Monthly Archives: September 2014

Inspiration for writing?




Someone on a writers’ post recently said that you must have inspiration in order to be a writer. I couldn’t agree less. But it’s complicated and subtle, so I will work it out with you here.
To begin with, I prefer not to use the label “writer,” because, to my mind, one does not “become a writer,” one writes, and keeps writing; that’s the deal. That’s the core of it. To twist semantics a bit, a writer is a constant verb, not a noun or title: a writer constantly writes. Not necessarily to schedule, repeatedly, through thick and thin; but regularly, seriously, and with full commitment.
If you are not ‘inspired,’ are you then not successful at writing?
So many people use the word inspiration so loosely that it ceases to have meaning, or becomes something cheap, something like magic. Theologically speaking, the word has a definite meaning, “a divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul.” So, are we saying that we are, or need to be, blessed with something from the divine before we can write well? Or are we using the word as some kind of generic, but amorphous ‘truthy’ about what energizes creative people? I personally think we throw the word about far too blithely.
Certainly, we have to be energized and thoroughly engaged with our writing in order to raise it above the pedestrian and mundane. (Although one could argue that some bad writers can be thoroughly engaged and still write badly, simply because they have not put in the work to become good writers. We each work within our own limits.) What makes a good or great writer – other than the consensus among readers that the writer is such – is not this generic happenstance we call inspiration. After all, if we are to use the word meaningfully, we must be clear on what we mean. Are we talking about imagination alone? A sudden moment of excitement about an idea, that we carry forth into articulation? A sense of mission? A commitment to speaking truth, or justice, or beauty? I would suggest that we use inspiration to mean all of these things and more, so that it has become a meaningless commonplace – in short, not a truth but a ‘truthy,’ something we cheapen by bandying it about so blithely, as if we, the artist- writers, own it. Romanticism aside, the notion of inspiration, or the muse, coming to the writer, is anachronistic, tired, and, to my mind, an insult to the serious writer.
That said, there has to be some drive, above and beyond the automatic, scheduled, sitting down at the desk and putting words together. I would think that is so obvious as to no longer need discussion. But what raises mere keyboarding and articulation of an idea from the pedestrian to the level of good or great? Your idea might be mind-blowing, but if you can’t adequately articulate it, in all its nuances, then you still have to develop as a writer. You have work to do; and you do it then, at the time, and later, when you re-think and re-write. That is the challenge, and that is what we dream ourselves into as writers, the expression of that which has not yet been said, made manifest. Only hard work will allow us to articulate, or express, if you prefer, the imagined thing, or the half-imagined, half-spoken thing in our mind.
Granted, if your ideas are not original, not above par, then you have little driving the writing towards greatness, or even competence. But if you have not put in the hard, hard graft of writing for years and years, no amount of so-called inspiration will make your idea come to life, or make it compelling to readers. A bad writer is bad not only because they haven’t done the work, and probably also haven’t the mental, imaginative scope to think beyond the superficial and shopworn; a bad writer is bad because he or she has not evolved, by exercising both mind and craft and pushing both to the limit of the writer’s potential. It’s not just applying oneself to the craft that makes you a writer (the perspiration of craft), it is also the perspiration applied to thinking, to testing meaning, imagination, rhetoric, even logic. The two, combined, represent what we call inspiration. You have to work at both, every time you sit down to apply yourself to writing you consider meaningful.
You generate the ‘inspiration;’ it’s called using your mind to its fullest. And you do that hand-in-glove with the craft of writing, for which there is no better teacher than doing the hard work. The source of “inspiration” may be ultimately unknowable, but the part of it that we can turn into words, can make manifest in mind and then on the page, clarifies through hard work and commitment to thinking and craft. The two are inextricably paired.
A propos of this, I’m reminded of a scenario involving (I think) Kurt Vonnegut. It may be apocryphal, but it still rings true. Vonnegut was asked to give a lecture at a university on the craft of writing. Naturally, the lecture hall was packed with would-be writers, agog for the wisdom of this so-renowned, even genius, writer. Vonnegut walked to the lectern, looked out on the audience and said, “What the hell are you all doing here? Go home and write!” He then left the stage.


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Sample – Upcoming Novel “Buffalo Roam.”

Chung King House

Image, Kowloon. I stayed in this mansion for four days, sleeping on two vinyl chairs in a room the size of a cupboard.

