The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Friday, June 11, 2010

Woo-Woo: On Writing & Inspiration

My favorite creative writing texts to teach—and to read, in those times when I need inspiration from People Who Know—aren’t those texts that tell you just how to do it, put character here and conflict here and shake until blended, but those texts that admit they don’t know how, exactly…and that’s how you do it.

You can sometimes spot such an essay just by its title, as in Donald Barthelme’s “Not Knowing,” or Donald M. Murray’s “Unlearning to Write,” or Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (the essay where she reveals her own not-knowing moment is “Writing Short Stories,” which I plan on bringing into the creative writing classroom until the day I’m arriving to teach via jetpack).

In other texts I admire, the admission isn’t as up front—isn’t the focus of the piece—but it nevertheless sneaks in: Raymond Carver’s “On Writing,” for example, generously made available here under the title “Principles of a Story” at, wherein Carver speaks of the above O’Connor essay, and O’Connor’s confession that she didn’t know the Bible salesman Manley Pointer was going to [spoiler alert] steal the wooden leg right off the homely Hulga in “Good Country People” until just before he did it, which seems impossible given the inevitability of the action…a clear example of Chekov’s loaded gun if ever there was one. Call it Chekov’s Wooden Leg.

O’Connor’s admission, which Carver quotes:

When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women that I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.

Carver reacts to O’Connor’s confession with a sigh of relief:
When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was my uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.

Recently I was given Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, which I took down with me on a trip to the SC coast to visit family. L’Engle’s broad thesis in the book is an examination of what it means to be a “Christian artist”…a designation she applies to herself and that would make some readers, those not inclined to religion, automatically skittish. And in fact, her argument is so loaded with Christian theology, terminology, and tradition that I’d be hesitant to suggest the book to writer friends I knew to be agnostic or atheist, or even those spiritually-inclined but distrustful of dogma, the category into which I probably fit.

But at the heart of it, L’Engle is discussing the same process as Barthelme, Murray, O’Connor, and Carver…all people from different spiritual backgrounds, or none at all, except for that shared spiritual background they have as creative artists.

Take a look at this example of happy accident L’Engle offers regarding her novel The Arm of the Starfish: The novel began, L’Engle tells us, in her own experiences traveling overseas with her husband, getting rerouted from Lisbon to Madrid due to weather, as does her protagonist, Adam. But whereas L’Engle and her husband continued on their trip without incident, visiting locations that would make their way into the book, Adam met with suspicion regarding his passport and got swept up in a plot of kidnapping and international intrigue. “It was an exciting plot,” L’Engle says, “and I thought I had the story pretty well under control.”

Then, Something Happened:

Adam had gone nearly three nights without sleep, and was finally allowed to go to bed in Lisbon, in the Ritz hotel (where we [also] spent two luxurious nights). He plunged into that deep and restful sleep which comes to a healthy body. Finally, slept out, he woke up and there, sitting in a chair and looking at him, was a young man called Joshua. Adam was very surprised to see Joshua. Madeline was even more surprised to see Joshua. There had been no Joshua in my plot at all.

I had a choice at that moment. I could ignore Joshua, refuse to allow him into my story. Or I could have faith in the creative process and listen to Joshua. This meant a great deal of rewriting—probably 150 or more pages. I cannot now imagine the book without Joshua, and I know that it is a much better book because of him. But where he came from I cannot say. He was a sheer gift of grace.
This grace, as L’Engle puts it, is what interests me, though most people feel more comfortable calling it inspiration…a term that’s no less religious in its origin and implication, but which we’ve separated from ideas of the spiritual to mean, generally, something provoked within us, by us, not something outside our control. As in, “What inspired this story?” Or, at our most reckless, looking at a particularly excellent turn of plot or phrase, praising it by saying, “That’s inspired!” But that’s where the line of thinking ends. When we ask what inspired a story, what we expect to get back is a thing seen or overheard that prompted a line of questioning by the author, conscious and controlled deliberation, as if writers were but creative cross-examiners of reality. Because people would look at us funny if we answered the question “What inspired you?” by saying, “I simply looked up and the character was sitting there looking at me. I don’t know where he came from.”

That sounds, to our modern, rational mindset, like mental illness, hallucination, seeing things. And in some respects, that's exactly what it is.

