Tag Archives: Inspiration


Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout “I belong in a story?”

Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is: “that belongs in a story.”

We writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.

We snap mental photographs that hold story. Like mine of my friend Margrit quilting in a circle of lamplight, an image that speaks her specific tenderness. Or Izzi’s evening vigil by the gate, her fur backlit by the sun, doggedly awaiting John’s return. Or the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown. There’s story there.

Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The squeaks and pops of the elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.

Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like that of three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”


Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. That’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they serve a story. We savor little vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day. Or: “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” (According to my notes, this is something children’s author Eve Bunting’s dad said to her.) Or: What’s the worst thing that could happen?

All these glittery bits, some as brief as a word, offer inspiration. Like this list near the path at a coffee plantation in Hawaii which suggests an alphabet book about ways to move:


It is not unusual to meet a word that inspires a story – snarky, hunched, snick – or a word that fits into a work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.

Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.

Anecdotes can get me going, too. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.

Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.


I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged, cobwebby hall. Golden light streams through clerestory windows and falls on a particular item, suggesting it. I start to write. That bit seems to attract others and they begin to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.

When I work with material that has the supercharged quality – the “I belong in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be.

Those are the best days, right?

• • • • •

FAREWELL. In July 2000, I was a guest speaker at what was then Vermont College’s three-year old MFA program in writing for children. The following January I joined the faculty, and taught off and on for a total of nine semesters over the next 11 years. It is a first-rate organization, superbly captain-oh-captained first by Lousie Crowley, and now by Melissa Fisher. I loved working with fellow faculty members who lit up the days with lectures and workshops and lit up the nights in the faculty lounge. I loved being an advisor to my students from whom I learned so much. VCFA is a nurturing, supportive community and I will be forever grateful for its presence in my life. Let’s stay in touch.


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Mosquitoes, Whining in My Ear

In one of the essays in The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

The mind is an irrational thing. It operates in its own conditioned, instinctive manner, so we can fight and flee our way through life.

I am a slow, ponderous writer. I often find myself caught without a mosquito net, with those whiny voices in my ear, drowning out any possible coherent thoughts. I stop. I listen. The work freezes. I set it aside. Sometimes I can go back and wrest some momentum out of some of those pieces. But sometime, sometimes, they just stay where they are. Inert. Dead.

But fiction is not life. Life plays out in far messier ways. Life demands that I wake up and pay attention.

When terrible things happen in the world I  find myself questioning what I do for a living. Writers are not “essential personnel,” are they? Here we are now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, and I’m dismayed at my own self-indulgence. We live in a world where a 19-year-old ends up bloodied in a boat in someone’s back yard, after having dropped off a bomb intended to kill and maim crowds of people. Obsessing over process seems irrelevant. I’m jolted out of any residual state of feeling sorry for myself.

Still, the thing we call process will take its toll again, I know. Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about this in 1920, in her essay, How Flint and Fire Started and Grew.

…on taking up the legible typed copy and beginning to glance rapidly over it, I felt fall over me the black shadow of that intolerable reaction which is enough to make any author abjure his calling for ever. By the time I had reached the end, the full misery was there, the heart-sick, helpless consciousness of failure. What! I had had the presumption to try to translate into words, and make others feel a thrill of sacred living human feeling, that should not be touched save by worthy hands. And what had I produced? A trivial, paltry, complicated tale, with certain cheaply ingenious devices in it….

From the subconscious depths of long experience came up the cynical, slightly contemptuous consolation, “You know this never lasts. You always throw this same fit, and get over it.”

So, suffering from really acute humiliation and unhappiness, I went out hastily to weed a flower-bed.

And sure enough, the next morning, after a long night’s sleep, I felt quite rested, calm, and blessedly matter-of-fact. “Flint and Fire” seemed already very far away and vague, and the question of whether it was good or bad, not very important or interesting, like the chart of your temperature in a fever now gone by.

So there. Momentum is everything. The only way is to keep on keeping on. I’m swatting at those whiny mosquito voices and paying attention to the only work I know how to do.


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“What moss do you see….What field of corn?”

I’ve just come across a little advice about poetry (thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings) which I agree with 100%, so I’ll share it with you. It comes from the writer James Dickey.


What is more fascinating than a rock, if you really feel it and look at it, or more interesting than a leaf?

Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;

Mosses, and stars; and gravelly

Rivers, and fruit.

Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;

Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice …

Go back and read this list – it is quite a list, Mark Van Doren’s list! – item by item. Slowly. Let each of these things call up an image out of your own life.

