Tag Archives: inspiration

Writing Inspiration Through Peer Interaction

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Talking to other writers and artists about their projects can help bring up new ideas and approaches to your own pieces of work-in-progress. About a month ago, I joined a writer’s group here in the city; what I’ve found is that reading the work of my peers helps remind me of the books, plays, films and other artworks which have inspired and influenced me over time.

This week, I thought I’d share some of the pieces that have come up for me in the course of interacting with other artists this week.

Our Town. A classic American play that I’ve managed never to see; a play that I brought to writer’s group drew a comparison in a particular scene to the mood of this piece. So I’ll be on the lookout for a copy of the script, or productions in NYC, to see what I can learn from this piece my scenes evoked in my audience.

Intentionality in the use of language and symbolism. This topic came up a couple of times in writer’s group, both in relation to my play and another piece. Someone pointed out an extremely powerful image in a play I’ve been revisiting, and asked about how that image recurs later in the piece, how the theme is expressed and what it ultimately teaches the audience. 

There are also the kinds of inspiration that come up in wider reading and discussion.

  • This article about a pork slaughterhouse and packing plant in North Carolina has been on my mind, both because of its descriptions of how our food supply is produced and the contrast between that and my experiences with organic farming and meat production, and because it paints a stark picture of racial segregation in the US workforce. The article was written in 2000, but came to light again with the announcement that Smithfield’s, the company whose plant was portrayed in the article, is the subject of interest from a major Chinese pork company. 
  • The Save the Cat beat sheet, which apparently everyone but me knew about. I’m going to get addicted to this tool very quickly. Here’s a version for novels. Um, awesome.
  • One of my fellow writer’s group members is working on a memoir about her time in another country; reading it reminded me of the mood in Super Sad Super True Love Story in the same way a previous week’s piece from another member put me in the mind of “Parentheses” from Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.
  • Finally, by now everyone knows I love China Meiville; I was excited when one of the writers in the group brought a draft where his tumbling use of language drew me into a world that gave me the same feels as trying to pick through one of Meiville’s rich, topsy-turvy novels.

Other inspiration I’ve drawn from writers in the last week: a friend who’s written an 80K YA novel draft in the last year, another whose writing is taking off just as she’s being presented with a phenomenal career opportunity, and how discussing recommendations with her (I’m one of her references) has reminded me of some of the best reasons for being a writer: the communication, the ability to get to know oneself better. A young woman who’s the daughter of a friend of my dad – she’s about the same age as I was and to listen to her breathlessly recount her current project was like looking into a window on the past.

I gave feedback on/edited a short story for a Twitter friend who writes in English as a second language and was reminded of the spare, intentional language of a Japanese friend from graduate school. I don’t have enough French to try writing something coherent in another language, but maybe I should try. (And that notion is a reminder of the article I saw tweeted that claimed Google translate is colonizing language; I need to go back and look for that one.)

A discussion on the politics of gender pronouns led to the discovery that Google nGram can search words used as parts of speech (“female” used as a noun instead of an adjective, for example). Fascinating stuff.

And of course, no discussion of influences this week would be complete without mentioning Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks/revelations. Drawing comparisons to activist-leakers like Bradley Manning, Wikileaks and Anonymous, Snowden’s claims regarding the NSA and their wiretapping and data collection techniques have me feeling once more that truth is far stranger than fiction. Electalytics will one day benefit from all of the craziness that’s swarming through our informational technology and culture, but I also lose a little confidence every time something like this happens. Can I even imagine the extent to which the system is manipulated by these behind-the-scenes players, and do I have the skill to weave this into the story I know Electalytics could be?

Only time will tell.

Talking to your peers about their work lets you understand what else is going on out there, what people are interested, and what kind of information is currently in the zeitgeist. It’s not always easy to find a patchwork of like-minded people with whom to have these discussions, but once you do, horizons seem to expand nonstop.

Wanna Write? Gotta Write.

This is a companion piece to a piece I wrote about treating the artistic process like an industrial/mechanical one over on Jesse Abundis’ ARTISTS UNCENSORED blog. That post was inspired by a request for inspiration, and its response, below:


First, what is it to be “in the zone”? I had written about being in that precise place in this blog entry, which I posted a day or two before. Being in the zone is comparable to flow.

But it doesn’t always come easy, and sometimes it just doesn’t come. Sometimes – often those times – there are external conditions necessitating a piece be written. It’s for a magazine or a website, or a class paper. You want to make sure you have a relevant piece of writing on your site when visitors from another blog come calling.

