a grandparent helping her grandson take his first steps—these inspire me, too.

I think the combination of all of these things—arts, nature, humanity—serves to move one’s soul to find ways express itself. And, I hope to always be awake to the call of that inspiration.

—Julia Karr

Julia Karr lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with her four cats and one dog. Her love of books led her to be the youngest child to complete her hometown library’s summer reading program—garnering her a photo on the front page of the Seymour Daily Tribune. When her two daughters were little, she wrote them bedtime stories; now that they are grown, she writes novels. Her first book, XVI, a young adult futuristic thriller that began its life as a NaNoWriMo experiment, was published by Speak/Penguin Books for Young Readers in Spring 2011, and the sequel, TRUTH comes out in January 2012.

Visit Julia at juliakarr.com.

Follow @juliaakarr on Twitter.

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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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