Sunday, October 10, 2010

Inspiration

This is what every writer, every artist, everyone who create in one form or fashion seeks. To some, inspiration comes easily. They find it in the sights and sounds surrounding them. Random snippets of conversation, the smell of freshly baking bread, a memory brings the muse singing to them. To others -- and all too often of late this has been me -- it is a fleeting thing, something that teases us but never quite delivers.

I was talking to Sarah about this the other evening. Actually, I was whining about it because my tinfoil hat seems to be preventing the ideas from coming where hers actually seems to incubate them. She listened for a few minutes and then verbally slapped me -- as she should have -- and told me to go to the dictionary, pick out four words, throw one out and then write a story using those three words. Oh yeah, the words had to be picked at random. So I couldn't get away with using "a", "and" and "the". Have I told you she was evil?

The other thing she told me to try was to go to a collection of Kipling, or any other poet, and scan the titles. Choose one and then adapt it to my own words and go from there. Well, let's just say my heels dug in at that. Before she could come up with any other helpful suggestions, I took refuge in the fact I had to get ready for the house to be invaded by a bunch of college kids in town for the football game. Whew.

Or so I thought until dinner last night. Mom, my son, one of his buddies from college and I were sitting around the table talking when Mom brought up the fact she wanted to go to the Dallas Holocaust Museum. There'd been a wonderful story about it in the Dallas Morning News that morning. The odd thing about it was the fact that my son and I had been talking about visiting the museum when he's home for winter break. Of course, when you start talking about World War II with my mom who lived through it, my son and his buddy who have already signed their commitments to the military (or, in the buddy's case, is about to) and me, well, it becomes a long conversation that branches off into military history, etc.

Any way, as we talked, a niggling of an idea, not quite inspiration hit. It germinated all night and then sent me looking at images this morning. And that's when it struck me, and when it reminded me of Chris' post a week ago. I'm visual and there are certain sights that to send my imagination not just traipsing comfortably down the path of inspiration, but running wild.

Who can fail to be moved by the sight of a pile of shoes as high, or higher, than they are tall? Who did the shoes belong to? What's the story of the little girl who once wore the Mary Janes, or the boy who wore the scuffed and scored brown leather shoes. Did they survive the camps and did their families? We've all heard of, if not read, Anne Frank's Diary. But what about all the men and women, boys and girls, represented by these shoes? More importantly, if I were to write a story using this sort of image as inspiration, could I do justice to the memory of all those represented here, even if I might be writing a romance or a sf/f piece?

This is an image that has haunted me from the day I first saw it. I had the pleasure of being in Washington D.C. not long after the Korean War Memorial was opened. The sight of these life sized statues trudging through the rice paddy in the day was haunting. At night, well, it's something I'll never forget. The artists involved in making the statues managed to capture not only the pride and determination of these men, young and not so young, but also the exhaustion, the pain and the despair a soldier feels after being in the field for so long. This one statue in particular remained with me, simply because of the expression on his face. I can read so much there and, yes, it will be incorporated into the story I'm now being battered about the head and shoulders with.

But it's not only the tragic or the battle-weary that inspires me. It's also the majestic and whimsical. The Summer Palace outside of St. Petersburg, Russia is one such place. It represents not only some of the most beautiful architecture I've ever seen, both inside and out, but also a sense of whimsy. If you walk the grounds, there are areas where you have to watch your step because if you happen to step on the wrong colored rock, you'll get soaked by hidden fountains. Just imagine the courtesans with their fancy clothes and attitudes walking oh so properly only to have the tsar's sense of humor douse them -- especially since their companions who weren't soaked would be having the laugh of their lives. The palace and its grounds also have a rich history from WWII, but that's for another day.

So, how about you? Where do you draw inspiration from when you find yourself reaching for an idea and it just isn't there? Or what about these photos? Do you get anything from them or from their stories?

24 comments:

Brendan said...