This is my new Dystopian novel, set on the American continent, near the Mojave Desert. But for the untamable spaces, the continent, from Canada down through the South American countries, is a sprawl of cities. Most of them are barely functioning. Think feudalism and the remains of high-tech, and you get the socio-political picture.

Chapter One
Januta held the arrow tip steady, just above the water’s surface, watching, waiting for the micro-second of release. The half hour of motionless attention was all but nothing to her; she had trained her muscles so that they seldom twitched, despite the escalating pain. Her father had sharpened the arrow’s metal point to a razor’s edge, even while laughing at her chances. No arrow, they said, would cut through the armour of these manufactured Warrior fish. Januta was determined to prove them wrong, to slug home with a giant one strapped to a pole. Then they could wrench it open, scale by scale, and finally see what it was made of.
They probably were foul to eat, maybe not even flesh at all underneath those white “Teflon scales,” as her grandfather called them. But she would have one, today. She would prove that they could get their revenge on DevaCity, on the genetic engineers who had released these monsters that consumed everything in the murky waters. These bitches ate through nets effortlessly. Their razor scales sliced through any trap.
If she could just kill one, they’d stop laughing. And then they could hunt them to extinction and maybe, just maybe, bring the carp and the salmon and the trout back.
Januta’s painstakingly trained eyes differentiated tones of white that moved in the current. She saw weeds, tubers, bellies of dead fish. Way down in the murk, a large carp swayed, rooting in rot, but Januta ignored it. Today was about the capture of a Warrior.
At last she saw one, just at the edge of her vision. She knew its predatory drift – a seemingly effortless line, straight, unbending. Warriors sliced straight, upstream or down, flying with incredible speed once locked onto prey, and never missing.
This one came on, from the edge of her sight, closer, closer. She willed her arms not to bounce with her pounding heart. She had to fire before it spied prey and vanished. Her throat constricted. It came on. She was nothing but her fingertips, her eyes and the arrow point. The Warrior fish inched directly under the arrowhead and her entire body disappeared from consciousness. She felt the split-second of opportunity and her fingertips released. The arrow plunged, spraying foam.
Two seconds. She peered through ripples.
She looked downstream and saw her arrow floating. Again, it had hit and deflected. Again!! Januta jumped into the current and slogged angrily downstream. She swore brazenly then stopped dead in the water, ignoring the chill creeping through her leather trousers, and apologized to the river spirit.
“Forgive my mind pollution,” she said earnestly. “I was angry. You know why.”
Back on the bank, she slipped her arrow into its hard sheath and retrieved a wooden barbed fishing-arrow.
“Please bring me a carp then,” she asked resignedly. At least she could feed herself and her father tonight.
No, she would feed all of them. She looked to the sun, low in the sky. Dusk would come soon, but she would kill a few big carp before it was too dark to see, then bring them to the communal fire. Their smiles would be her reward this night. “Good ol’ Januta has fed us again,” their minds would say as they slurped the tenderly baked fish.
They would realize, at least, that she excelled at what she loved best. Warrior fish or no, thirteen or no, she was a primo hunter. Even Carson, one day, would acknowledge that. She pictured the rifleman’s long stride, his malamute-blue eyes and long black hair, then purposefully refocused on the water. She spied a fat carp and pulled the waxed twine taut.
DevaCity 1 – Everyday.
The day they cloned and revived Jerry Springer, Peter was sitting on the decrepit couch in his neighbour’s apartment. He groaned at Springer’s face on the wall screen, took his jacket from the couch, and walked to the corner PharmaFair where he signed himself back onto anti-depressants.
The clerk tried to sell him Neuphoria for, as she’d said, “Everything – panic attacks, palpitations, anxiety…”
“Is there a difference between a panic attack and palpitations?” Peter asked.
“Oh mose def.,” she burbled. “The studies show ever so. Too fine for us to ken but, you know…” Her fingers deftly called up a score of extra selling points for Neuphoria in image and vid on the cashier interface. Neuphoria was the panacea for an infinite list: sexual dysfunction, aversion to pedophiles, racist thoughts, chronic rage, genetic frustration, foggy thinking, or “kenning” as she called it.
He left PharmaFair totally disgusted with her sect, the Nu-Gospel Kenners, and wishing he had known of her existence ahead of time. He could have borrowed his neighbour’s Taser.
Another summer hailstorm darkened the sky and slashed needlepoints into his face and hands, then blew away, leaving hailstones melting in his hair. At least the comfort of his enclosed cell, with its single bed, toilet, sink, and ancient microwave awaited him.
Street-fear would probably stay with him for life. Four months of skid row, over a decade back, had stripped his spirit naked, eaten into his mind. Now his soul prayed for continued shelter.
When he was locked in, safe and hidden, he sometimes wrote, between long bouts of drugged, abnormal sleep. He would re-read the last paragraph he had written, then take some pills and sleep. Eating was overrated. Maybe tomorrow he would eat.
