• Writing Wisdom: On Inspiration

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Inspiration     Comments 15 comments

    board-953154_960_720A few weeks ago I wrote about this fantasy of mine where I collect my favorite passages from the Paris Review interviews into a book I’d keep at my desk for handy writing inspiration and motivation.

    Since I know I’ll never, ever do such an ambitious thing, I landed instead on the idea of sharing with you lovely readers some of the coolest and most wisdomous(!) responses I’ve gotten from the handful of writers I’ve interviewed.

    This here is my first attempt at doing so. For each post, I’ll choose answers fitting a particular topic.

    This week’s topic: INSPIRATION!

    Because that’s always a hot issue for writers, isn’t it? All artists, really. What the hell is it? Where does it come from? How do we find it? And if we find it, how do we use it?

    Below are four answers from four fascinating people: George Saunders, Heidi Durrow, Lou Gallo and Steve Almond. One is inspired by impending doom, another by shame; one by Stuart Dybek, and another by repeated rejection.

    (Warning: This post got pretty long. For each writer I’ve bolded his/her first line, in case you want to skip to the good stuff.)

    Following each response is a question for y’all, because we very much love hearing from you. Those questions will be marked “YOUR TURN.” As in:

    YOUR TURN: What does inspiration mean to you? Where and how do you find it, and what do you do then? Let us know in the comments below. And tick “notify” to keep track of the conversation.


    Steve Almond & the Essential Sadness of Life

    Steve Almond is known as one of the funniest writers around; but as much as he’s loved for his humor by readers, he’s dismissed for it by critics.

    As you fans of Almond’s would expect, though, he doesn’t care a whit about what we critics think. Here’s what he had to say during a phone interview while he was promoting Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life:

    “Honestly, most of the best writing out there has some comic element. And frankly, the thing that tends to get overlooked, or just flat missed, is that the comic impulse almost always arises from negative feeling states — from embarrassment, shame, grief — that it’s not the opposite of tragedy, but the flip side.

    “So fine, if my using humor to survive the essential sadness of life means the critics dismiss me, that’s fine. I’m more interested in attracting a 23-year-old kid who thinks literature has nothing to do with her.”

    YOUR TURN: Do you agree that comedy comes from negative feelings? True or false: Making a reader laugh is among the most difficult accomplishments in writing. Do you have a favorite Steve Almond book or story?


    The Sudden Degradation of Lou Gallo

    Dr. Louis Gallo is a writing professor at Radford University and a prolific writer who, a few years ago, came out with a staggering rash of self-published books: poetry, stories, novels and more.

    During an email exchange I asked him what prompted this sudden flurry of self-publishing after many years of going the old-fashioned route:

    “Two years ago [~2008] my lower back went out in a big, bad way, and I was practically paralyzed for three months,” he wrote. “Then I developed a hideous rash all over my body, which turned out to be seborrheic dermatitis. It took forever to cure, with heavy, heavy medication, which made me feel ill for another six months.

    “So I got a sudden, horrible glimpse into my own mortality — abruptly, formidably.

    “There’s a Slavic word, litost, which means the sudden realization of one’s degradation. That’s it — I was litosted! I was never one to rush anything; I hate being harried. I like the slow cruise lane, and so over the years I published in the literary magazines and every now and then secured an agent for this or that. But I made no haste about it. I noted that publishers and agents often take forever to get around to responding to you, sometimes years.

    “Given the aforementioned litost, I decided that if I will publish these books ever, it must be NOW.”

    YOUR TURN: Do you sometimes write only because you feel suddenly aware of a ticking clock, whether a self-imposed deadline or the grim specter of impending death? Have you ever been litosted? If so, did that litost lead to some quality writing?


    Heidi Durrow’s Last Hope

    I got the chance to talk to Heidi Durrow shortly after the release of her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. Very good book, FYI. What I didn’t know until we spoke was that her path from idea (1997) to publication (2010) was so torturous and tortuous:

    “I started the book in 1997 when I quit my job as a corporate litigator,” she said. “I left the job to pursue writing, so it was time to write. Only I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to put all the good sentences and all my good ideas into a story.

    “And then I had a very bad bout of writer’s block. I was super stuck, and whatever confidence I had in my writing abilities before I left my job was suddenly gone.

    “After a few years (yes years!), I worked through the block, and I realized that I was going to keep getting older with or without a book.

    “[The finished draft] was terrible, and the agents told me so. But I had my old confidence back and I tried to find information in their rejections. I did finally get an agent after a few more major revisions of the manuscript and then received some four dozen rejections from publishers.

    “By then I had just become stubborn. I was determined to see this book get into the world. I considered self-publishing but thought I would try to do one more revision. I submitted that revised manuscript to the Bellwether Prize. It was my last hope.

