Tuesday, October 20, 2020

ON INSPIRATION and why you can't take a taxi out of the underworld

One of my kids found inspiration in this dictionary, years ago, too.

I sit at my desk. The sky cracks open. It's my ceiling. What? It's leaking again. No, it's angels. It's my muse. Their beautiful satin-wearing non-binary wingy-ness hovers above. I'm annointed. A wand might be involved. "You, precious, special person, have been granted INSPIRATION. You must act now, because evanescent fleeting thing that it is, it will not return again. Care for this idea as if it were a small and fragile bird fallen from a nest, Hold it close to your heart, and START writing. It is as the gossamer filaments connecting the very molecules of the universe. It is quantum so don't look it too hard or else it will disappear, like love, or happiness, or a Snapchat. Or your savings."

Is this how inspiration works? Sometimes. But really, I think it is bogus. Certainly it doesn't happen that way for me. Unless of course, I'm standing with leonine hair in a cape on a wind-swept hill and my special suffering attracts Great Art, just like it did in the old days.

Sure, I get an occasional good idea as if from nowhere but mostly it comes from mulling over things, and then a surprise connection happens, sometimes when my head is stuck in the fridge rooting for some lettuce that still looks edible. Or wondering if I can risk that yogurt. Or while flossing. (Yes, dear dental hygienist, I do follow your vaguely passive aggressive advice.)

There is this belief that inspiration is magic, but getting in the habit of writing and not trying too hard for inspiration seems to work for me. I can get in "the zone" more readily the more I do it. Not all my ideas are good, but if I generate enough of them, some will be decent. And some are good places to start. To keep going until they are good or to revise them until they seem like they "just came to me," like an Amazon package you'd forgotten you'd order and then one day, there it is! Battery-operated heated socks! Besides, it's better not to get frustrated and throw in the towel (what? laundry? I don't think so!) but rather keep working and figuring things will work out. Best to trust the process and your own very human ability to make something of interest. Best to try to be a decent writer rather than a "genius," whatever that is. Oh yeah, that's that guy standing on the hill with his Great European Big Mangod Hair waggling in the broody wind.

I want to tell you two recent "inspirations" that came to me over the last couple of days. The sky cracked open...a lithe luminous figure appeared...no, no. That was my dog licking my nose while I slept. What really happened was this:

I couldn't figure out what to write next in the novel that I'm working on. I really didn't have any specific ideas, so I was messing about Facebook. I mean, why address a problem directly when you can futz around social media? An artist friend of mine (Donna Szoke -- check out her work, she's marvellous!) had posted a drawing she did of an old fashioned telephone (you know, the kind that has a rotary dial and was carved from granite by primitive Neanderthal telecommunications specialists). The phone was missing the number seven. Why? She didn't know. I'd collaborated with her in the past and so I thought I'd write a spiffy and clever prose poem response that would amaze and delight all our social media friends. But I couldn't. Instead, I found myself writing a passage for my novel—it's set in the underworld—where Death tells my protagonist that all he had to do was to dial 666-6667 and he can get a taxi out of there. Of course, when my protagonist goes into the phone booth (remember them? I think Attila the Hun used to change into his Hun outfit in one of them) and dials the numbers.  When he gets to the last digit, he discovers that there's no seven. This passage that I wrote worked quite well -- it shows the grim humour of Death and the impossibility of getting out of the underworld. It also was good that it was a bit funny which undercut, you know, all that rumination about mortality that writing a novel set in the underworld always entails.