Home. He stepped around the shopping cart that some persevering vandal had rammed through the wired-glass lobby doors since he had been gone. His feet crunched across broken glass to the elevators, where he pushed at the shit-smeared elevator button with a piece of broken floor tile. He counted to ten, surrounded by silence, then climbed the garbage-strewn stairs. Home was on the fifth floor. The fifth floor of purgatory. Hell was the streets; purgatory had a locked door and a working computer.
If it also contained his cat, Lucy, he would have his small piece of heaven. But the Residence Officer had caught him smuggling her in, and reported him to the Life and Wellness bureaucrats, and that had been the end of it. Live in his cell, cat-less, or keep her and return to the streets.
Homeless, they would have died. He didn’t have it in him any more. So he had convinced himself of the Life and Wellness lie that they would adopt Lucy out, and had taken the cell. The shame just kept piling up in him like dust… He wrote, now, to atone for the shame of letting her go.
Home. Peter stood in the hallway’s funk of stale tobacco and pot. The door swung open to his touch, the lock and frame smashed. His gut plummeted and his heart hammered in his throat. ‘Thank god no Lucy,’ his mind bleated desperately. ‘At least they couldn’t have hurt her.’ He turned about on the patch of linoleum that was his living space. ‘No Lucy, no Lucy, thank God.’ But that blessing withered as the reality broke through and stared at him, hard, through the computer screen. He froze, blood draining from his arms, his head, his chest. He felt blinded. He collapsed on the desk chair.
Writing. The work of a worn out Sysiphus. He knew that some day, he would reach the end, a spark-less body, like a man dying in a desert, dehydrated and hallucinating. Some day, the last word would fall from his mind and stare absurdly back at him from the screen, and he would shut down around it, a fruit shriveling back into dead seed. But not like this. His eyes stared into the empty, vibrating screen, uncomprehending. Why had they done this?
Tears welled up and trickled as he stared into nothing. He gripped his head in his large hands and squeezed his skull, and a thin whine escaped him. They had wiped everything from his computer. Everything. Not a single icon had been left behind.
All the work he had ever done, erased. Every photograph, his parents, his nature scenes, animals, every single picture of Lucy… His library.
Every word he had ever written. Every measly story and article published. Every. Single. Thing.
The worst of it was, he knew he had brought this on himself. Nobody trusted the Ether; it collected everything, knew everything in time. His gut had told him, just as he was tapping the keys, “Don’t do a search. Just live with it. Tell nothing.” But he had gone ahead, searched for case histories, diagnoses, ways to manage whatever it was. He had been pleased to find something that seemed to match. Health and Wellness, and all the pharma Avatars he had talked with, had said much the same… PDD, Psychic Delusion Disorder. They said his “friend” had all the symptoms: benign presences that spoke with you, especially in those split-seconds before sleep; dreams in unknown tongues; massive, symphonic delusions of sublime, or terrifying music; future visions, clairvoyance, especially with numbers and seemingly irrelevant, casual conversations of others…” The list was exhaustive, and he had experienced ninety-percent of them.
One PhD. theorist, a white-bearded ancient of at least sixty years old, was on vid saying that it was a phenomenon of the Ether Age, with everyone, (he used the antique phrase), “plugged in” and matrixed on so many levels. He blamed it on “Subliminal Data Overkill,” and advised the government and everyone in general that constant “floating the Ethernet” caused psychic overload, hence, delusional symptoms. Peter had thought it yet another conspiracy theory designed to keep everyone terrified of floating, of information itself. Another way to make people even dumber than they were. And he had kept on floating, a PDD transgressing protocols at every opportunity, and even sending his etheric double into Deep Fathom Ether once in a while.
So they knew. When the Ether knew, the bureaucracy of the entire continent got the message, literally. He had been flagged, then. As he had feared, they had then begun constant surveillance.
He had taken some precautions. He’d stored his writing – books and essays and studies of himself, his mind – for publishers who no longer existed and readers who had vanished – on three pirate Net clouds, and on off-board storage. He had been careful, had replicated everything but the junk – and they had taken even that. Deva, the police, some cruel bureaucrat, had rubbed out every word. They had been viciously thorough, left his room ransacked, found the flash drive he taped under the lid of the toilet tank, the other he hid between the floor joists under the kitchen tile. Finally, as a sign of utter contempt, they had brought in a shredder and shredded every single sheet of paper, every magazine, every secret journal in his shoddy home.
They didn’t kill most PDDs, perhaps because they were usually so young. They sent them off to what Health and Wellness called Advancing Schools – a euphemism, as everyone knew, for prison-asylums. Those kids never saw home, the streets, their friends, ever again.
But they had finally killed him.
For no reason. He had harmed no-one. Wouldn’t harm anyone. His only form of rebellion was being a grouch – and – now it was evident – thinking and writing.
That was it. They had killed him because he pushed his mind, and because they could.
All they had left him was his identity: a rice pellet under the skin of his forearm.