The ancients had no trouble categorizing poets as both makers and seers. Not separating these, necessarily—that’s what we’ve done—but recognizing that conscious craft is different from the kind of poetic frenzy Aristotle speaks of, or the sublime of Longinus, though both spend more time on the frenzied or sublime effect of poetry on the audience than on the elevation and out-of-one’s-head-ness involved in its creation. And there have been movements since which have tried to give the mysterious its due, from Sir Philip Sydney’s poet-prophet to the mysticism of the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists to the Dadaists, Surrealists, the Beats… But the gulf between poets and vates, of makers and seers, has been to some degree widened by such movements, which are in reaction not only to rationalist views of the creative process but the effects of rationalism and “progress” in larger society, especially by the time we get to postwar Dadaism and Surrealism, and thus the reaction is political as much as aesthetic. Fringe and reactionary, or seen that way, or in some cases wanting to be seen that way, rather than a necessary complement to the other.

That’s where we stand now: a separation between craft, which is intentional and the only way to do it, and the mysterious, which should be looked upon only with skepticism. And this is to some degree understandable; there are some good reasons why creative writing texts and classrooms hardly ever wade deeper into the mysterious than defining a metaphor:

1.To speak of the mysterious in the creative process is to mark yourself as a kook. I had a friend in grad school who told me how a writing professor of hers started a workshop by intoning a silver bell and then saying, “All is well,” as if the spirit of the Eternal Om had descended. I can see her frustration; you’ve signed up for a course in creative writing to learn how to better your work, and yet your assignment for the night is to go home and get in touch with the Universal Mind. And what does making a sweat lodge in your living room have to do with your plot sucking, anyway?

2.Craft, unlike inspiration, can be taught. That’s why it’s craft in the first place. You can take a story apart and see how it works. You can discuss putting one together in the same way. So long as you define your terms well, you can discuss fiction forever just like this, saying “Well your character is interesting but the motivation is unclear, the plot is convoluted, the metaphors are weak, but the pacing is good…” You may well clear up motivation, simplify the plot, strengthen the metaphors throughout and such advice can be beneficial, including having the benefit of being understandable, of everyone knowing what the advice means. But even if you follow the advice to the letter, that doesn’t mean that what you end up with will be anything more than well-crafted.

Lest you misunderstand me, good fiction must be well crafted. Without the ability to make smart and conscious creative decisions, your career as an artist is going to be a messy, frustrating one (for you and for your audience). But while we demand our fiction be well-crafted, at the baseline, we also expect it will be more than that; driving directions are well-crafted, or we hope they’ll be, but no one has ever said, “You’ve got to read these driving directions I printed out today.”

Fiction that stays with a reader is well crafted, but it’s also shocking, or moving, or suspenseful, or unexpected. No matter its genre, and no matter the expectations that come along with the genre, effective fiction finds ways to surprise, delight, terrify, and transcend our expectations. And it does so in ways that are rarely planned out consciously but which surprise, delight, or terrify the author first, in the act of writing. That’s why a Bible salesman stealing a wooden leg suddenly feels like something much more terrible than its simple component parts, no pun. Or why a man drawing a cathedral with a crayon feels transcendent. Or why Madeline L’Engle couldn’t simply tell Joshua, whoever he was, to take a hike.

When I’m stuck in my work, suffering from lack of inspiration, the texts I turn to most aren’t those that give me directions for getting unstuck, A to B to C, but those that surprise me and catch me off guard. I’m not looking for how many times an author used scenes of dialogue in a chapter, so I can use the same (three) but looking for a scene, line, or image that makes me feel outside myself as a reader, bigger than myself. And while I can look at those and break them down consciously, look at how they’re constructed and see what to take from them, what I’m really hoping to do is to jumpstart my own subconscious process. Or, in the case of the essays mentioned atop this simple essay, I’m looking for assurance that it’s okay to proceed without knowing what comes next.

I don’t mean for this to sound as supernatural as it probably does, so much like a matter of faith. But let it happen to you, have a character show up unannounced and stare at you like that, or your story start telling itself, while you're just trying to dictate, and see if it doesn’t feel a little spooky.


  1. Fantastic.

    I'm thoroughly enjoying this blog.

  2. Yep!

    That mystery is precisely what keeps me writing most of the time. Favoriting this blog entry!

  3. Great blog! Really enjoying it!