When I breathe in, how much can I do with that breath? Unless you’ve forgotten some of the Latin you learned back in kindergarten, you already know that the Latin word for breathe is “spirare” so that breathing in is inspiration. The Romans apparently did a lot with breathing, as these words show: expire, conspirator, spiritual, transpire, aspiration. This week a friend sent me an article with two writers talking about what inspires them, other than books. All writers are surely inspired by books, and a more interesting question may be “what else?”
So I drifted off for a while down the rivers that run through the brain, watching the strange plants and thinking about what inspires me to write. For poetry, nothing inspires me so much as hearing songs. It’s the effect of some line combined with the emotional power of the music. Sometimes I hear a single line from a song, and it grabs me, pulls my soul out of my body, and says, “You need to be writing something now!” Actually, songs have always done that for me, so it’s not just with poetry, but it’s hard to take that moment of musical compulsion from, say, Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” and turn it into a novel.
As I ponder this more, I realize that I work from inspirations happening at what you might call different levels. There is the fireworks version I just described, but a more long-term and perhaps more serious form of inspiration comes from watching people. That probably sounds trite, yeah? “Oh right, a writer is inspired by watching people—jeezus, give us a break!”
So here’s something that happened yesterday driving to work. Much of my commute is through neighborhoods, and I was driving fairly slowly past two young women on the sidewalk, one of them pushing a baby carriage. The other was wearing pink pants that I thought might be pajama bottoms, she was slightly heavy, and she had brownish blond hair. As I drove away, I was thinking about the woman in pajamas, and I pictured her in a kitchen with some friends, smiling and talking. I also saw someone cutting a cake, and the woman was trying to decide whether to take a piece, or if she was dieting. I really was picturing all this in my head—not intentionally, it was just there.
In the few seconds all that took, I began to want to know who she was, and in effect I was creating a character, because of course I didn’t know the real person. This sort of thing happens constantly, a basic aspect of how I experience the world. In considering this blog entry, it occurred to me to say that the inspiration for the novel I’ve been working on the last four years began with a photograph of a person.
Several years ago I was in San Francisco on St. Patrick’s Day, and I took a picture of a little girl, maybe four or five years old, wearing green beads and looking down. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I had a set of photos blown up and on the wall in front of me where I wrote, and seeing that photo every day, I would think about that girl, until I began to want to write about her. As the novel developed, she ended up being 16 years old, but the book entirely started with the girl in that picture.
This kind of inspiration is also a weakness for me as a writer, as I want to write about people, who they are, how they live, what they desire, and so on, but I don’t have any particular story to tell. It’s rare, however, that anyone will take a book with no story (the literary agents I’ve talked to have repeatedly fired this point at me like a bullet), so I have to work pretty hard to come up with stories about my characters.
Another very different thing that truly inspires me is a contrast between times and places. Working with such contrast is more abstract, as it has to do with ideas, but the idea of contrasts in how humans live really does set off sparks in my imagination. Maybe it has something to do with thinking about our diversity as a species. As a current example, a completed novel I want to sell concerns a father and daughter who time travel, and the book alternates between 1876 and 2011.
But what mystery of human consciousness (or unconsciousness) splashes to the surface in song lyrics, in photos of girls, in contrasting time periods? If we swim deeper, what is inspiration? The only answer I can give is that it’s a form of breathing.