Reading as inspiration

"To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we're supposed to be doing—is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, 'When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.' This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don't know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring."

—Dani Shapiro, in Still Writing

As I sit in the Mill Valley library, a stunning wooden architectural downtown gem that has become my nest, I let these words by Dani Shapiro reverberate in my mind, flooding me with that unique pleasure of deep recognition that great sentences can ignite. Yes, yes, that's exactly it, I think, staring off at the towering and slender redwoods just outside.

My life since leaving my last job in April has been filled with days of wandering from coffee shop to coffee shop in Marin with my nose firmly planted in a book. A poetry book. Often, a memoir. Sometimes, fiction. Short story collections. Books upon books, foodstuff for the mind—and, when I'm lucky, for the heart.

But this reading has become a third kind of reading for me, the two first being required and for pleasure. This new kind of reading feels urgent, like wrestling with complex assignments, in some cases no less drudgery than homework for a required class. This reading is pilgrimage. A prostration at the altar of those who are responsible for, if not sparking, then certainly cementing my determination to follow suit in this strange art.

I immerse myself, perhaps, in hopes that I may evoke a sort of osmosis whereby the mastery of some of my favorite writers (mostly women, often poets) can lift off the very page and penetrate my skin, stored as a sort of potential energy in my cerebral cortex, ready to animate the next work. I've even taken to laboriously handwriting lengthy passages of every book I especially love into the dusty Moleskines I carry around with me everywhere, in case a stray phrase or idea presents itself that can somehow be used.

The inspiration is the thing. It first comes from within, from the questions our lives give rise to: what is trauma? What is self-love? Where does it crumble and falter? How can it be retrieved? Why is its role in girlhood, womanhood, relationship? What do bubble baths have anything to do with it?

Questions from the constellation of my life's events, epiphanies, heartbreaks. Of the past that haunts my present. For me, these questions are the seeds of the things I want to say, the songs that want to be sung, and they have trailed a half-step behind me for years begging to be given true physical form, like all living things.

Together these themes are the core, the hot substance of the work. Fine. But what does the actual writing look like? What form, what style? What is the "how" to give shape to the "what"?

The question hounded me until I started to notice what books resonated most consistently with me. They say you should write what you most want to read. What I most loved to read turned out to be an admittedly niche (and female-driven) kind of writing, one that has been branded, in turns, "creative nonfiction" or "prose poetry" or a kind of "life writing." "Braided narrative" or "fragmented memoir" are also phrases I've heard that approximate its form. It is all of these and yet, hopefully, constrained by none.

Sidenote: It's hard enough to dare to write a thing. To want to write something in such a hybrid and unestablished form as half-essay, half-prose poem is a masochism of a uniquely creative kind, surely.

So: I read Terry Tempest Williams. Maggie Nelson. Dani Shapiro. Annie Dillard. I read and I read and I read. Sometimes I read poetry: Kay Ryan, Anne Carson, Marie Oliver. I want music in my ears, rhythm in my bones for when I make my own imprint on the written world.

The reading—and I do it every morning—is the priming of the pump. It is the anchor that lets me reliably dip into the right currents when I need to, and so I know that they are there. It reminds me that what I'm trying to do is not crazy or impossible; it has been done before. I have words at my disposal, a decent grasp of the English language, a disturbingly sensitive nerve to all things wondrous and terrible, and an irrepressible need to give these words a shape that lets me connect to others. Not to mention the requisite coffee and free time. Are these not the ingredients called for? 

So goes my version of this "deep permission" as Dani Shapiro puts it. Admittedly, I often read without knowing why these works, why these poems? And why spend the dozens of hours handwriting these passages, exhibiting a patience as a scribe that I rarely do in "real" life?

I don't know. It's all, in the end, a game of Hot and Cold. I'm inching my way towards what feels warmer, trying to find some comfort in having no real answers. But I believe wholeheartedly in the thing itself and the process by which it's writhing to erupt from this dark soil.