In this hypothetical, we’ll say the situation is this: an article you wrote on another site is being  published, and you want to talk about how writing something on demand is a skill writers need to develop.

That’s when you rely on your craft, your writer’s toolkit. That’s when you force yourself to be disciplined and focused.

Cancel plans.

Jot down ideas.

Make an outline. (God I hate making outlines.)

Take a break. Come back, look at what you’ve written. Evaluate it. Re-arrange your ideas.

Then trust yourself and start writing.

You may delete every word for an hour. You may feel self-conscious about every point your argument strikes. You will, I guarantee, have to go back and read the thing multiple times, probably print it out, possibly even read it aloud – and add and delete sections that you missed or rambled on in the first time around.

In the end, you’ll have written something. Your best work ever? Maybe not. Something that communicates your point? Hopefully.

The process is more complicated in a creative endeavor – more the territory of writing exercises and accessing your subconscious than just working with craft, because a writer’s emotional connection to their work is so clearly reflected in it.

Capturing that lightning in a bottle is a blog entry for another day.

Inspirational Poetry 101: Ithaca by Constantine Cavafy

I was talking to a friend and brought up an allusion to a poem they were unfamiliar with: Ithaca, by Constantine Cavafy.

I’ve had a printout of this poem on my door at my parents’ house, probably since I was about thirteen years old. Every time I went into my room I saw it, every time I came out I saw it. I didn’t always read the whole thing. Sometimes my eye would just catch a line as I walked by. Other times I’d miss the oval-shaped paper cutout entirely, focusing on one of the other bits of paper I’d stuck up with blu-tack to give my door some personality.

When I was living in London, I remember my mom saying, as we talked about homesickness and missing each other, she’d read the poem on my door for the first time. I think she was suprised to see it there.

In this line of work called writing, payoffs are hard-won and oft-delayed. As I said to my friend, the best we, as authors, can hope for is that a) we’ve picked the right language to be born into or learn and b) X-thousand years after we die, somebody might read and be affected by our words.

At any rate, Ithaca is one of those poems that’s worked its way into the canon of my historic and literary references, so I wanted to share it with all of you. Below is the text of the translation of Ithaca from the Wikipedia page above. You can also check out this link for a reading in the original Greek (link also gakked from Wikipedia.) Written over 100 years ago.

ITHACA
By Constantine Cavafy

When you set sail for Ithaca,
wish for the road to be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
an angry Poseidon — do not fear.
You will never find such on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, and your spirit
and body are touched by a fine emotion.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
a savage Poseidon you will not encounter,
if you do not carry them within your spirit,
if your spirit does not place them before you.
Wish for the road to be long.
Many the summer mornings to be when
with what pleasure, what joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time.
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase the fine goods,
nacre and coral, amber and ebony,
and exquisite perfumes of all sorts,
the most delicate fragrances you can find.
To many Egyptian cities you must go,
to learn and learn from the cultivated.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better for it to last many years,
and when old to rest in the island,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to offer you wealth.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful journey.
Without her you would not have set out on the road.
Nothing more does she have to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.
Edit:
This has become one of the blog’s more popular posts: so much so that I decided to look for a photo to add to it. In addition to that, I came up with this video, which is a lovely reading and I encourage you to take a moment and watch it. This and many more of his poems are available to listen to here.

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Weekend of Epic, Part 2(B): No Sleep. Not even in Brooklyn.

When last we left our heroes, they were devouring burgers at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. Midway through the meal, a bird flew in and grabbed burger out of one of our diner’s hands. I missed that bit, because I was getting my meal, so it’s entirely possible that they had decided to try and punk me with their darkly disneyesque tale of carniverous parakeets.

The world may never know.

We left Madison Square Park a little after two, Eric and Erin heading down to the WTC and me taking Miranda and her friend out to another of my friends’ apartments, in an old neighborhood where I used to live in South Brooklyn. The plan had become, over lunch, to get back together that evening and go for drinks at The Whiskey Ward.

On The Highway of Kings

As we rode the subway out to King’s Highway, my old subway stop (back in the days before the Lower West Side), the three of us alternately joked and chatted, discussed how totally stuffed we were, and pointed at interesting things (like the Statue of Liberty) while I told dramatic stories of being stranded at Cortelyou when a train went down on the track, and getting unceremoniously dumped off the subway and told, by the MTA, to “figure out” how to get home. Fifteen dollar taxi ride. Thanks, buddies.

