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Writing About Inspiration

I'm reading more than one book at the moment, which is pretty typical for me of late. Primarily because I'm not a fast reader, and my taste in fiction favors longer works more often than not, but also because my muse finds inspiration in a variety of genres and sources. It's an old saw, but you need to read if you want to write.

I probably started reading with a writer's eye (and ear) back when I was a teen and starting inserting myself into my Hardy Boys and Rick Brant mysteries. Eventually, rather than reworking someone else's story, I tried writing my own. Unsuccessfully--and I'll lay blame for that at the door of my Catholic school education as it laid the groundwork for my preoccupation with perfection. There weren't personal computers in those days, and any writing I did was with pencil and paper. I hated mistakes and one misspelling or imperfect rendering of a cursive Y or G or Z prompted me to crumple the loose-leaf sheet and start over. Now I work on a MacBook, keeping multiple versions of drafts and attempted drafts; there aren't any more battlefields strewn with the balled-up corpses of my imagination.

My process still bears some resemblance to those days, however, because I'm meticulous. Probably too much so. Everything can get fixed in rewrites.

The only advantage my process affords is the ability for my writing to pull inspiration from multiple sources. I like to think they're coral islands in the Pacific, building up over time until they break through the ocean's surface. What you see are sandy beaches and palm trees, while beneath the surface there exists layers upon layers of reality unseen but necessary to the tale.

Today's comes from three sources.

The first is a scene from The Passage by Justin Cronin, where a character notes that writing is slow work and satisfying because it requires time and concentration. The character is creating this latest book by hand. Making her own paper, binding the sheets with needle and thread. There aren't any pages thrown away for false starts or misspelling or poor penmanship in her work; those are the layers on which the work is built. The character displays her flaws. Each makes her real and, ironically, perfect.

The second and third are two sides of the same coin, different takes on characterization provided by Jimmy Smits. One comes from a new series, Outlaw, which premiered last night. Smits plays a Supreme Court Justice who turns his back on his seat to pursue justice. Another is my viewing of season 3 of Dexter, where Smits played another legal eagle, albeit one who takes justice into his own hands. The two performances appear similar, driven by the impassioned delivery Smits brings to the table as an actor, but the vehicles provide a clue as to how characterization isn't straightforward. Dexter is probably best described as black comedy; he's a serial killer, and while Smits' role is drawn with the same strokes seen in the new show, I can interpret the former as a validation of the latter. I can believe the moral epiphany portrayed by him in Outlaw because I can believe the corruption shown in Dexter. Given a novel, such a transition could make you weep.

Novels are examples that allow readers to connect. With the author, with other readers, with the characters in the tale and their unfolding lives. If a writer doesn't open the door to outside influences, whether they're a turn of phrase, the handling of an idea or a character, then they're less likely to create an immersive experience readers will enjoy and revisit.

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February 2012


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