    “And then lo and behold, I won!”

    YOUR TURN: What has been your longest bout with writer’s block, and how did you bust through it? Tell us about a time when you became stubborn and “determined to see [your writing] get into the world.”


    George Saunders & Being Full of Shit

    In his early years, George Saunders was kind of a reading (and writing) snob. He believed contemporary writing was worthless and that American literature ended forever the day Hemingway killed himself. His writing reflected that stance, he said — in all of the worst ways.

    All it took to set him on the right path was one fateful and open-minded visit to a library:

    “Even somebody as full of shit as I was, you can only be full of shit for so long, and then the world starts to give you a message,” he told me. “I went to the library in Chicago, and I was trying to write but I really was actively coming up against that wall, not being able to get my world into Hemingway’s diction, you know? So I kind of desperately went to the library to read everything new. I had the idea that if I did it I could just discount it, finally put the nail in the coffin.

    “So I got a bunch of magazines, and you know, most literary magazines you can kind of go ‘Yeah, eh,’ but I hit [Stuart Dybek’s] ‘Hot Ice’ story just randomly; I picked up Antaeus and read that. It turns out that Dybek and my dad went to the same high school, so what he was describing was where my dad grew up, and I knew the neighborhood — it was just like reading a story in color for the first time.

    “I was always like, ‘I’m reading this story in black and white from a guy who’s dead about a time in Spain that doesn’t exist anymore. This is kind of cool.’ But then this [‘Hot Ice’] is something I’m reading about … if I drove down 15 blocks I’d be in that neighborhood, and this is what he’s done with it.

    “It was literally like the wall just fell down.”

    YOUR TURN: Tell us about a “Hot Ice” moment you’ve experienced. And tell us about a time you met one of your writing heroes, and whether you said anything memorably idiotic and brainless — such as my “Look at the size of that toast!” when Saunders’ meal arrived.

    ALSO! Do you find this first entry interesting and should I continue on with this series, or did you get nothing out of this and found it a gargantuan waste of time? If the latter, you’re probably not even around anymore to see this. But if you are, do let us know. This blog is your blog! So if you ever have ideas on how we can improve it, please let us know in the comments below, or in private by dropping me an email: david[at]writebynight.net



    David LinkedFULLWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Mark H.

    First! And question over-load, man. Working from the top….. I can’t define inspiration but I know it when I see it. Like the supreme Court. Comedy comes from pain, I believe that whole-heartedly. Don’t know this Steve Almond but if he can make me laugh, he did accomplish one of the most difficult things in writing. I hope Im am too young to be litosted; I try not to ever work against a ticking clock, because that leads to rushed work, and rushed work is rarely good work. I don’t believe in writers block. I met George R.R. Martin once… Read more »

    Amber M

    I was blocked once for a year, so I can’t imagine the
    plural years. When she broke through it, she must have
    felt like Saunders, the wall coming down.

    These are good anecdotes and they come from wrists I admire,
    so definitely more more more! I remember your George Saunders
    interview. Can we have one of these posts about finding an agent?
    Or at least the process of publishing? Maybe self-promotion
    too. But I know writers don’t like to talk about that very often. Or
    do it. :)

    Amber M

    WRITERS I admire. Gee wiz. Spellcheck much?

    Jojo Lagarto

    It was the spring of 89. I was invited by one of my admirers, (admired simply because I was an American in Mexico). He was my girlfriend’s brother’s girlfriend’s brother. He had car and had sweated over what to offer me as a place to invite me to, apparently. As it turned out his friend’s brother’s girlfriend invited him to the opening of a new Mexican artist, (an abstract expressionist, very influenced by Tamayo -whom I happened to mention I liked). I hardly knew him, i believe my new friend’s name was Miguel, but I accepted his invitation and so… Read more »

    Betty Gambon

    I think we would all like to know about this toast thing.

    Barbara Mealer

    Hmm. there is a lot here. Inspiration for me was in getting older, ready to retire and needing something to do I could take on the road when I decided to run away from home and travel. I had always wanted to write. I would make up stories to put my active mind to good use when trying to fall asleep. Over the years, I had developed all these characters, scenes and…well decent active stories which would go into the realm of nightmares as I drifted off to sleep. A friend encouraged me to write. Inspiration for me is an… Read more »

    Tom W.

    I think a little inspiration would come very in handy today. Remember those dystopian novels we grew up reading? How about a post on some of your favorites, and which one is most likely now.

    […] week we explored how some of the writers I’ve interviewed find their inspiration: Lou Gallo in his own mortality; Heidi Durrow in a relentless drive to publish; Steve Almond taps […]

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