Tag Archives: Sources of 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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Getting Out Into It


I want to put in a quick word today for the World (see photo above.)  You know the one –  it’s outside our heads (I know I spend way too much time in that dark cave) and outside our works-in-progress; it’s the one we tend to forget sometimes because we’re busy making up stories and poems about the world. I want to advocate getting out into it, even though it means putting aside our writing for part of each day. Let’s allow Memory and Meaning to take a much needed nap. Let’s stay in the moment, gathering up rain coats and wool caps (Pacific Northwest-style) or sunscreen and straw hats (Southwest-style?) and commiting ourselves to new sources of inspiration in the world of the senses. 

(“New sources of inspiration….” I hear a little voice saying. “Why even worry about whether it has a purpose. Why try to justify it??? Just do it.”)

I think that little voice is too cavalier. I like to have reasons. So here is a writer’s reason to get out into the great, wide, beautiful, wonderful world: Each time we do, we re-learn the Art of Noticing Things, aka Observation. We also re-learn how to bow down to Serendipity – “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.”

By getting out into it, you might notice for the first time in a long time how sunlight hits the leaves of a tree unevenly, letting some leaves shine and allowing others to remain in the shade:


You might discover a blue woman falling apart on a wall:


You might come upon a view that opens up wide…to an olive orchard…


…or one that narrows down and invites you in:


I went for a walk on Decatur Island once – in Washington’s Puget Sound – and discovered the carcass of a young fawn, half cleaned bones, half recognizable animal, at the high-tide mark. Not all discoveries are sweet, though all are worthwhile. And all of them make you hesitate, lean in, look more carefully. Let’s hear a cheer for hesitation!


Beach walks are alive with serendipity. An agate, a jellyfish, a sand dollar. A dead fawn.

And now, for your reading pleasure, I offer the opening stanzas (it only has four) of William Brighty Rands’ poem Great Wide Beautiful Wonderful World

Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,
With the wonderful water round you curled,
And the wonderful grass upon your breast,
World, you are beautifully dressed.

The wonderful air is over me,
And the wonderful wind is shaking the tree –
It walks on the water, and whirls the mills,
And talks to itself on the tops of the hills.

You friendly Earth, how far do you go,
With the wheat-fields that nod and the rivers that flow,
With cities and gardens, and cliffs and isles,
And people upon you for thousands of miles?

I’m going to end the excerpt there, because I prefer Rands’ question to his conclusion. While writing is often our way of trying to find answers, getting out into the world helps us re-learn how to ask questions. Like this: Is there anything more beautiful than a raspberry?



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