Monday, October 18, 2010

Mentor Monday: Inspired by Inspiration

Billy Crystal: When Jenny came out of the recovery room with Ella, it was such a privilege to be with her. An hour after I came home, I wrote I Already Know I Love You… This book was the easiest creative birth I've ever had.

I don’t believe in inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong. I think ideas can come to us. I think stories can spring from all kinds of places and experiences. I think great stories had to come from somewhere.

What I don’t believe in is the kind of inspiration that some writers claim exists. They talk about inspiration that supposedly comes from out-of-the-blue and allows the writer to put down, in one magical sitting, an entire story, poem, or screenplay.

Generally, this claim is made by the newbie. It is often followed by other claims: writing is easy; my critique group members are so picky; publishers just don’t “get” my work.
I think people who heard Billy Crystal talk about his children’s book got the wrong idea. It sounds like Billy just went home after the birth of his first grandchild and put the story down, dropped it off at his publisher’s and waited for the residual checks to come in.

Don’t forget that this book was not Crystal’s first. He is a comedian—which means he had to learn to not only write good jokes but pay attention to pacing and word play. He’d already had a success with his autobiographical 700 Sundays. He’d also had nine months to think about his grandchild’s birth and what it meant to him. He did a lot of mental pre-writing before his “magical” moment.

Good writing is hard work. It requires practice and diligence. Just about anyone can learn to put words together to form sentences. True artist-writers work and re-work these sentences.

If you doubt this concept, look around your home and notice the things others have made. I’m sitting in my office looking at a built-in shelving unit. It’s ten years old and the maple boards are as strong and straight as the day they were put in, despite the fact that they hold hundreds of books. The stain is dark and smooth. I can rub my fingers along any piece or edge and will never feel a rough spot. The carpenter who built these shelves built many more before it. He patiently measured every piece of wood and cut them carefully. He slowly sanded the boards until they felt polished. He applied the stain evenly. He hid every hole so the shelves look as if they are being held together by sorcery instead of nails and glue.

Could I build a set of shelves? Probably. Just about anybody can go to a lumber yard, buy a few boards and nails and fashion them together. What I would build might look like a shelf and might even hold books, but it would never look like the unit in my office. Before I could duplicate the unit in my office I would have to build hundreds of shelves, and learn from my mistakes, and probably get an experienced carpenter to help me become better at the craft.

Writers should do the same. Don’t think of inspiration as the cause of your story’s creation. Think of it as a just the beginning. Inspiration is not a fire. It is only the match. The fire must be built up and tended and stoked before it can provide heat. Story inspiration, too, is just the start of something bigger and better. Take your story and make sure all the story elements are strong. Smooth out the rough parts. Add a little color.

Once you’ve polished your work, it will continue to be read for years to come.


Diane Mayr said...

"Inspiration is not a fire. It is only the match." Excellent!

The whole post was masterful.

Andrea Murphy said...

Crystal writes under the mistaken assumption that his writing skills (adult comedy) easily transfer to writing for children. "I Already Know I Love You" reads like it was written for adults, but dumbed down for the kids.

Excellent post, Mur. Bravo!

Mur said...

Thanks, ladies! I was inspired to write this post and did it in one sitting.

--Just kidding, of course!

I'm Jet . . . said...

Will have to disagree with you here, Muriel -- or maybe agree with you . . . up to a point.

I experienced the weirdest, extreme inspiration. My brook poem came to me totally complete -- in that stage of sleep (called hypnogogic)when you're not quite asleep yet. It came to me complete, word-for-word like it was being dictated by someone else and I was just recording it.

It stood complete as a poem, but as you know, I had to really work to change it from a poem for anyone to a book for children.

I can't explain it nor has it happened again, but I tell you that I'm ready for it if it should come.

In the meanwhile, I keep being inspired to slog away at my other writing projects.

Barbara said...

I have to agree with Janet about the inspiration aspect. I was sitting up in bed deciding whether to get up or not, and when I opted for more sleep, Red Lick was there in its entirety in the second it took for my head to hit the pillow. I sat up and said, "God, give me the ability to pull this off," then I wrote the novel in 4 days.

It didn't come word for word, or while I was sleeping, but it did come image for image. And I could only make it as good as my writing skills at the time allowed, so it took months of revising, but it wasn't anything I had been thinking about, and it wasn't an idea that came to me. It was a full-fledged novel and it was there in an instant.

I've never called it inspiration. My theory is that everything that is, or ever will be, is out there in some collective conciousness, and if you're open to it, you will occasionally find bits and pieces, or it will occasionally find you.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Could not agree more, Barb. I remember another incident -- a dream that was a complete story in visuals -- like I was watching the movie version. It's a short story or novella for adults. It will get written one of these days. The images and story line are still that clear.