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Where Do You Find Your Inspiration?

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

This past summer, I spent some time in Ireland visiting a friend. He took me to Bray, a small town in County Wicklow, to do a coastal walk along the Irish Sea. While we were there, we came upon a small carnival that had been built along the coast. It had a temporary quality to it; like it was only going to be there for a few days, and since the day was gray and damp and rainy, there were only a handful of families milling around the boardwalk with their hoods up. The rides themselves were all abandoned. I don’t know why, but I felt immediately that this lonely carnival was a place I wanted to write about. I had that spark of inspiration; I just didn’t know what the story was yet.

When I got back to Chicago, I began writing, and the first few paragraphs of description came easy. That momentum got me about halfway through the first page. I didn’t know where to go from there, how to “find” the story, so I made my own inspiration: I re-read two short stories, “Fjord of Killarey”, by Kevin Barry, and James Joyce’s “Araby,” where the setting looms so large that it becomes a sort of central character. I studied these two masterpieces and tried—feeling very humbled in the process—to imitate them. It took me many tries, and I don’t know if I succeeded, but eventually a story took shape that I turned it in for my Advanced Fiction class this past Tuesday.

This experience has got me thinking lately about the interplay between art and craft in writing. For me, the art—the “inspiration”– gets me as far as the initial idea, those first excited explosions of description and the sudden flashes of character, the surety that there’s an incipient story just beginning to come to life. But that’s about it. It’s the craft that gets me to the finish line—figuring out what the story’s about and finding the best way to tell it, the obsessive revising and editing, the tightening of the sentences until they are as close to perfect as I am capable of making them. The craftsmanship may not be as draining or as fragile as the art, but it’s absolutely just as important.

I know that the story I eventually ended up writing is far from perfect. It still needs a lot of work. I hope I can get some good feedback in class. I’ll let you know how it goes!

How much of your writing is art? How much as craft? Where do you get your story ideas from? How do you get inspired? How do you create your own inspiration?

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5 Responses to Where Do You Find Your Inspiration?

  1. Jessie Morrison says:

    Yes, Dana, I’ve also wondered about the name "parody". To me that term also implies comedy. I should have clarified that it’s actually a stylistic or structural parody. For example, you take a look at how the story is built and then mimic that structure in your own work. It’s really helpful in teaching yourself the art of pacing. I kind of like "parroting" better, too!

  2. Dana says:

    Hi, thanks for the reply. Yes it is a wonderful exercise and I’m glad to hear there are others who do it. I wonder why they call it parodying, though. Does that imply an element of comedy? Playfulness I could see, but I’m not sure about parodying. I would sooner call it parroting, but that’s not quite right either.

    I believe part of the effectiveness of the exercise is that when form is borrowed, there is more energy left over for other aspects of the process.

  3. Jessie Morrison says:

    Thanks for your posts! And sory about the robot thing, I think they are working on trying to make commenting easier. Anyway, to answer your question, Dana, they do specifically teach the technique of parodying style and structure from existing stories. I’ll definitely be talking about that in future blogs because I think it is sooooo helpful! I’ve never tried it before with poetry but I think that sounds like a great idea. I’ve gotta try it! Thanks for reading, Jessie

  4. Dana says:

    I like the part where you use existing works as source material. Do they teach that at Columbia?

    I like to write descriptive poems about existing short stories, a few lines per paragraph or so of story, with lots of similes. Then later forget the story and write a story based on the poem.

    I also like to just concentrate on a paragraph or two in an existing work, and write my own paragraphs with the same structure. Is this something they teach you? To my mind, it is a better use of time than doing critical analysis theory papers about other people’s writing.

    I guess you can do the same with poetry, borrow a line or two and go your own way from there. Is this something they teach? I’m very curious to know. Keep up the good work!

    So I guess I fall down on what you would consider the craft side, but I don’t differentiate art and craft the way you do. I certainly don’t wait for inspiration. I write every day and try to channel whatever there is to be channeled. That to me is the art. I have techniques and regularity and productivity. I don’t give a shit about what anybody else thinks. (That’s not to say I don’t share writing with others, because I do and I think it is important. But that is different than writing for other people.)

    I think if you’re going to differentiate between two opposites, you should differentiate between commercial writing and fine art. Anything that is written for money is commercial, I have done that before and learned a great deal from it. But now I do fine art only. It can be its own satisfaction.

    Thanks
    dana

    PS, you should try to get the commenting feature fixed. Your readers have to go through and enter the anti-robot code a whole bunch of times before the comment sticks. The same thing used to happen to Jane Whats-Her-Name’s blog, but they fixed it, so I assume they can fix yours.

    Every time it doesn’t post, I add something, so this is becoming a very long post, LOL

  5. Kristan says:

    Oh, I think that old adage is very much true: success (in writing) is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. At least that seems to be true for me. Yes, the "art," as you call it, is important. But the "craft" is essential. And I don’t think it’s *as much* about the perfect turn of phrase as it is about the story. What happens, and to whom. Inspiration only gives you a starting point; hard work gets you to the finish line.

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