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?