Sunday, February 26, 2017

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

As a writer and a teacher of writing, I can attest that the one question I get more than any other is, "Where does your inspiration come from?".  The answer is simple: Depends.

For the manusript I'm shopping now, Sweet Divinity, inspiration came from being at my favorite place with one of my favorite people.  My friend Meby and I were at EPCOT at Walt Disney World (I know, didn't expect that, did ya?), strolling through the World Showcase, and she told me a hilarious story about her brother getting caught growing marijuana in his bedroom.  The story was so memorable, it could only be fiction, but it wasn't, and so I immediately asked permission (or as I like to call it, "vocally copyrighted" the story) to use it in a future novel.  That story was the spark that began Sweet Divinity, and though it plays only a small role at the start of the novel, it gets credit for being the inspiration that allowed me to meet my protagonist, Amanda Jane.

The manuscript I'm currently working on is titled My Literary Boyfriends.  For years, in my classroom and out of it, I've been referring to William Faulkner as "My Literary Boyfriend" (not to be confused with Thomas Hardy, "My Literary Husband"...but perhaps we'll save my literary family tree for another post).  One of my amazing colleagues, Jennette Pelicano, was making copies in the teacher's lounge one day when I walked in, and she said, "You know, I've been thinking, you should totally write a novel about your literary boyrfriends.  That just sounds like a book I would read."  Jennette  passed away a little over a year later, and I started work on the novel just after.  This one's for you, Jennette.

And then there is the big one, the magnum opus, THE novel, the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel winning, and, best of all, Oprah Book Club selection (and I mean's been an artistic dream of mine since she hailed my literary boyfriend--see above-- as her summer selection).  The working title is Miranda, and I've been writing this novel for the last twelve years.  It has been restarted again and again, each time with a different narrative voice.  It has been workshopped countless times.  It has been completely revised.  It has been shelved and then returned to.  It's...driving me nuts.  But I digress.  The inspiration came at the end of a day spent at the Summerville Flowertown Festival in 2005.  I was at a booth that sold reproductions of photographs from the turn of the century, and I was rifling through the matted photos when a frame above the box caught my eye.  It surrounded the image of a young woman holding a parasol and a travelling case, fully dressed, standing on the sandy beach, looking towards the sea.  I bought it immediately, and that woman has been using me as her story-telling vessel ever since.  Perhaps that's why I have such a difficult time completing her story.  I feel obligated to get it right.  And I will.

So, inspiration?  It can come at any moment.  Sometimes you're seeking it, and sometimes it's seeking you.  The important part is to be receptive to it.  Be quiet and listen...inspiration is all around you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

An Epic Life

Last week I was asked to provide the meditation at my church's Holden Evening Prayer service.  In particular, I was asked to reflect upon the following passage of scripture.  Last fall my family lost one of our brightest, most loving members.  I hope I've done her justice here.

“Jesus Christ is the light of the world; the light no darkness can overcome.”

On September 28, 2016, my amazing sister-in-law, Tanya Gee, died after a four year battle with chondrosarcoma.  She was thirty-nine years old and left behind my husband’s incredibly resilient brother, Chris, and two children, Will and Sabin.  It's a testament to Tanya that when I learned of her initial diagnosis, I didn't cry. Because I wasn't afraid for her. This was Tanya. She was the light in our family. She was the strongest of us all.

Now it isn't an exaggeration to say that Tanya was the single greatest person I ever knew. First of all, she had a God given zest for life. She owned a Spongebob cookie jar. She dressed her infant son as Elvis for Halloween. She loved that game where you spin and then eat a jellybean, not knowing if you're consuming juicy pear or freshly cut grass. She also perfectly embodied that characteristic for which we all strive: a servant’s heart. She would buy food for a homeless man on the corner, she read to at-risk elementary school students after work, she taught confirmation classes at Immanuel Lutheran in Columbia, and as a judge, she was noted for her fairness and true desire for justice for all. And she was also fluent in German; in fact she and my brother in law got married at a small Lutheran church in Germany, the same one Tanya’s parents had been married in.

During the four years of her courageous battle, there was so much darkness, but it was Tanya herself who taught us to always look for the light.  When she had part of the ball and joint of her hip removed during the first year of her cancer battle, Tanya, an avid runner, responded by purchasing an adult sized tricycle for herself.  When she was elected by the legislature, on her first try, to serve our state as a circuit court judge, Tanya special ordered a pair of black converse and a pair of solid black sneakers that would minimize her limping stride under her judges’ robes.  When she lost part of her arm to cancer just over a year ago and the bone was replaced by that of a male cadaver, Tanya, always progressively working for equality, joked that now she could use whichever restroom she wanted.  Last summer, when a tumor was removed from her spine, causing her to wear a chunky, white, plastic back brace, she joked that she looked like a storm trooper bar maid.  And throughout her battle with cancer, Tanya worked from her various hospital rooms to raise money and notoriety for the Sarcoma Warriors Foundation.