I always loved the Dictionary party game. I always went for the whacky definition though since although it may be worth more points for the 'right' answer, that is a lot less fun.

Brendan said...

It is said that a work of genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Meows that mean if I get re-inspired by a project 99 times, I won't have to do any work?

Kate said...

It varies, here. Sometimes reading back over old, never finished stuff works. Sometimes abysmal fanfic online is enough to kick me in the motivator.

Sometimes all I need is to rest because I've gone and overloaded myself again and my body is giving "slow the hell down, damn it!" message.

MataPam said...

Brendan, if you've forgotten it 99 times, then yes, I recommend you not work on it. ;)

Sometimes what inspired something is clear to me, other times it just sort of happens. The stories that are based on a scene or a worldbuilding concept I can usually ID a cause. It's the majority, which are character based that seem spontaneous.


The causes are observed actions of people I've seen or books I've read, especially ones where I was either missing something or overanalyzing and going off on a tangent.

As in, "Wait, Dave is switching back and forth between names for this dragon, are we dealing with a split personality here?" Well, no, it was simply a very old dragon and the name had shifted a bit. But I was already off in "Oh! What if _all_ dragons had split personalities. What if every dragon was both good and bad?" (Thanks, Dave, my schitzo dragons are being fun to write.)

MataPam said...

Historic places, memorials, art and so forth can give me a place for something to happen. But more important they often evoke emotions and feelings that I can use in writing. I can remember "Like I felt at the [Fill in the blank]" and try to convey that horror or awe or grief.

They don't seem to give me that first kernal of a story start, though.

Dave Freer said...

Tch. Hasn't anyone told you? The professionals buy them in job-lots. There are some good bargains on e-bay -- but you can end up with inferior knock-off ideas made on old-fashioned machinery in Nanky-li. Thinkers are cheap there. I also got a bunch of second-hand hardly used British ideas. Great ideas, just impossible to work with. You can't get your hands into them. I've got some Japanese ideas too, very reliable, but not as quirky as the British ones. Although a seaweed spaceship is novel, shall we say...

Seriously: although my inspiration problem tends to be - 'why am I doing this, I should get a job that pays reliably and maybe with real money even?' I've found a couple of things do make me more creative(besides coffee - I'm down to one cup a day now. One of our little economies.) One is a clear desk (less distractions - and psychological - clear for action), and the other is reading Wikipedia at random. Any encyclopaedia will do, but that is convenient. Er. yes. Someone has to be that odd. I like dictionaries too. I find that odd words are like sparks in the tinder I keep where sensible folk store brains. :-)

Dave Freer said...

Nice idea, Matapam - sort of yin-yang dragons. Yeah, finding answers is a great kick off to me.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, the wacky definitions are always so much more fun. Who cares about points when you're laughing so hard your sides hurt.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan if getting re-inspired by a story 99 times meant you didn't have to do any work, I'd be the idle rich by now. But going back to old stuff can be inspirational even if, as in my case, it's to see just how much you've improved (or at least I hope I'm not still writing the way I did in some of the stories that have been relegated to under the bed).

Amanda Green said...

Kate, that sounds familiar, especially the second part about overload. So, what do you do to counter that feeling?

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, schizo dragons? Do tell more. Please...now.... And you are right. Going back over some of my old stuff, I can often see the inspiration very quickly in the world building. But when I was flying by the seat of my pants -- something that I did way too much of in my early stuff -- the inspiration is often lost on me now when I read the stuff.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, that emotion is exactly what I was getting at, especially with regard to the Korean War Memorial. The emotion that was evoked that rainy day is something I'll never forget. I just hope I can do it justice in my next project.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, why didn't you tell me earlier that all I had to do was go to ebay? Next thing I know, you'll be telling me there's a secret handshake and you guys haven't taught it to me yet. Sheesh. :-p

And I have a lot of those "why am I doing this?" as well as the "OMG, did I really write this? What was I thinking?" moments. Haven't tried the wiki trick. Maybe next time.

Amanda Green said...

