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Brewing up Inspiration

March 21, 2011

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?

9 Comments
  1. March 21, 2011 7:54 am

    Really enjoyed this post. I can think of someone in each of the cities I’ve written in, London/Edinburgh/Toronto, who have made a fundamental difference to the way I write – none of them teach creative writing or are full-time writers but each had such tremendous talent that I actually *paid attention* to what they had to say, grateful to even be in the same room with them.

    And I may have to steal the rabid kittens idea😉

  2. March 21, 2011 12:12 pm

    Great post Rob!

    Yes, I remember someone who influenced me… I cannot think of her name but she guess taught in my 10th grade creative writing class. She was the first person to look at my writing and poetry and actually ‘see’ it. Shet let me read aloud in front of the class and say the ‘f word’ if it was written in my poetry. Not that I was trying to score a way to curse in class but the idea that she saw meaning in my writing enough to let that be a part of it really meant something to me.
    And then she let me give her my idea for a horror novel and she fell in love with it and told me to write it… which I did three years later… which sits on my computer unedited. For now at least. 🙂

  3. Jim Eitel permalink
    March 21, 2011 1:54 pm

    I must admit that Mrs. Eitel had a tremendous influence on me, too. She helped me in more ways then I can enumerate. She was one of many women in my life who helped me to become the man I became. First would be my mother who instilled in me a love of reading from early childhood by putting me on her lap and reading to me on a daily basis. Another would be my tenth grade English teacher, Miss Williams, who made me realize how books were more than just words strung together for entertainment. Myfawnwy made me understand that there were things to learn between the lines. Then there was my freshman English teacher in college, Ms. Lord. She gave me so many follow-up books to read that I was still reading them after I graduated. My final memorable person was a man; my mentor, voice teacher and lifelong friend, Richard Chapline. Dick opened my mind to everything musical. For over 35 years I never stopped learning from him and using what I had learned every day of my teaching career. I truly enjoyed reading Rob’s blog because it made me think of all the important people in my life and how each of them had molded, shaped and reshaped me into the person I am today. This remembrance was just skimming the surface of my memory. Thanks, Rob, for making me look at my life again.

  4. March 21, 2011 5:22 pm

    I really enjoyed this engaging article, Rob. When I get stuck with a scene I give my characters thought bubbles. Honestly. In italics I write (name of character )thought: “such and such” and generally this gets me back on track with motivation and often results in my going a little deeper and finding out new stuff about them. Cheesy, I know but it works wonders for me … though I do have to remind myself to erase those italics at the end.

  5. March 21, 2011 8:07 pm

    @Hamish: I’ve essentially lived in New Jersey all my life, so the locations for my inspirational people are a bit less varied than yours, but I suspect the people are no less varied! I think it’s good that all of the influences in our writing lives can come from so many different places. You certainly may borrow the kittens. They are evil and I’m sure they’ll do uniquely evil things to you. You can read some of the backstory about the kittens over on my bio at the Chinese Whisperings website: http://chinesewhisperings.com/writers/rob-diaz/

    @Jim Bronyaur: What you’ve described is in a lot of ways what Marianne did for me. While I wasn’t dropping any four-letter-words in her classes, she encouraged me to write what I felt and what I needed to write. I didn’t mention this in my post but one other thing Marianne did was remember me; I hadn’t seen her in many years until about the year before she died. When she saw me that day, she asked me if I had continued writing but also asked me if I had written a sequel to something I’d written in high school like 15 years earlier. That she remembered this old story was an honor like few others.

    @Jim Eitel: Well, Mr. Eitel, as you know, you, too, have been a huge influence in my life. All those years of band, band camp, jazz band, even 7th grade general music class — I still remember listening to the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack! Among so many other things, you taught me to find the value in music — even music I don’t particularly care for — and find ways to experience that music in my own life despite the… interesting situations my life provided (remember the dog food shopping?). I think it’s important to take time every once in a while to think about the people who have influenced you, both good and bad, and reflect on how knowing them has shaped you. Personally, I hope that I have had positive impacts on people I’ve encountered throughout my life and that, perhaps at some point, I’ll be thought of in this way.

    @Jason: Thought bubbles! That’s an awesome idea. In a way, I guess the coffee cups are my thought bubbles… but I never seem to erase them. I may have to try the thought bubble idea soon, though — I gave the characters in a current WIP cups of coffee and wouldn’t you know it — they just drank the coffee for about 3000 words. Interesting as that might be for a coffee drinker like me, I don’t think it’s a very compelling read. Thought bubbles might just be what I need to get inside their heads!

  6. March 22, 2011 5:05 am

    There really is no point writing if you don’t enjoy it. I for one am very glad that you decided to stick with it, and “find yourself”, as it were. In a roundabout kind of way, I have your teacher to thank too, because if she didn’t spur you on, you wouldn’t be writing and able to help me with mine!

  7. March 22, 2011 11:53 am

    Did teachers really tell you that you were a bad writer? As a teacher, I hear students say this all the time and it is so horrible that I don’t want to believe it. I’m glad you found someone who inspired you, regardless.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I can’t wait to read more. =)

  8. March 23, 2011 7:54 am

    @Miss GOP: Yes, my original 9th grade Honors English teacher told me to give it up since I was so bad at it. He wasn’t around long — replaced within a couple of months thankfully. I had a college professor tell me I didn’t belong in college, too, because I asked him a question. Didn’t matter that I had an ‘A’ in his class… These interactions have certainly helped me help my children learn to deal with teachers, coaches and other “grown-ups” who are less-than-supportive. The reality is that I’ve been blessed with a lot more supportive people around me than un-supportive people and I’m thankful for that every day.

    @Icy: Well, you are totally right that there’s not really a point if you don’t enjoy it. When I was first starting out with the writing, though, that didn’t even register as an option. I’m glad that you and I have gotten to work together so much recently and hope it continues for a long time!

  9. March 24, 2011 2:31 am

    Enjoy it, I do. But sometimes it’s a grind, even though I want to.

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