When she entered hospice care, my spunky sister-in-law wrote what she called her “concession speech”.  It’s printed in full online, and you should all read it.  But here’s a sneak peek: “We all die, right? And we all know we're going to die someday. That's part of living. Perhaps it's because of this that I feel strangely calm about knowing that it will be cancer that kills me. I have many nights in the hospital room to reflect on life and death, and I tell you truly that I am not scared to die...My children, my parents, my husband, and my dear friends will cry, and wonder, and question their faith. I wish that I were able to make everyone feel as calm as I do...I hate that I'm leaving the party early, but am awed by being on the brink of taking the next step which we all should be looking forward to.”

Weeks later, my husband’s brother told me this story: The day after Tanya died, before their family left Duke, he asked the kids where they wanted to get lunch, and Will, who is in middle school, asked to go to a burger place on the other side of town.  Obviously, Chris said yes.  As the three of them were eating lunch, “Here Comes the Sun”, by the Beatles, came through the restaurant speakers.  Will smiled for the first time that day, because that was their “family song”.  The next song was “Stand By Me”, the title song from Tanya's favorite movie.  What are the odds? Will then went up to order a sundae and the woman at the counter made it herself and then didn’t charge him, so he went back to the booth.  Minutes later the woman came out with another sundae for Sabin, saying they just looked like they needed it.  Chris said he looked around for anyone in the restaurant who knew them and what they had just been through, and seeing no one, asked the woman why she did this.  She pulled up a chair and replied, “My father died four years ago today of cancer; I guess I just thought I could do something for someone else today.”  She had no idea that they had just been through something painfully similar.  We concluded that somehow Tanya must have had a hand in all of this.  She would have loved every detail.

From Tanya, my family has learned that in the darkest night, there is always a sunrise just ahead.  In the midst of the darkness of our lives, we can rest in peace knowing that, thanks be to God, we can all look forward to the light there is to come, or as Tanya put it, “the next step which we should all be looking forward to.” In the meantime, let us live our lives as Tanya did, shining forth the light of Christ to others.

“Here comes the sun, / Here comes the sun, / And I say, It’s all right.”

“Jesus Christ is the light of the world; the light no darkness can overcome.”

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Be Inspired!

Inspiration comes from many sources.  In fact, it's around us all the time, but it's up to us to listen, to allow it to enter us.

It's easy to fill our lives with noise.  I'm constantly moving from one task to the other: working, picking up the kids, making dinner, giving the kids baths, reading bedtime stories, answering the requests for water, tissues, another tuck-in, a missing stuffed animal, then bathing, making lunches for the next day, and maybe--just maybe--watching a show I missed when it originally aired or reading a chapter of one of the pile of books on my nightstand.  I sleep well at night.

It's difficult to cultivate the quiet moments for ourselves.  But we must.

Recently I took a group of five high school seniors to the state literary meet.  They competed in extemporaneous speaking, extemporaneous essay writing and humorous oral interpretation (reading). This trip is always one of the highlights of my academic year as a teacher, and it isn't because we perform well.  It isn't because I love the thrill of competition.  It isn't because I like to show off how wonderful my students are.

It's because on this trip we create inspirational moments.

The meet is held just outside Charleston, SC, so it's a haul for us; thus, we load the van and drive down the night before to ensure a good night's sleep.  The kids are always so focused on the competition, on the performance, and I find myself time and again reminding them that they will be fine, that they need not overprepare, that the true purpose of this trip is to enjoy.

Our first stop this year was to a hidden beach on Sullivan's Island from which we could see the skyline of Charleston, the history of Fort Sumter, and the loneliness of the Morris Island Lighthouse.  It was sunset, and a couple was having engagement photos taken, so there was a beautiful ring of candles set up on the beach.  The kids climbed up on rocks and marvelled at the pelicans swooping through the air and the sailboats coming into focus as they entered the harbor.  Two of my students rain straight for the water and began frolicking, shoeless, in the freezing ocean.  Inspiration indeed.

After dinner at Poe's Tavern (a literary pilgrimage for certain--I recommend the "Sleeper" and the "Black Cat"), we went to the vast public beach which was completely empty.  The touristy restaurants and rentals were dark, allowing the stars to fill the night, and there was only the sounds of the surf and the six people frolicking in the sea foam.  We walked for an hour on the beach, just talking and laughing, commenting regularly on the beauty of the moon, the stars, and the inky black sea.  We talked respectfully about politics.  We joked about the books we loved as kids.  We sang songs from Moana.  Everyone named their favorite genre of book.  When we returned to our access path the sea had taken some of our shoes, so there was much ado about their recovery.

We never talked about the upcoming meet.  Because it wasn't about that.  It was about just being together.  It was about listening, sharing, being inspired.

The next day they enjoyed competing, and two of them placed (4th and 1st in the state in their categories).  Yet I like to think we all learned something on the trip as well.  Maybe inspiration isn't all about preparation.  Maybe inspiration isn't all about makng sure everything goes exactly to plan.  Maybe inspiration isn't all about trying to solve a problem or waiting anxiously for the arrival of a spark.  Maybe inspiration begins with listening to others and to ourselves--and honoring what we hear.