I’m sitting here in bed grading papers on this blistering May Day evening. In less than a week, I’ll be graduating with an M.A. in creative writing. There’s a familiar tingling, giddy sensation as I realize, despite the packing, job hunting, and blog projects to be done, I’ve now the freedom to read what I want, write what I want, not get up at the crack of dawn if I don’t want. Though as anyone who has been a part of academia, or is just maybe a little too involved with work, vacation (or periods of transition) are as terrifying as they are glorious.
Just yesterday, I was discussing with one of my fellow graduate assistants over all the things we could do now that summer is here: Starting new blogs, catching up on Mad Men, reading all those journals that have been stacking up over the last six months. We paused, caught our breath, wide-eyed with possibilities. She then looked at me and then asked, “Where do I even start?”
This is pretty much how I feel about writing.
Once again, I find myself trying to make the effort to write daily. Primarily with 750words. I was working with this site rigorously a few summers ago and it worked wonders on my motivation. And now that I don’t have assignments, a thesis, and all these other things to force me to write, I need to make sure I don’t let up the slack. At the same time, now that I don’t have all these things to worry about, or so I tell myself, I can now go back to venturing into other things (primarily fiction—though I’m trying to pick up the slack on my poetry as well and all that’s going to come applies to it as well). I can give in to things that may not get finished, or I don’t feel pressured has to be a masterpiece. Most importantly, I just want to write freely and remember why I enjoy it and have dedicated so much of my studies and life to it.
To do that though, I have to start. And as I’m reading in a lot of my students’ papers as they reflect on their own writing identities, starting can often be tough as hell.
Most writers recommend reading as a way to get going with writing—especially reading things similar to what you, as a writer, are trying to write, or certain writers that inspire you. This is an undeniable truth. Engaging with words gets the wheels turning and makes you want to get to the keyboard or pick up a pencil. To write well is to read well, and a good writer is a good reader. Period.
While I do read for inspiration (and find it crucial), I draw inspiration from other places as well, and I think it’s important not to forget these other things. I often hear other writers discuss how they draw inspiration for topics from other arts and the world around them, but I want to focus also on the inspiration to create and put words to the page—the inspiration to get in on the action of writing. These are things I’ll be returning to over the summer.
While I said I want to look at other areas of inspiration, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about reading. Reading, after all, is one of the things that made me want to write in the first place. As a fourth grader and throughout adolescence, J.R.R. Tolkien, Timothy Zahn, Louis L’Amour, Eoin Colfer, William Faulkner, and James Joyce (the final pages of “The Dead” are still a surefire way to get me to want to write) drove me to write, try new things, and create new worlds and dynamic characters. These writers all still inspire me, but here are a few of the recent writers and readings that have sparked my imagination:
• Neil Gaiman – Just reading his work, with all its gorgeous prose and enthralling characters, makes me feel like a better writer. More importantly, makes me want to be a better writer. The ways in which Gaiman blurs reality with fantasy resembles a lot of the aesthetics I strive for in my own work. I remember when reading American Gods my poetry output shot through the roof. The way he presents his worlds and images opens the mind to possibilities and to venture out into a space just beyond reality that can only be described as magical. The fact he has a new novel coming out in June feels like an answer to my writing prayers.
• Cornelia Funke – I started reading the Inkheart Trilogy last summer, and was blown away by this heartfelt, gentle, whimsical, and yet dangerous story. I’m about halfway through the third book, but I blew straight through the first two within two weeks or so time before school began. Part of it is due to the reading level (think Harry Potter), part of it due to the descriptions and characters. Funke is a great example of taking time and patience with plot and imagery. The trilogy incorporates and breaks traditional fantasy tropes (not to mention a fairly good discussion of gender), knows when to play, and when to take things seriously. It tackles a lot of meta questions and has an underlying current of reader-writer relationships that has been a cornerstone in my writing for years.
• Hellblazer – Although I’d seen the movie Constantine when it first came out, I think I only half recognized it originated for a comic. I’ve only been through the first 80 issues or so, but I’ve fallen in love with it for many of the same reasons as I love Gaiman (coincidentally, he’s written a few issues). Its pull no punches, hellfire, grungy approach to storytelling reminds me to not be afraid to go into darker places, to make sure things stay messy, that nothing is as easy as it seems, and that when things go wrong, they should go really wrong. I also admire the series for its severely flawed, hardly ever-learning protagonist John Constantine. I always want to write things that push the boundaries of comfort when reading issues from this series.