Oh great, Dave. Wasn't it enough that Pam has me thinking of schizoid dragons? Now you have me thinking of them in the yin-yang positions doing things no good dragon should be doing? Polishing eachother's claws, grooming their scales and thinking up sayings for fortune cookies...help me, I think what passed for my sanity is fleeing. WAAAAAAH!

Kate said...

Amanda,

I've found the only way to deal with overload is to back out something. Otherwise, if I keep pushing I end up in breakdown territory.

If I can stop a non-writing activity, I'll stop that in preference to writing, but otherwise, it's just a case of not fussing and trying not to worry until I've relaxed enough that the need comes back.

Of course, those for whom writing is their career would find this difficult. I kind of have to put writing into down the priority list, behind the paid work and sleep.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, good advice, especially since I'm in overload this weekend. And knowing I have to get up at 0500 in the morning doesn't help. So basically everything has taken the backseat this weekend except making sure there was food and food and more food for the college kids.

;-)

MataPam said...

The problem with schizo dragons is that the standards of Good and Bad change through time, and are different for dragons and humans. And it's more than a little frustrating for a poor beleaguered homicide detective trying to identify a serial murderer of the draconic kind. Especially since his side-kick dragon's alterego is a suspect.

Stephen Simmons said...

My only inspiration problems seem to be of the sort Kate asked about last week -- how to come up with ideas to get the characters from here-to-there when and how I had envisioned. Short-story ideas seem to arrive in packs or flocks -- and I've written the best of them when they wandered in, while jotting down the essences of the others to save for later -- but I've really been focusing my attentions on novel-length (okay, series-length) work, because those are the ideas that just keep welling up out of the ground like Jed Clampett's oil ... I'm sure that, once I've bungled each of these ideas at least once, I'll start experiencing this. And I'll try to remember to come back and check the MGC archives when (not if) it does happen ...

I can't go to Holocaust museums, Amanda. Just can't handle it. I'm not that grown-up yet. My father was part of the tail-end of the Berlin Airlift, then spent three years traveling Germany and eastern France, finding and identifying remains. His stories left me incapable of coping with those monuments. (And I *know* he didn't tell us kids the "bad" parts ...)

Chris McMahon said...

Movies and books really get me going. But I know what you mean about visual media. For me it's old photographs - and looking at the people in them. It's like you can step through into that time - you want to get behind their eyes and into their heads. What's going on?

The thing that always gets me, is that when that photograph was taken it was the 'now'. It was the present day, the 'modern' world as they knew it. Amazing stuff.

Rita de Heer said...

Yeah, I read dictionaries. Escpecially old ones, 'scaum' is a word that started a character in a novel.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, trouble or not, it still sounds like fun and I want to read it as son as you have it finished.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, those museums are hard for me, too, but seeing the images of what happened on the Pacific front are harder for me because of what happened to my uncle there, what he saw. As for inspiration of how to get from point A to point B, well that is something we all have issues with from time to time. Often, for me, it simply comes when I am doing something else and not really thinking about the story. Sometimes it is as simple -- and as difficult -- as writing the story, forcing yourself to do it and then going back to edit. Inspiration is only part of the process. The main part is pushing through when inspiration, or the Muse, or whatever, isn't there.

Amanda Green said...

Chris Mc, exactly. I'm like you. I can get a lot from movies and books. But it always amazes me how much I also get from other sources. And, like you, I want to know what those people in that photo are thinking, what their histories are and where they went after the photo was taken.

Of course, I also want to know how those ladies in their finery reacted when they were doused with the tsar's hidden fountains and then what they had to say in the relative safety of their own homes as they surveyed their ruined dresses. But then, I'm warped ;-p

Amanda Green said...

Rita, I've an old dictionary I go to occasionally and some of the definitions are fascinating, especially when you think of what the words mean today. Maybe I should pull it out and use it to play Sarah's dictionary game. Hmmm, wonder where I put it the last time I had it down.