Deb: Inspiration, and Staying the Course

Everybody walks past a
thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or
six of them. Most people don’t see any.

~Orson Scott Card

Seasonal Affective Disorder, a winter affliction, has a summertime
counterpart. I call it SDD: Seasonal Distraction Disorder. The outdoors
beckons. Flocks of visitors descend. We want to play, and we want to get things
done – active, physical chores – before winter sets in.
What’s a writer to do?
When he’s working on a book, author David Vann maintains his
momentum with a disciplined schedule. He guards a few quiet hours of solitude
every morning so he doesn’t lose touch with his project.
I do my best to follow his example. But though writing
weaves close to the soul, though we need it deeply, there are times when we
simply have to focus on other priorities. Within the past month, both my
children got married. I considering pressing forward with my projects, writing
daily, preserving momentum. But I realized I’d simply be too distracted. I set
my writing aside and focused on flowers, brunches, and ceremonies.
Still I feared losing momentum. What if I couldn’t recapture
the initial excitement that spurred me to the page? What if I lost touch with
my inspiration? Maybe I should have plodded forward, writing a little each day,
regardless of how distracted I felt or how crazy-tired I was.
Not necessarily, says Joyce Carol Oates. Applying yourself
too doggedly to your work can be “like striking a damp match again, again,
again: hoping a small flame will break out before the match breaks.”
No matter how busy or distracted we get, inspiration is
always at hand. If you believe with Oates in the Surrealist notion that life is
a “forest of signs” for us to interpret, there’s nothing seasonal about
inspiration, and there’s no need to drop out of live to pursue it. Henry James
dined out two hundred times in a single season, eavesdropping on conversations that
inspired The Turn of the Screw. Eudora Welty claimed she heard the most amazing
things at the beauty shop, inspiring her story “Petrified
Traveling? While driving in the Adirondacks ,E.L. Doctorow saw a sign for Loon Lake.
He was struck with the sudden conviction that everything he felt about the
mountains was contained there. The novel Loon Lake resulted, a story of “a palpably
mysterious wilderness, a place full of dark secrets, history rotting in the
When you find yourself distracted, consider all the ways you
might get inspired again. Joseph Heller begins simply with an intriguing first
sentence. Joan Didion explores an image that fixes itself in her mind. James Joyce believed in epiphany, “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the
vulgarity of speech or of gesture or of a memorable place in the mind” (Stephen
Dedalus). Joyce collected seventy of these epiphanies in notebooks, using them
as raw material for virtually all of his important writing.
When SDD strikes – or any distraction, for that matter –
don’t despair. Your momentum may stall. But it will return. And if you’re
paying attention, you’ll find or recover inspiration, even when it seems you’re
doing everything but writing.
Try This: Among the writing prompts Joyce Carol Oates uses
in her Princeton fiction workshops, this one’s especially helpful for
rekindling inspiration in the “forest of signs” that’s within our own families:
You will “interview” an older relative, asking questions, eliciting answers,
and then, in presenting the speaker’s voice, removing yourself entirely from
the text.
Check This Out: Essays collected in Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art touch on inspiration, failure,
self-criticism, reading as a writer, and why we write. It’s a slim but
thought-provoking volume.

3 thoughts on “Deb: Inspiration, and Staying the Course”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Good ideas, Deb. We can let ourselves take a break while we go on vacation, attend an event, or go fishing or gardening, and still find inspiration. That's part of being an Alaskan writer too!

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Loved the damp match analogy from Joyce Carol Oates. It's just so hard to know whether one is striking uselessly or about to create a spark! Good post– and congratulations, Deb, on your busy summer of family celebrations!

  3. One of the instructors (sorry, I can't remember which) at the recent K-Bay Writers' Conference said he always leaves his writing with an unfinished sentence so that he has a definite place to start the next time. This practice would require discipline to stick with, but it might work. Of course, if SDD lasts too long, one might even forget how to end that sentence.

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