The second inspiration was this morning. I was again searching around for something to write for my novel. I knew (because I'd woken up in the middle of the night thinking about it!) that I would write a story ostensibly written by my protagonist (a failed comedian). What was he going to write? I had no idea. I hauled out a book I'd bought when I was in undergrad (when universities roamed the earth with tiny little arms and roared at the ferns)-- a dictionary of Folklore and Mythology. I read a few entries ("Underworld," "Afterlife," etc.) and then came across a bizarrely-named Brothers Grimm story, "Jew in the Thorns." (What? There was anti-semiticism in Germany? Who knew?) where the main character was granted three wishes as a result of his kindness to a beggar. I won't reccount the story here (among other things, it involved a fiddle which made a Jewish guy dance until he got hurt in thicket of thorns.) But, I had the idea that my protagonist could write a story about a failed comedian where a similar thing happened. Then the story flowed quite readily. It was a kind of random inspiration, but really came as a result of thinking a lot about my novel, the characters, and being open to the possible connections ("gossamer filaments'?) between things, to seeing how things might apply to what I'm working on. It's as if I was rooting around in my fridge and found a misplaced spice and thought, oh wow, that'd work really well in this reheated Mac and Cheese that I'm making. Inspiration! Really inspiration is making the field ready for the sprouts. Fertilizing, ploughing, sowing--all those farmery things that farmers do. And then when the sun shines, the little words begin to send their hopeful buds up into the bright air and soon enough, you're ready to harvest a beautiful crop of writing. And then your editor comes and mashes the whole thing down and just when you're beginning to despair entirely and after having waiting so long you've given up, you realize you've got wine!

Here's that little passage that I wrote "inspired" by "Jew in the Thorns" (That does sound awfully Boraty, doesn't it?):

Idea for a script.

A down-on-his-luck comedian worked the night shift in a grocery for too many years. He finally decides to move on and the manager gives him his pay. It’s two dollars and forty-three cents. As he is trudging despondently down the street, he sees a homeless guy on the sidewalk holding out an empty coffee cup. The comedian roots around his mostly empty pocket and finds some lint and his years’ pay. There it is, arrayed on his open palm. Two dollars and forty-three cents and a piece of lint. It’s all he has. 

He pours it all into the homeless guy’s cup. 

“Spend it in one place,” he says.

The homeless guy nods. “God bless.” 

Later, while the comedian is in the park looking at the pigeons and their apparent lack of sadness, an old woman approaches him

“I saw what you did?”

“What? Eat the grapes while I was stocking them? Sneak some cookies at breaktime?”

“No,” she said. “You gave all your money to that homeless guy. And lint.”

“Yeah,” the comedian said. “It wasn’t exactly enough to pay rent.” 

“He could by himself a sandwich.”


“I’m actually a witch and because of your kindness, I’m going to give you three boons.” 



“Shouldn’t you give them to the homeless guy? He’s the one who needs it most.”

“That’s not how systemic privilege works.”

“And saviourism. Though this is all probably a bit too political for a script.”

“True, but as long as no-one is reading it, here goes, your three gifts: the ability to tell jokes that make people laugh, the ability to make people do as you want, and the ability to make the world’s best sandwiches.”

A few years later, the comedian, not really able to adapt to his new reality, and in fact, not believing in the reality of the “boons” at all, is arrested after stealing some beef jerky from the very grocery store he used to work at. Social change is hard, man.

He is in the prisoner’s dock and about to be sentenced when he  tells a joke. The judge, the Crown Attorney, the court clerk, the police, his own lawyer, the members of the public and the court transcriptionist all began laughing uncontrollably. They bend and contort, writhe and shake. Tears stream. The judge’s sash is soggy. The transcriptionist’s dictaphone is ruined. Two cops embrace each other, quaking with mirth. 

“Take off my handcuffs,” the comedian says but the police are laughing too hard to hold the key steady. Instead, the comedian climbs out of the prisoner’s box and leaves the courtroom with the handcuffs on. He never is able to remove the handcuffs but he is able to make sandwiches. He opens a sandwich shop. His shacklewiches become very popular and he becomes a wealthy man. One day the homeless man walks into the shop and asks for a sandwich. The comedian makes him a sandwich and the homeless guy pays him two dollars and forty-three cents and a piece of lint. 

“You never spent it?”

“Social change is hard, man. And besides, who wants a piece of lint?”


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