When I taught creative writing – to high school students, mind you – I loved coming up with wacky prompts for them. Once we went to the school library with a 10-minute task: Hit the non-fiction section and find a picture, any picture, and then tells its story. Another time, we dug through phone books to find the name of our main character – a name that eventually brought about the character’s downfall. I also collected random things – old wallets, ticket stubs, appointment cards, photos clipped from magazines – and passed them out. “Tell the story of the person that carries these belongings,” I said – an homage to Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets.” It was always amazing to read what my students wrote in response.
But none one of those methods really work for me.
My inspiration comes almost solely at times when I can’t write things down. Driving, walking Baxter, taking a shower. (I really can’t explain why I’m inspired in the shower – perhaps it’s something for a therapist to tackle.) At these times I’m reduced to repeating whatever it was that inspired me – a word, a phrase, a basic plot outline – out loud. I taste it on my tongue, chew it, spit it out and listen to the echo of my voice. The important thing, I know, is to keep the words with me; the moment they slip my mind, they’re gone for good.
The inspiration for my best story – the one I’m proudest of – happened when I was driving home from a baby shower in Waterford along Highway 132, a depressed stretch of the county marked by family-run markets and taco trucks. I stopped for the light at the railroad tracks in Empire and saw several Hispanic women holding signs: “Car Wash for Funeral.” If I’d had any cash on me, I would have stopped even though my car was clean. I would have passed money through the window and made the drive home, feeling guilty that I didn’t have more to give.
Instead, I spent the drive home babbling my version of the story: a car accident – no, a child run over – an immigrant family already dodging the law – a priest who prays with the parents in the living room – children who paint signs to raise money for the funeral. At home, I dropped everything and ran to my laptop, and sat, panting, letting the story flow out of me for the next two hours. When I was finished, I was as exhausted as I’ve ever been.
On Saturday, inspiration struck again. I was walking Baxter when I ran into one of the oddest men. He lives in my neighborhood; he’s small, preteen-sized; he always wears the same blue coat and walks with the same frantic step. Wherever he’s going, he’s in an incredible hurry. He doesn’t have time for one false move. He doesn’t have time to say hello or nod his head or raise an eyebrow or in any way acknowledge my sweet beagle and me, although I always say “Good morning,” and Baxter always inhales deeply in his direction. Well. Even though I’ve passed him a few dozen times over the last months, I couldn’t stop thinking about him for the rest of the walk. I was trying to figure him out, trying to piece him together. In my mind I gave him a name, a family, a place he was hurrying to and from. When we got home, I unhooked Baxter, threw off my coat and sat down. And then – although thesis deadlines are looming, and my thesis is a novel, completely unrelated to this odd little man – I spilled out the story. Ten pages at a single go, writing fast as my fingers could move. The story isn’t about him, I decided. It’s the story of a fourteen-year-old girl whose main chore is to walk her dog. One day she follows the man home.
There’s more to the writing process, of course, than these frantic drafts – at the very least a few days of rereading and reworking, a second, third and fourth draft. But it would be nothing, I know, if I didn’t give in to the inspiration in the first place. Maybe, then, the difference between being a writer and wanting someday to be a writer is just the act of getting it down.
It’s a highly inconvenient, wonderful way to live.