Thursday, July 9, 2009

Where do you get your ideas? By Man Martin

Of all the questions fiction writers get asked, this is the most common. It is not a foolish or fatuous question but an extremely important one. In various ways writers ask each other that question all the time. In fact, writers ask themselves this question. Where do I get my ideas? How do I know the ideas will keep coming?

I’m going to offer a possible answer, which is inspiration. There was a time when inspiration was something of a dirty word; no one mentioned it in serious discussions of writing, but the ancient Greeks were quite up front about it. Go back and read Homer, Sophocles, Herodotus or any of that crowd, and they’re likely to start off with something like, “Oh, Muse, sing in me and through me the story of that man…” and then they’d go on and tear off a lyric or an epic or whatever. What they were doing is starting off with a prayer; to the ancient Greeks, writing was an act of faith, and it began with inspiration. Literally, inspire means “breathe into;” the prayer was that the goddess would come down and fill their lungs with this magical air, and when they breathed out, naturally what it would be is epic poetry, or lyric, or drama, history, music, whatever they’d been “inspired” to do.

I think talking about inspiration began to fall into disrepute around the 19th Century with the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly. Those guys. They were always sitting around taking opium and writing poems about birds, and lakes, and springtime, and such. They all had long hair and haunted expressions, standing at the seashore being all Romantic and “inspired.”

A bunch of hippies, is what they were.

Naturally no one wanted to be associated with such trifling, so in the 20th Century, people began to distance themselves from the whole concept of inspiration. “Genius,” said that crabby old Yankee inventor Thomas Edison, “is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Some people were even more dismissive. When someone asked Ernest Hemingway when he got his inspiration, he answered, “Nine to five, weekdays.” Actually, my favorite quotation dissing inspiration comes from the 18th Century, not the 20th in an exchange between Salieri and Mozart. (I always imagine Salieri speaking with enlarged adenoids and a tremolo, like Marvin the Martian on a vibrating bed.) “I get all of my inspiration on my knees,” Salieri said piously. “Gee, uh, Sal,” Mozart said, scratching his head under his wig, “I usually get my inspiration sitting on my ass.” Mozart was referring, of course, to his piano stool. He did not, so far as we know, compose “The Requiem” in the toilet.

There’s plenty of reason to pooh-pooh the idea of inspiration. My own work schedule does not suggest a person waiting around to be filled with divine afflatus. Having, as many writers do, a “day job,” I get up around five-thirty and write a few hundred words every day. I’m very strict about it, and do it even on mornings I don’t especially feel like it. I’m not bragging – I don’t consider myself at all unusual in this regard. Serious writers I know are extremely disciplined and carve out time for themselves to write come hell or high water. Flannery O’Connor would sit on her front porch tapping away at her manual typewriter several hours every morning. If someone came during her writing time, she would just ignore him. He would be able to see her there, just behind the screen, but though he knocked and pounded and shouted, “Yoo-hoo, Flannery!” she would just keep typing.

Nevertheless, I feel the time has come to rehabilitate the belief in inspiration. My mother had a notion which she shared with me, something she had imagined as a child, and even then took only half seriously, but it made enough of an impression on her that she remembered it and told me. Mother liked to imagine that Heaven had a library filled with all the books. All the books. All the books that ever have been written, all the books that ever would be written, and all the books that ever could be written. And if you wanted to be a great writer, you see, all you had to do was get to the shelves of books that hadn’t been written yet, take one down and copy it word for word. You would be guaranteed to turn out one masterpiece after another.

As I write, I often think about what Mother said. Of course there’s not an actual library in heaven, but I can’t help feeling that writing is not so much creating something that isn’t there, but discovering something that in some way already exists. A lot of comments you hear in writing workshops are piffle-paffle of the purest quality, but I found myself listening and even taking notes when someone wanted to talk about what the story wanted to do. Notice that, not what the writer wanted, or even what the reader wants, but what the story wants. As if a story were some entity outside ourselves that the writer has a duty to bring into fruition as clearly and directly as possible. When I see bad writing – my own or someone else’s – so often it’s the writer getting in the way of his own story. He’s so busy showing what a damn fine writer he is, he forgets to pay attention to what the story wants. He forgets his job is just a humble copyist from the shelf of Stories That Haven’t Been Written Yet.

So how does inspiration tie into the undoubted fact that writing is work and that writers, serious ones, are diligent craftspeople who show up to do the job whether they feel like it or not? Well, I come from a region of the country where many people believe God answers prayer. These people – earnest, intelligent, good people – sincerely believe that the Great All-Powerful, All-Knowing, the Alpha and the Omega, the Unmoved Mover, Creator of the Universe, God Almighty listens and responds to a small quiet voice speaking alone in a darkened room on the surface of a little planet circling an unremarkable star at the edge of a galaxy, which is only one of countless galaxies in this whole vast universe. That God the Master of Heaven will sometimes at least alter His plans and bend the course of destiny to grant such a request if it is asked in humility and doesn’t interfere with something else He’s got cooking. I will not opine whether I believe such a thing is possible or not, but if it is possible, then surely even the most adamant atheist would have to grant this is a miracle, that this would be the very definition of a miracle. And would it be any less of a miracle if the person doing the praying prayed at the same time every day, that he prayed in the same room, and prayed even on days he didn’t especially feel like it?

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to get up as I always do and write a few hundred words. I’m working on a story about a man who has a mysterious neurological condition that makes him have trouble going through doors. For some reason the sight of a vertical opening in the wall just seizes up something inside him, and he’s stuck. I’ve been working at this story for some time now. I keep trying different approaches, situations, combinations of characters, and voices and then – just like the man in the story – I get stuck and have to start over. I’m not so much creating a story as exploring one, feeling my way in the darkness trusting when I stumble on the right passageway, I’ll recognize it. I hope other people will read the story one day, but I certainly can’t guarantee it. I don’t know how long it will take me to write or ultimately what it will be about, but I have a deep sense that if I do not write this story, it will not get written and that somehow I will have failed in my responsibility to it. Tomorrow when I get up, it will still be dark. I like to work with the lights out and just the glow from my computer screen and the rising sun. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to write tomorrow, but I when I sit down, the words will be there.
If that’s not faith, I don’t know what you’d call it.

Georgia Writers Association Author of the Year 2008Visit and


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points here. Lots to be said for "perspiration" over "inspiration." Wish we could hang out, waiting for our muse to talk to us, but unfortunately deadlines don't work that way!

I love "Yoo-hoo! Flannery!" :) Too funny.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Augusta Scattergood said...

Wonderful food for thought. And inspiration. I can just about picture Flannery on the front porch! Thanks for writing this.