© A.H. Richards, 2014. All rights reserved.

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Writer’s Block: The Myth – The Movie



I had an idea put to me on this subject – that I was just playing with semantics when I talked about writer’s block, the myth, and the process of writing, relaxing and such. So, not wanting to be misunderstood, I have updated this post. I still don’t believe in writer’s block – except as something that others believe in, and harm themselves in so doing. I hope, sincerely, that this little post does some good in that regard. And thanks, Henry Tobias, for your point about semantics.

Here’s my newer, and I hope, clearer, version.

The scourge of writer’s everywhere; that menace every novice author or poet is told of, almost at once; writer’s block sits in the writer’s consciousness like a stone succubus. We all accept, when we are too young to know better, that writer’s block comes with the territory. We all accept that we will be attacked and overwhelmed by it regularly, and that it represents agonizing frustration and a source of depression and (hopefully fleeting) madness unique to the writers’ calling.

It certainly has become shopworn and cliche. “Expect writer’s block. Dread it.” At the same time, the subtext runs, “Celebrate it, as a sign of the writer’s martyrdom to the profound cause.” After all, there is nothing like suffering to ramp up one’s value, in any field of endeavour. Ironically, it is the image, the belief in the myth – of a huge, immovable brain blockage – which is so effective in making us ineffective as writers. The more we believe in it, the more implacably effective it seems to be.

I no longer believe in writer’s block. It is a myth at best, and a writerly excuse at worst. It is an excuse if the writer does not try to see around or through it, and does not do the internal exploration and assessment to clarify what it truly is. How is it triggered, for instance? Fear? Insecurity? A sudden, indifferent exit by one’s muse? What makes it this monolithic ‘block’? Some deep, Freudian-like psychic impediment which attacks only writers? Something inherent in the mind of one who imagines greatly and often? Simply a fact of writerly life, which does not bear or need investigation?

At the risk of being vilified for shooting the literary Holy Cow, I stick to my guns. There is no block. There is nothing outside oneself that descends, blocking words from appearing on a blank page or screen. There is no special malaise, unique to the writer, any more than there is ‘painter’s block’ or ‘sculptor’s block,’ – the exception being perhaps an actor’s near literal block while performing; when one’s throat and mind block utterance and memory of the script. This, I think, is born out of a sudden dissociation from being “in character,” and suffering that horrible vulnerability which attacks one performing live before other humans.

But back to this mysterious “writer’s block.” I much prefer to slay this dragon by considering it and envisioning it in a more manageable and positive way…

If we dispense with this Romantic cliché; if we are truly dedicated to the commitment of writing, then it is a good thing to let go of that monolith. Let it float into the arctic black of the cosmos, never to return. There is no writer’s block, unless you accept that there is; unless you revel in the myth. And I really do think it’s a myth, born out of the Romantic notion of the artist/writer suffering for their art, and suffering agonies when the “muse” deserted them. I’m not even sure that the Romantic writers we read actually believed in this. They were writer’s after all, and understood the many demands and tasks involved in completing a work. Sitting around waiting for their individual muse to show up was not really part of the job.

I don’t have a muse. I just work, in some task or other that contributes to the writing, almost every day. And when I don’t feel the urge and don’t have ideas, I don’t attribute it to writer’s block. I accept that nothing’s coming, and get on with something else. For me, there is no block – there are just different days, each with their own kind of work. My point, in short, is that there are many things a writer needs to do. That’s not semantics; it’s the reality of the creative life.