We were bringing a bottle of wine and picking up ice on the way, which meant I got to take Miranda and her friend to some of the supermarkets I used to go to. First thing that hit me was just how much cheaper the groceries out there are. I mean, I shop at Trader Joe’s and try to be frugal, but as we walked past piles of fresh produce, my eyes nearly bugged out of my sockets. I spent a moment looking at the ice in the freezer. How much to bring? There were three of us, three bags would do.

Brooklyn was cooler than Manhattan (physically, not metaphorically, although at some times this too seems to be the case) but it was still hot out. If not here already, Summer was definitely coming. As we walked to my friend’s apartment, I pointed at shops that had been replaced and described what the neighborhood had been like when I last lived there a few years ago.

The party was great. We sat in the sun, ate dips and veggies and olives and steamed pork rolls and my friend’s AMAZING lasagne. There was a tequila bottle shaped like a gun; only thing missing was the trigger. And then someone mentioned that there was shade on the back porch, and we started a “pale people party” back there, which turned into a discussion about video games between Miranda, my friend’s nephew, and the my friend’s brother-in-law. Miranda and the nephew were trading tips. The nephew could not have been older than five. SO CUTE.

And Now for The Whisky:

If you’re over 21 and reading this blog, and you’ve never had single malt scotch: stop right now. Go to the nearest bar and chat with the bartender for a few seconds. Then ask her or him if you can please see the bottles for the Laphroaig (La-FROYG) or the Caol Isla (Cal as in calories, and Isla as in Fisher or Duncan or whatever her name is). Take the caps off and smell those scotches. Then come back and keep reading.

If you’re under 21, only time can help you.

Drink responsibly.

Now That You Understand What Good Whisky Smells Like:

Me, Miranda and her friend – we’ll call him K, from now on, which is so Kafkian it gives me a shiver, but whatever – walked into the Whiskey bar having discussed the fact that when someone said scotch, K kind of wrinkled up his nose a bit and made noises about how Jack Daniels or whatever NOT SCOTCH THING he had had wasn’t something he fancied.

Now, Jack Daniels is not Scotch. Scotch, for those of you who haven’t lived in the homeland of the thing for 4 years, is made in Scotland. It’s regional. It’s like champagne can only be made in that region of France. It has four ingredients. And yet different brands of scotch will taste as different to one another as apples and oranges.

Couldn't you just go for one right now?

We will get back to this in a moment. Eric and Erin arrived, and Eric and I (the drinkers of the group) went to pick up cocktails. I tried one of the bar’s specialty cocktails – something with maple syrup and marinated bourbon cherries? – but truthfully it wasn’t my thing. After passing cocktails around (cocktail etiquette, you understand, demands one allow one’s drinking partners the opportunity to avail themselves of your superior taste in libation), we all relaxed a bit and started just chatting.

I think that was the first point in the weekend when I realized just how “on” I’d been since the Thursday night reading, and it was definitely the first point at which I felt like I could really relax. Nowhere to rush off to, nothing more to worry about except enjoying the drinks and the company. Writing issues had been settled, future projects discussed, social engagements and tour guide duties fulfilled with great enthusiasm, and it was FINALLY time to just hang out with friends.

Because we were waiting for a couple more people to arrive, the second round of cocktails was more of a timing stop-gap. A whisky sour for me, this time. (Sidenote: Had an interesting drink called a New York Sour the other day – basically a whisky sour with a red wine float on the top. It does something interesting, kind of cuts the acid of the lemon in the sour. Worth checking out if you get the chance, and aren’t terrified at the idea of mixing red wine and whisky.)

Having reached the end of our cocktails, and still lacking two members of our party, it was time to switch to the real stuff. Standing in front of the list of available choices, the conversation became very serious. Which whiskies to try? What were the options? We wound up with an Aberlour, an Ardbeg (or was that switched to a Laphroig at the last minute?) and a Caol Isla. Yes, I ordered two whiskies. Refer to the cocktail rule, above. Plus, the fact that K thought Jack Daniels was whisky. *shakes head*.

Back at the table, we started the familiar three-card shuffle of passing glasses around the table, having the non-drinkers smell the whiskies, the drinkers take small sips. It was around this point when @CLImagiste and his wife (she who would, over the course of the night, become known as @codekneesocks) arrived, having battled trains all the way from outside Manhattan to get to us. And the whisky. They took the Bourbon route – and this was when things started getting interesting, because now we could illustrate how different regions making the same thing with the same ingredients could taste so completely different. Whisky – particularly the ones I favor – have a smoky quality to them. I like to go as smoky as possible when it comes to whisky, which is why Caol Isla, Laphroig and Ardbeg are good standbyes. Bourbon, on the other hand, has a much sweeter undertone. In fact, writing this, I kind of wonder what it would taste like if you took a sweeter bourbon and a smokier whisky and used them together to make a whisky-bourbon-sour. Would need to be exactly the right brands. Hrm. Suggestions in the comments!

