The Thing I Call “Inspiration”

08 February 2019 on Fiction, Storystorm  

I used to think that to be a writer, I have to be creative—to have a well of stories singing within me, to have dreams that will create either chaos or a change in the world, to have the answers to everything in real life and the lives of my characters. Because of this belief, for the longest time, while I took secret joy in writing, I felt, in more than one way, inferior when I compared myself with other writers. While their characters went on a great adventure into a fantastical world, mine sat alone by a window staring at the downpouring rain; while their characters had something deep and profound to say, mine hopped over puddles like a child who refused to grow up; while theirs were victorious, mine crumbled like dust.

I began to question myself: why could I never come out with something life-changing? Why are my characters all so similar to each other? Why are they all breaking? What does “agency” even mean?—the latter I’ve probably Googled more than five times since coming to UNH but I never could quite remember its meaning.

Perhaps I simply lack imagination—the imagination C.S. Lewis had when he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia (who was and is the reason I became a writer.) And while this revelation pained me, I couldn’t stop writing, not for the lack of trying, but because writing comes naturally and I just have to write.

So what should I write about, then, if not grand adventures or harrowing tales that either end in triumph or great, meaningful, painful despair?

When I focused more on writing poetry in my undergrad, I learned about being vulnerable in my writing. Learning to put myself out there on the page for everyone to see was a daunting thing to learn. And add to the fact that I’m an introverted Asian international student fresh off the boat… It was a highly interesting time. So instead of trying to imagine a story or a poem, I started writing from experiences. My own, or gathered from other sources. After all, I’ve lived through enough to have a good storage of writing materials for a few years. Or so I thought.

During my senior year, I ran out of things to write. Recycling themes—sometimes it’s good to keep writing about the same theme/issue/subject if only to get it out of your system so you can move on to new ones—didn’t sound appealing and I grew tired of wondering if this poem or story was going to be my last. I wasn’t “inspired” enough.

But then I started questioning myself about what I thought “inspiration” meant to me and what “inspired” me. This past December, I attended a conference where I bought no less than 6 nonfiction books, and, to my surprise, realized that many of them had to do with human trafficking and incarceration. I began to read (though I’m not done reading them yet) and found myself starting to feel, to care about these unseen issues. Plots sprung to mind, and I finally feel a sense of purpose.

I love the word “unsettling” because I’m starting to figure out how to weave what I’ve seen and read into small, quiet corners of my fiction world. The hidden cellars, the humid attic in summer, the dried-up pond in an abandoned playground. I’m learning to stop wishing for drama on my characters (though I would greatly appreciate the drama if it happens—I’ll call it a miracle and move on) and to be content in the quietness of my world, knowing that my world is trying to say something.

I guess what I want to say about inspiration and writing is that you don’t have to feel as if you have to be like others. If you’re stuck, read something you’d wouldn’t normally read, be it a mystery or a sci-fi novel, a collection of poetry, a nonfiction book on disordered eating or an online article on politics; go listen to music, watch a movie, take a break, look around, and write. I think you will find it quite hard to run out of things to write about.

Sze Ying Lim is a fiction reader for Barnstorm.

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