Brewing up Inspiration
For me, inspiration starts with a cup of coffee.
This is not a revelation to anyone who knows me or has searched for references to Coffea arabica in my writing. And while your visions of me sitting with my laptop surrounded by thirteen cups of steaming coffee may be accurate, it’s not really about the coffee; it’s about the idea percolating in my head.
Ideas usually come to me in the form of a vague image and nothing more. They come with no indication of whether they are a poem, a story, a script or something else. Luckily, I have no preference for a format—I’ll write anything that feels like being written.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Initially, I only wrote short stories. This changed midway through 9th grade when Marianne Eitel took over as the teacher in my Honors English class and quickly became the person who most influenced my writing. She certainly was a big reason I didn’t just quit writing, which I was about ready to do.
Before I met Marianne, my writing was technically accurate in terms of spelling and grammar, but it was really boring. I wrote – not because I wanted to write but because I had to get the ideas out of my head so there would be room for other things. The result was little more than me writing down a set of paragraphs describing the scenes I saw. There was little or no dialogue. There was no coffee. There was absolutely no pleasure for me in writing.
But otherwise, it was flawless.
Where some other teachers had told me to just give up because I was “a horrible writer”, Marianne encouraged me to try new styles, to experiment with words and to enjoy the writing. That year the school was offering its first playwright’s workshop and she recommended me for it. I doubted I’d get anything worthwhile out of it, but it was an excuse for me to get out of class for a few hours each week so I did it. It was rapidly apparent that this was the right decision.
That first script was terrible. It was a science fiction comedy called “Huntoneurotosis: The True Story” and was about a scientist combating an awful virus which caused people with triskaidekaphobia to hunt using the unfair advantage of weapons instead of the morally acceptable hand-to-hoof combat used in enlightened times. Aside from foreshadowing my future as a vegetarian, it was my first foray into comedy.
But it was awful for the stage.
Playwriting is a lot like other forms of storytelling—the trick is you can only use dialogue, even if you stick a narrator on stage. The dialogue you write has to have the characters introduce each other to the audience. It should explain where they are and why they are there. It should guide the actors into a general sense of what they are physically supposed to be doing because, ultimately, a play is nothing if the characters just stand around talking for a couple of hours. And you have to accomplish all of this while not knowing what the scenery looks like, the physical dimensions of the stage or anything specific about the costumes or props the cast might have because these are dictated by the limitations of a given venue and budgetary constraints. “Huntoneurotosis” probably would have been an excellent short story, but as a play there was too much backstory and there were too many scene changes and complicated props for it to be workable on the stage. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to write and a tremendous learning experience.
No matter how bad my first play was, what it did was change the way I looked at storytelling. My stories became more character-driven and less narrator-driven. But the biggest thing it did for me was show me that writing could be fun, hopefully for someone reading a story I wrote, but also for me. This is when I started many of the writing tendencies and constructs I use today, including my use of coffee, the number thirteen and random vegetables throughout my stories. It always pleases me to see people reading a new piece and commenting when they find the first reference to coffee.
Marianne taught me so much by telling me it was okay to make my own rules when writing. If a scene isn’t working, skip it and come back to it later. If characters aren’t cooperating, stick them in a giant pit filled with rabid kittens and see if they start behaving. If nothing will beat the story into submission, change to a different format – maybe that novel would work better as a series of limericks instead. I use this lesson all the time now, sometimes writing a scene from a play as normal prose in order to work out the details before returning to the script.
But if I get completely stuck, I’ll stick a cup of coffee in the characters’ hands and see what happens.
Marianne was taken from this life way too early, succumbing to cancer six years ago. I may have been a small blip on the radar of her 30+ year teaching career, but she will always be a huge part of who I have become, both as a writer and as a person. I can never repay her for all she gave to me, but I hope that through continuing to write and through trying to inspire my children and others I may at least continue her legacy in a meaningful way. And if I can brew up an enjoyable tale along the way, so much the better!
So was there someone who changed your writing landscape? Do you switch between writing forms or styles when an idea isn’t working? Do you have any devices or constructs that readers have come to expect in your writing? Most importantly, do you enjoy the writing?