In a quest to find a required book for my class, I walked to West Side Book Shop through a misty haze of rain and snow last Sunday afternoon. After five minutes of sitting on one of the mini step stools, straining my eyes for the title, the bookseller asked me what I was looking for. He pulled a stool next to his checkout desk for us to discuss the book in question, which brought us to other conversations.
He told me that a year ago he wrote a play. I told him that I’m writing stories and poetry. Before transferring to Michigan, I spent my free time sitting along Lake Michigan. I told the bookseller about the diary entries I used to start stories, and descriptions to jumpstart inspiration:
“In late May, winter jumps to summer in a day where happiness is palpable, and people nod quietly and smile. It’s 72 and blue-skied. Here, in the northernmost neighborhood of Chicago, beach-goers are pilgrims, hauling offerings of rainbow-striped towels, unevenly spread sunscreen and strappy flip-flops to the narrow beaches that cling to the lake.”
He and I spoke for an hour about how we become inspired to write. The man pointed to a framed poster on the wall above him. Along with a grayed photograph of Jack London, it read, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” With the help of a stranger, I realized that instead of forcing myself to make “write more” as a New Year’s resolution again, “get inspired” felt more fitting.
My troubles with inspiration were finally explained to me in the short story “The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973” in one of my English classes. It was about a man who felt overwhelmed by the world, so he decided to try to understand one day. He read that one particular day’s newspapers in every language, forcing him to learn every language in the world. Newspaper clippings, photographs, charts and maps became the wallpaper of his home, drowning him in a sea of information.
I related to this narrator’s anxieties. What if we could just get one thing right, like the protagonist of the story? What if we could understand a single word — a single day — in its entirety? Would unlocking the meaning of that single thing be the key to understanding everything? I’ve realized that it’s not about trying to understand everything, but understanding or observing something that’s already around me.
Again struggling to find inspiration during this winter break, I found Dave Eggers’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” Eggers captures the insanity of what it means to feel and to be alive with eloquence and humor. It was reading, experiencing movies and music and the environment around me that inspired me to write again. After finishing the novel, I couldn’t sleep. I needed to channel my energy somewhere, so I took my computer and typed the start of a story.
Though as I copy this down now, huddled in the snows of a Michigan winter, my goal remains unchanged. My resolution for the year is to welcome inspiration wherever it may be found, crack open my laptop and start a new page.