This month, I’m writing posts that are inspired by other blog posts that got me thinking. In My Dirty Little Secret about Inspiration, Robert Bruce over at 101 Books asked,“How do you guys find inspiration to write or to do something that’s an integral part of your life?” So here is my response to the post that inspired me to write about inspiration.
I’ve lost the book. I scrabbled around on my hands and knees, shuffling back and forth between all four of my bookshelves, and it’s not there. I searched on Amazon to recover the exact name and author, but the book, like parts of my life, is mist.
The book was about the Allied landing on Normandy Beach at D-Day. I bought it at the half-price book store because I noticed that my sixth grade readers enjoyed non-fiction. Sitting in my reading chair, I scanned to make sure the content was appropriate for my eleven and twelve year old students. Drawn in, I stood on the beach, watching the action roll out in front of me. The author of this little non-fiction book for children did something for me that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks couldn’t. He made this day come alive.
He spoke about how ill-prepared the troops were for the landing at Normandy. The men who survived the initial bombardment had scattered to the winds. Young men, separated from their units, pinned down by enemy fire, left with no ranking officer to lead them. In language a five year old could understand, the author conveyed what it is to feel desperate. Then, the author lit a match in me.
He told about one young soldier in such a situation, who decided to do something. In my mind’s eye, as I read about the cliff he climbed with a small squadron of men at his back, I could picture men all over the beach, just allowing themselves to do. In a hundred keystrokes, a stranger handed me a paradigm for the word inspiration that I can understand.
Ask me about what something means, and I will circle back to the written word. In preparation for this post, I read Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Drafts from Bird By Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s first thoughts from Writing Down the Bones, and Peter Elbow’s thoughts on the freewrite from Writing without Teachers. The experts will all tell you to just sit down and write, that inspiration comes from denuding your soul, stripping back to the primal and letting your darkest bits hang out on the paper. Elbow says this is the way to find your voice, that voice is “the force that will make a reader listen to you.” Goldberg likens the timed freewrite to the feel of meditating through all of our worst emotions. She says if you sit through it, “You learn not to be tossed away no matter how great the thought or emotion.” In this state, “You actually become larger than yourself.”
So, I’m at the computer almost every day, doing. I’m writing a novel. I don’t talk about it much here on thepauser because it’s a fingernail across a chalkboard. The process is so raw and disquieting that I leave the keyboard full of nervous energy, wanting to go back, not wanting to, because these words, the feeling of placing them on the paper, is so acute. The entire time I’m writing, thoughts detonate. One says, “Didn’t you see Super Soul Sunday last week? The one where they interviewed Sue Monk Kidd? She started writing a novel at thirty, and that was old. You are fifty-five. Want me to count that out for you? One, Two, Three….” Another: “You are aware, are you not, that the kitchen floor needs to be mopped?” And Mike Myers somewhere in the background, dressed like the Scottish character from the Austin Powers movie, declares my words are, all of them, crap.
Sitting, not erasing, taking the seed of an idea and blowing on it to tease out more flame, does not feel like being larger than myself. It feels like being as small as myself, as petty, as guilty, as lazy, as conflicted, and as selfish. It feels, all the time, like a slog. But it’s a slog to which I’m committed. I hear the artillery and keep walking past the war-wounded, limbless ideas that have sputtered through my brain with a firefly’s swiftness, dying without my breath to fuel them. In every thousand words I see a few worth keeping. Those few words are the ones that feed me.
I still don’t call myself a writer. I just tell people that I’m writing…a blog, a book. The writing, which starts with a spark (some would call this inspiration, but I think they are just ideas), uses the fingers, the left to right, left to right, motion of the words flowing across the page. Writing, like every worthy pursuit, is work.
I’ve told the story of the book, the young men on that beach acting, many times. If I ever saw the beginning of a spark in the eye of my listener, I went to the shelf and pulled the book off, pressing it to the listener’s hand, telling them to read for themselves. I guess someone finally accepted those hundred keystrokes as their own.
This is where inspiration comes from, not just for writers, for humans. It’s the hard work we press into one another’s hands. It’s the enthusiasm we share, and the actions that follow as we do.