The one thing that always inspires me and spurs me to write is reading great books. I don’t mean great books as in the classics or the usual headliners of modern literature; I mean books that, to my mind, are very nearly flawless in their story-telling.
My vote for probably the best book on the planet has to go to A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Unfortunately John Irving can be streaky, so if you’ve read other books by him and have come away unimpressed, you owe it to yourself to give him one last chance with Owen Meany. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of his work, head and shoulders above any of his other books. I honestly cannot imagine how he could ever top it. In this regard, it’s much like The Stand for Stephen King. Compared to The Stand, all King’s other books are pale shadows.
But back to Owen Meany. It’s a tough book to describe. It’s a coming-of-age story and a great American novel; it’s highly irreverent but intensely spiritual; it’s a tragedy but it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a scathing indictment of America and the Viet Nam era and a heartfelt testament to friendship and family. I’m sure I’ve read it 20-30 times and it still makes me laugh and cry by turns.
What’s interesting to me is the manner in which John Irving writes. He tells the story in a loosely chronological order, yet while he’s doing that, he’s all over the map. His story-telling wanders from pillar to post, yet always impels the reader slowly and irrevocably forward. Whenever I re-read the book in an analytical mood, I try to dissect that amazing disorganized-but-not style, and yet every time I get so caught up in the story itself, I forget all about the technique. I’ve never seen anyone else do this as easily and masterfully as Irving does; matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else do it at all.
In addition to that, Irving’s characters are vibrant and vital, completely three dimensional and so forceful that they almost come off the page at you. Even the less intense personalities are completely alive as Irving offhandedly drops clues about their strengths, their foibles and fears. He develops characters and backdrop so easily, it’s hard to remember exactly when the story began playing as a movie in your mind. (I should note here that the first 1/3 of the book was made into a movie called Simon Birch. Apparently because the movie was such a truncated version of the story, the name was changed, which I think was a good thing. I’d love to see the whole story told in a mini-series, as it would have to be to do it right. The movie is all right as far as it goes, but the book is significantly better.)
My second favorite book in all the world is Six of One by Rita Mae Brown. Most will remember Brown’s breakout gay novel, Rubyfruit Jungle. As sensational as that was at the time, the story-telling can’t compare to Six of One. Like Owen Meany, it details the exploits of a close-knit group of characters, primarily two sisters growing up in a town divided by the Mason-Dixon Line where the Civil War still rages on obscure metaphorical battlegrounds. The characters are wonderful, each one a masterpiece—even the ones you love to hate. As with Owen Meany, Brown finds the perfect combination of laugh-out-loud humor and heartbreaking pathos, often juxtaposed at surprising times. I’m sure I have laughed and cried my way through this one 20-30 times as well, and will do so again.
Other favorite books just a few rungs below those two are The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
What all these books have in common is that they are beautifully written and I find that reading quality stories makes me want to write quality stories. Nothing revs me up more than reading a description of a character that is so alive and so vibrant I feel like I’ve just shaken hands with them, or reading dialog that is so real it feels like the transcription of a conversation caught by hidden cameras. This sense of appreciation and inspiration washes over me so completely that it often puts me in a quandary: do I put the book aside and start writing, or do I keep reading? It can be a real tug-of-war. When the tide of inspiration floods me like that, it’s very much like a real flood: you never know how much you’re going to get or how long it’s going to last. Because of that mercurial, unpredictable nature of inspiration, it’s best to just jump in and swim while you can before it all dries up.
The “problem” with inspiration is that you can’t manufacture it. I have known writers who sit down and write for X number of hours a day, every day. I’m sure writers that do that have various motivations that I could only guess at, but to me, that’s a waste of time. If I’m not inspired, what’s the point? I’ve tried writing “commercial” novels that fit all the criteria of a publisher (pretty much like pulling teeth), but what results is just dull, flat and basically garbage and I throw it away. If it doesn’t come from my heart, if it isn’t screaming to be set down on paper, if it doesn’t have me in a strangle-hold, I don’t write it. But when it does rise up from that well within, it flows so effortlessly, there’s no stopping it. I wrote my second novel, Superstition Gold (aka Love’s Savage Embrace) in three months while working a full-time job and writing only on lunch hours, evenings and weekends. That one was in a great hurry to be born and just poured out. It is still one of my favorites.
But even if we can’t manufacture inspiration, we can still encourage it. We can open the tap and do the things that just might prime the pump and start the flow going. We can honor it and hold it gently in cupped hands, relate to it on its own terms and revel in it when it appears. We can merge our talents with it and create something new, something wonderful, something bigger than we ever thought we could.