I think one of my favorite things in the world is watching people who don’t know about whisky as they realize just how many variations there are on this most excellent beverage.

Somewhere in all of this, a discussion arose between me and L, @CLImagiste’s wife, and somehow it came up that apparently, in Catholic school, there is a code around the way in which the female students wear their knee socks. I want to say more about this but it involve’s someone else’s upcoming project, and it’s not my place to give hints as to the content of that work. But suffice to say I thought it was hysterical and the next morning when L signed up for twitter her username was @codekneesocks.

By now, it was getting to the time in the night when people want to eat things. After quick debate, we narrowed our choices to two potential spots: The Meatball Shop (LES branch, which was packed) and a Grilled Cheese restaurant. That served wine.

I don’t know how to make you understand how unbelievably good this grilled cheese sandwich was. Mine tasted like nachos. It was unbelievable, and pretty soon we were cutting off slices of different sandwiches and trading those around like they were cocktails, too. That’s one thing I *love* about eating out in New York, particularly with people who care about food. Everybody really *wants* everyone else to have the experience of trying whatever it is they’ve tried, and afterwards you have even more of a shared experience to talk about with them because you’re not just commenting on the feel of the restaurant, the service, etc. – you actually know the tastes the other people are referring to, and they know the same for your meal.

This was how the weekend ended up, then: at a tiny grilled cheese place on the Lower East Side, drinking wine and chatting with friends both old and new, before we all ultimately had to scatter back to our real jobs. More good-byes at the end of the night, and Miranda and I walking back to my apartment, planning what time we’d get up the next morning in order to make sure she got to her bus on time.

When I got home that night, I took a few minutes to write down in my journal – the calligraphically personalized one I’d picked up the day before – about just how happy I felt about the whole experience and about the specific things that had gone rightly and made me glad and hopeful about doing it again.

And Then Came Sunday

The next morning went quickly. Miranda and I popped into the cheese shop around the corner and she picked up some gifts for her family, then we walked over to the clothing fair on Broadway and she picked up a t-shirt and an Indiana Jones hat. Subway up to Times Square, walked her to the bus stop, came home.

Crashed.

Jurassic Park kind of became our mascot for the weekend. So it was cool to see this lying on the shelf at Goodwill when I wandered up to shop while crashing. I saw this movie four times in theaters when it came out.

So that’s that.

I just looked at my computer’s clock; as of this writing, all this happened just a week ago. The post is scheduled for early June. Either way, in either direction, feels more like a lifetime than just a few days.

A lot of times, in the arts, people talk about making sure your creative soul gets fed and with his reading I feel like I went from starving to sated to gorged on that front.

It reminds me how important it is to spend time around writers, and how important it is to schedule things like appearances and retreats and other writerly experiences, where you get in a room with other people who practice your craft and, for a little while at least, don’t have to worry about communicating the various frustrations and impossibilities of what you’re trying to do every time you fire up your computer and open a word document.

In that way, the weekend of the Hot Mess reading was pretty much an all-you-eat-buffet for a writer’s soul.

I hope reading about it has helped stimulate your creative appetite.

So What Now?

I have three upcoming projects on the horizon, and will be talking about them going forward. A small teaser for those projects will follow in the next week or so, but for now, just know that they’re there.

Thanks for everybody who’s supported the Hot Mess project. Keep spreading the word, leaving reviews for us on Amazon (please, it literally means logging in and clicking 1-5 stars, five being the best, and add words if you like) and buying those copies.

Words, Emotions, and How Your Audience is Feeling

Many’s the time I’ve sat in readings and development workshops and been asked, “Who is your audience?” It’s one of my least favorite questions. What am I supposed to say? “People with good taste”? How do I choose to experience my entertainment? Based on what I want to feel. I suspect I’m not alone in this. When you pick up a novel, what makes you choose Bridget Jones instead of H.P. Lovecraft? (Or vice versa?)

I don’t know the traditional demographic features – age, gender, race, hair color – of an audience that will like my work. I have a pretty good idea of the kinds of books they read, the characters they enjoy, the stories and themes that stir their emotions. But their salaries? The number of kids they have? Isn’t that why market research was invented?

“Who’s your audience” is a reductive question. It assumes that once an audience is identified, the play will change to suit that audience. I would argue that during the development process, the goal should be to create the strongest work possible – then decide how to market it to the public.
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