• Li-Young Lee – Li-Young Lee will always have a special place in my heart as a writer and poet because his collection Behind My Eyes was the first book of poetry I bought on my own back when I was finally giving poetry a chance. But sentimentality aside, reading his work back then made me want to write and it does now. It makes me want to explore the quiet and subtle mysticism of the mundane, and grapple within it the philosophical quandaries of our everyday existence. It’s a reminder to be quiet, to breathe, and to remember the significance in everything.
A few individual works I’ve read over the last couple years that are also worth mentioning include: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos, Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac, and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
Music has been a big part of my life even longer than writing. I don’t think it could be helped with both my parents being musicians. Music is how I recall periods of my life, and it is probably one of the biggest things that pushes me to want to create. I also tend to think cinematically when writing, so I often feel like the music I’m listening to is the soundtrack to whatever I’m working on. My surroundings are rarely ever silent enough for me to enjoy the bliss of working in silence, so over time I’ve used music to isolate myself when working. It helps me reach a meditative state and/or a certain mood that I’m trying to achieve when writing. I’ll listen to a lot of things on repeat to bathe in certain sounds, or chew on particular lyrics. The way in which songwriters play with language can make me want to write just as much as powerful instrumentals. I could probably write an entire blog over the music I love, but here are some that have stuck with me for the long haul:
• Peter Gabriel – Aside from the fact that “Mercy Street” is one of my all time favorite songs, his album Up (2002) was one of the first CDs I ever picked out on my own without any influence from my father, who had been feeding me as much music as I would listen to. Peter Gabriel’s lyrics threaten to unravel the soul and paired with ambient instrumentals, they paint pictures that sometimes just can’t be managed on the page—and yet they make me want to try so damn hard. Furthermore, I deeply respect Peter Gabriel as an artist, and him as an artist and the way he tries new things in his art pushes me to do the same in my writing.
• Thirty Seconds to Mars – I became acquainted with TSTM’s music about 6 or 7 years ago, and it sort of swept me off my feet with the intensity of sound and driving, epic lyrics. Like with Peter Gabriel, I respect these guys as artists and the way they’ve transformed themselves over the course of four albums (the fourth coming out later this month). It makes me want to grow as an artist as well, and on some level, I feel like I have grown as an artist alongside this band. Partially in the content and style of my writing, partially in how I approach art (and the ability to be an artist of multiple forms). In addition, their collaborative practices with other musicians and their fans sparks the writer-reader, transitive writer in me.
• Poets of the Fall – This Finnish rock band doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Not only does their name kick ass, but the music feels like luscious pure rock (which I think is harder to find all the time). Their music is often uplifting, and sometimes I need that boost just to give me the courage to get those words down on the page. More importantly, these guys are freakin’ wordsmiths. Their play with language lives up to the “poets” in their name. Listening to Poets of the Fall can be the audible equivalent of reading to engage with words. Their songs tell stories and have a certain level of magic (similarly to the effect Gaiman has, in my opinion).
• Sigur Rós – I’m drawn toward ambience (as noted with Peter Gabriel), and Sigur Rós is ideal for drawing upon a calm, meditative state. I discovered over the summer their latest album Valtari is great combination with Funke’s writing—taking its time, sometimes generously gentle, but knowing when to apply a sharp edge. The otherwordliness of Sigur Rós’ music makes me let go of what I assume to be reality, which heightens my ability to play. It encourages a certain flow in my work and to stay focused. Like some of Peter Gabriel’s softer pieces, Sigur Rós eases me into the writing process almost seamlessly. Before I know it, I’m swept up in the music and typing; it just happens and it’s wonderful.
Images and Art
As anyone who has visited this blog is well aware of, I’ve a strong affinity for the visual arts. I draw (or pretend I can) and dabble in photography. I love combining visuals with text. But I also use images as a starting place for writing, especially character creation. I’ll keep pictures up on my desktop for days and just stare at them while I’m working on other things (and listening to music). This inspiration works a little slower than some of the others, but for me, it’s always been trusty. I find these images about anywhere—Google Images, Tumblr, DeviantArt, Facebook, etc—so my examples aren’t as particular, but here’s a few of my recent favorites:
• Jaimie Ibarra’s photography [May be NSFW] – The colors, the shadows, the fluidity, and emotion behind each piece makes me want to unpack everything that’s going on in the background.
• 30 Abandoned Places That Look Truly Beautiful – The fishing hut. That is all.
A Good Cup of Tea
Technically a cold glass of Coke could fall under this as well, but I’m making the attempt to give up soda. That point aside, tea is proven to be a surefire way of getting me to settle down and focus. I’m particularly fond of oolong and rooibus for their earthy and smooth flavor; if I’m writing something more meditative, it’s even better.
Obviously, these lists are extremely tailored as to what makes me want to write. Maybe some of these can inspire you as well, but you have your own things that make you want to crank out words, and I’d love to hear about them.