I think it’s more accurate to conceive that what happens, is writer’s fatigue. It comes when one has put countless words on scores of pages. That is only, however, the fatigue of being in that particular writer’s “zone” and putting down words toward the finished piece per se. But being a writer is more than that – and that is where “writer’s block” is a myth and an impediment. Realistically, writing is not all sitting at the keyboard hammering out the inspired prose or poetry or non-fiction. It’s plotting story, developing characters, adding notes about ideas, developing a section not yet added to the work per se, doing essential research so that you can move on to the next idea. I guess what I’m saying is that writing is multi-tasking,(for me, at least – and, I suspect, a good many other writers) and that there is always other work to be getting on with. That other work, in itself, can be the “holiday” from writing the actual prose or poetry, if you must think of it that way, but it’s still essential writing work. It is all the work of the writer, pure and simple, no less important than actually typing the work in question. Emma Donoghue gave a talk in which she described doing research for her bestselling novel “Room.” It included talking her young son into rolling himself up in the living room carpet, so that he could tell her how it felt, and she could see how it looked, how it could be carried, and so on. Okay, that’s an extreme example; but it’s no less true. Writers work at the desk and away from the desk. And, like anyone else on the planet, sometimes they choose not to work at all. Why should the writer only be validated, and guilt-free, when hammering away at the keyboard in that exquisite zone of writerly “inspiration”? The notion is a crippling one, and “writer’s block” is part and parcel of this unrealistic notion.

I object to the myth of writer’s block, also, because so many people take it as a given, in that Romantic sense, and blame it for their inability to work, sometimes even before they have so much as sat at the desk, or opened the note-book. Does “writer’s block” attack before one has written a syllable? Is it something like a migraine, or the horrible vacancy and helplessness of depression? (something I know intimately, having lived with it for decades). I believe that people believe it is – but it’s not something I want any part of. It’s too likely, seen in this light, to be an excuse, the submission to one’s imagined fear and struggle, and a continuing source of guilt, which in itself creates impotence and misery.

When effective images, phrases, words do not cohere, when they stumble and stutter and finally thin out and evaporate, these inarticulate moments are the fumes from a tank that is now empty of fuel, in terms of focusing on the specific ‘keyboarding’ of the story or article or study or essay. Every mind, in this process is stretched taut, so to speak. Like a guitar string, if it is not stretched taut, it has no note, no sound. But guitar strings suffer fatigue, lose their elasticity; then their brilliance dulls; and, stretched too long, the string snaps and one must buy a new one.

A new brain, it’s not possible to purchase; but if you take your metaphorical hands off it, stop crushing and manipulating it, squeezing it for those last fumes that will not form into words, then you will revive the mind. If you stop wringing your hands over the horrible “block” that has somehow appeared, stop automatically diving into guilt, then you might just find that that monolithic “writer’s block” dissolves, vanishes, and you are free of its weight. In fact, it suddenly becomes clear that it was a creation of guilt and myth, and not a real obstacle at all. Sometimes, all your brain needs – and that includes the vast percentage of mind we don’t think does much of anything, which is a vicious rumour – is new focus. Focus the brain away from the draft of the work per se, and get on with something else related to pushing the work forward. Your mind will tell you when it’s ready for the particular work of the prose or poetry itself. It will return and stand in your mind’s hallway, with the taxi ticking outside, dump its luggage and say “I’m hooome! You owe the cab $55.” Which, of course, you will rush out and pay, because you are so happy to see your rejuvenated mind in fine fettle, ready for the story or essay or poem. After all, writing the story, or poem or essay itself is the most fun of everything you need to do.

There is no writer’s block; it’s simply that you haven’t the fuel (which could be the solidified idea, the extra dimension to the character, the particular piece of research that completes the puzzle) to carry on directly with the next chapter or paragraph of the novel or poem line or essay line. Focus on something other than that specific part of the work. Make a cup of tea while ruminating. Look at photographs, or simply wash dishes. I do all of these, but all the while I’m working things through, listening to my mind, which never really stops except to sleep. And 99% of the time, I find that my mind is still working on the writing. All I need do is listen, and follow its dictates. There is no block. There is the multi-valent process of creation, which some days asks different things of you. That’s a constant process of solving the puzzle or mystery of the thing being created, rather than imagining, and then surrendering to a horrible, well-nigh immovable impediment to one aspect of the process. And if you don’t want to write at all one day, is that a crime? Perhaps it’s just a choice, something allowed most humans on the planet. What it certainly is not, is a block, a curse or a cause for guilt.


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