Think and feel. What moss do you see? Which horse? What field of corn? What brambles are your brambles? Which river is most yours?


What Dickey and Mark van Doren help me remember here is that specificity and physicality are at the root of poetry.  I try to share that belief with my students at Vermont  College of Fine Arts. Abstraction lives somewhere else – philosophy, maybe, or mathematics.  What Dickey says also reminds me that some of the poems I love most –  whether narrative, lyrical, formal, informal, that which bears witness, that which reflects – are poems of experience. Dickey’s poetry  is not up there with my favorites  – I wrote a parody of it once, because at the time I thought it was so dense and decorated that it pressed me flat (yes, this is the same James Dickey who wrote Deliverance.) But I do love what he says in this particular passage. And maybe I just read the wrong collection of his work or was in a funny mood when I read it.  Maybe if I read the same work now, I would appreciate it more, who knows? Poems enter you or get turned away in strange ways at particular times – the right time, the wrong time – in your life. Here’s a poem I wrote (not for kids, for adults) about how poetry enters you. It was published a few years ago in the journal Mare Nostrum:


A sip of wine and a wafer to help this host enter you

on your tongue. It’s true, smart gods always find a way in,

since stupid gods are only human. Inside the walls, you ride

the back of a bird which came spinning in from the oculus,

you fall through to a new world beyond the old skin of sky.

Earlier you stood at the gates to the city: so many ghosts

opened their marble mouths and invited you in.

The Oculus of the Pantheon in Rome

The Oculus of the Pantheon in Rome

That poem came from experience – a summer in Rome, a morning in the Pantheon, watching the flight of a bird that had come in through the opening at the top of the dome.  (When I say “bird,” which bird do you see? How have you experienced “bird”?)

I’m just about to head off  (break of dawn this morning) for a few days with fellow writers and friends. We’re calling it a “retreat,” but for me it’s a gentle nudge to turn my back temporarily on solitude and  join the world again.  We’ll have fun –  if the predicted snow storm doesn’t leave us all stranded in airports around the country.  While together,  we’ll try to stay focused on writing.  I might go out and find a rock and a leaf to put  next to my notebook as I write. And I’ll scribble this question  at the top of the first page to get me started: “What field of corn?”

Read to write....

Ready to write….


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Tough Love from an Old Poet

My friend Andrea Nachtigall recently took me to see Mary Oliver at City Arts and Lectures in SF. There was a wonderful anticipatory hush before the poet came on stage, as if we were going to hear a really wonderful orchestra. Magic was hanging in the air, just waiting to be evoked. Mary Oliver read her poems, interspersed with talking to us about writing. Some of it was her way of writing, some of it was advice, some admonition. She had the whole auditorium completely mesmerized. I thought I’d share a few of her words of wisdom. Here are a few quotes and paraphrases:

·     *   I am very disciplined about working. You don’t accomplish anything without discipline. I write every day. It is an invitational.

 T    * The creative part of your mind is always there. You’ve got to keep a schedule. If you say to it “let’s meet at seven a.m.,” it will be there. You will struggle less.

·       * I go to the woods. They are my primary sources.

·      * I always carry a notebook. One needs to capture an idea as soon as it occurs.

·       * Silence is the door into the temple. If you ever go into the woods with me, I must love you very much.  (Adored this one. I only go into the woods with people I dearly love as well.)

And here, a poem by Mary Oliver.

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,

she took me back so tenderly,

arranging her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,

nothing between me and the white fire of the stars

but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths

among the branches of the perfect trees.

All night I heard the small kingdoms

breathing around me, the insects,

and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water,

grappling with a luminous doom. By morning

I had vanished at least a dozen times

into something better.

 © Mary Oliver


May your pockets always be full of lichens and seeds and, of course, a notebook.


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Falling Hard for an Old Poem, and an Old Poet

I’m scared of poetry. Sometimes because I don’t understand it, and feel stupid, sometimes because it feels annoyingly cloying. But when I hear or read a poem I like, I’m struck by lightening. It lodges somewhere in me and keeps reverberating.

When Philip Levine was announced as our new Poet Laureate on August 10th, I heard his poetry for the first time. I fell, and fell hard, for his poem, “What Work Is.”

In just a few lines, it has everything I try for in my writing. A character caught in tough times, an evocative setting, and an unexpected leap to intense, complex emotions.


(Men waiting outside city mission. Iowa, 1940, Library of Congress.)

Here’s a short interview on Fresh Air which includes his reading the poem:

And the Library of Congress has set up a terrific website if you want more info.

Posted by Elizabeth Partridge




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