Monday, October 25, 2010

inspiration and signs

Once you get a book published, people want you to talk a lot about your inspiration. And not in cliched generalizations. What made you write that book? How did you come up with that story. Writers should keep process journals, only because, by the time that book comes out, you've written one or two (or three) other manuscripts and the stories and reasons that were so clear at the time (if they ever were) have faded with time.

The Pull of Gravity (FSG, May 2011) has an Of Mice and Men theme running through it. Why I picked a classic, I definitely know, but why that classic, Of Mice and Men, I'm not completely sure, except for some vague and minor reasons.

All I know is once I picked it, I knew it was exactly the right choice. Not only for internal reasons, but I started to get small outward signs. I'd run across a sudden reference where it was seriously unexpected, Or, the biggest sign, while researching values on rare (scant even) original signed first editions with what's known as The Pendula included, I came across a copy inscribed by John Steinbeck to a man bearing the same unusual first name as the missing father the teens are searching for in the book. Even the last name was similar.

A few days ago, I woke up with an idea for a new young adult manuscript in my head. As always, I use the word idea loosely.

All I really knew is that it would be about two troubled teens and that it would have some important tie-in with Van Gogh.

I got the kids off to school and signed on to my computer to start writing with that overwhelming urge to get first thoughts down that any of us who write, know. I jotted three quick paragraphs and switched screens to attend to my morning ritual of email and facebook.

And there it was, my friend Lori's status update for the day: a quote by Vincent Van Gogh. And not any quote, but one that seemed to clearly resonate with the first paragraphs I'd just written, to mesh with the nebulous ideas swirling so frantically in my head.

Friday evening, I left Long Island for Washington DC for a whirlwind wedding weekend (and ten-plus hours of driving). Saturday morning, after breakfast -- and given that my mother, a talented artist, was with us -- we decided to squeeze in a visit to the Phillips Museum which happened to be around the corner from our hotel. We had heard it was a great museum (it is!) and my mother had always wanted to go.

As we reached the front entrance, I could see it was draped with a building-sized poster of Van Gogh's House at Arles. Sure, Van Gogh is a reasonably-obvious choice for any museum, on the other hand the museum was chock-full of amazing masters: Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Manet, Bacon and Rubens, to name just a few.
When I reached the actual painting House at Arles, I stood for a while, feeling strangely connected. I've never spent a ton of time studying Van Gogh or anything, but certainly his paintings have always moved me. In person they are more beautiful.

There was no glass covering the work and I kept thinking how I could simply reach out and touch the very same paint Van Gogh touched and how magical that might be. The museum guard seemed to read my mind and hovered close by.

At any rate, I'm inspired now, and I hope the small signs continue. I believe in some minor way they let me know I'm on the right, if somewhat, mystifying path toward a new book.


  1. I always ALWAYS get little signs when I am in the middle of creating something. Answers to questions come up. Reassurances that this is the right direction. It's weirdly wonderful.

    I love the Van Gogh flash. PS strangely, I just posted a Van Gogh quote to my profile not 2 days ago. Hmmmm...

  2. hmmm. how DID I miss that, Barb??

    I love stuff like that. Now, if I could only get to this new ms. but still swimming in clean up of old ms's. :)

  3. how did I miss this post with the reference/link to my blog? (thank you!) I can so relate to this: I pretty much construct my day and my creative work around serendipitous connections, and by linking the different arts together.....I in turn, am inspired by your inspiration.......

  4. Van Gogh is my favorite artist and Starry Night makes an appearance in my first book (though only because the teen paints it as a mural on her attic wall to make the place 'hers'--so I am eager to see where this takes you. Sounds like it was meant to be. I've had research branches run like that too--most pronouncedly with the book I am currently editing--places that researching Romanian history seemed to slide perfectly into my vague plan.