Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Inspiration

As writers, the topic of inspiration is pivotal to our craft. If we were never inspired, we would never write. Or at least, our writing would be extremely dull. When we say that we have ‘writer’s block,’ we mean that we suffer from a lack of inspiration. Writing has become a chore, a drudge. We have to drag ourselves to the keyboard or notebook. Every word is like beating at a colossal wall. This happens to most every writer at some point (some might argue that the majority of their time is spent in this state). How, then, do we re-immerse ourselves? The answer is both simple and complex: we find inspiration. Simple because it can be found anywhere. Complex because, well, if it were really that easy, we would all have written a score of brilliant novels by now.

The reason why I didn’t write my customary post yesterday was because I was visiting a place that used to be my sure-fire inspiration kick. My grandparents live in a remote seaside village on the northern California coastline. It has a population of 280; the people are outnumbered by the seals that bask along the rocky coastline. When I was a child, every summer involved a three-day trip to this paradise of pine and fog and salt. Every afternoon we would hike along the cliffs, search for garter snakes in the tall grass, or venture into the icy water until the pangs in our thighs receded to numbness. In the evenings, I would sit in the big bay windows facing the sea and write until the sun grew large against the horizon and submerged itself for the night. This was my Eden, a cool draught after a sticky summer spent in my hometown.

I was always told that it would be temporary. My grandparents aged and grew weak – my grandfather, physically; my grandmother, mentally. This autumn they moved into a nursing home a few miles up the road from their community. Their house sold within days after being put on the market. My father has been placed in charge of the estate, so yesterday my parents, sister, and I piled in the car and drove up for the first time in two years. Papers needed signing, errands needed to be run. We ended by taking my grandparents out to lunch at a Mexican place off the side of Highway 1. Red paint had been sponged on the walls. The only decoration was a large painting of a rooster with a noble expression on its face (if roosters could ever be said to look noble) while two silhouetted roosters fought in a stormy sky behind him. If artists ever suffer from artist's block, this one had a terminal case.

My grandmother has no idea who I am anymore. I waved broadly as my mother led her into the restaurant. She stared past me, looking nervous, and only took the seat across from me with much coaxing from both my parents. My grandfather is almost immobilized after a series of strokes. He finds talking difficult and is dependent on an oxygen machine.

“How are things?” my father tried helpfully.

My grandmother was silent, intent on drinking the salsa. My mother directed her to the chips instead.

“Not too good,” my grandfather said with a stiff shrug.

I stared at the roosters and tried not to think.

Desperate for conversation, my father said, “Melissa’s got some big news to share with you guys. Don’t you, Melissa?” He doesn’t approve of my engagement or like my fiancĂ©, but his voice took on an animated tone and I played along.

“I got engaged,” I said, holding out my left hand.

Surprisingly, my grandmother took it, and stared down into the ring. “It’s beautiful,” she said. The only distinct words she said all through lunch.

My grandfather’s face lit up. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed. “That’s wonderful!”

Is it really, I wondered, when the only ends are to divorce, die young, or end up like this?

But this was just a passing thought, interrupted as my grandfather asked for my fiancĂ©s name and repeated it after me like code. “Ee-ly-jah. That’s a good name. Do you have a date yet?”

I told him and he nodded. “We’re the fifteenth of that month. Fifty-six years ago.”

“Has it been that long?” my grandmother murmured, surprised.

“A long time,” my grandfather responded, not looking at her. She was already back to dipping her fingers in the salsa.

Lunch finally ended and we said our it-was-nice-to-see-you’s. One final “Congratulations!” from my grandfather and they were gone.

“Come on,” my father said to us. “Let’s go for a walk.”

We returned to the trail along the cliffs that I’ve walked so many times. I hurried on ahead of the others, not sure why I was rushing. Here was the secret stairway down to a beach, the gentle cove that was the best place to watch seals, the tide pools that we used to find starfish in, the rock that I climbed all the way to top of one morning and felt reborn. I reached the grove of trees with the crumbling picket fence, the one that I used to imagine was a place in my stories and any moment a character or two would peer out from just behind that bend. No place has ever made me want to write as much as this has. No where have I learned as much about a story as here.

But yesterday, I felt numb. The trees were just trees, slightly crooked. The fence was decaying. There was no magic here. If there ever had been, it was long gone.

My family caught up with me and we turned to head back. The sun was already low in the sky and if we weren’t out of the mountains by nightfall, it could be dangerous.

On the way home, I found my thoughts returning to my first novel, the one that isn’t very good. I’ve put it aside for the time being because, in all honesty, I’m tired of it. So much of it was written there, at my grandparents’ house by the sea. Now that it’s gone, where will I go to find my inspiration?

But as I thought more, I remembered the sponged-red walls of the restaurant. The noble rooster. My grandmother’s blank, but sincere smile. I wanted to write them all, and I have here. They didn’t take me to other worlds, perhaps, but they had driven me to the page nonetheless. Fantastical reality. Better than realistic fantasy.

The sun dipped into the ocean for the night just as we descended the last peak and forsook Highway 1 for inland-bound roads. I scrambled for my pen.



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