Authors Electric on Inspiration
Another in an occasional series, where our writers share their sources of inspiration.
Dennis Hamley - visit website
Only once can I put my hand on my heart and say I’ve been
truly inspired to write with the sudden mysterious lightning flash we all long for. That was for Hare’s Choice, when a multitude of impressions suddenly came together to give me sight of an idea which is the nearest to truly original writing that I have ever achieved,
owing nothing to any genre which I know of.
It's a moment I can’t forget and don’t want to but something which is, I fear, fairly unlikely to happen again. But I can dream.
I must be just about the only writer in the world who doesn’t keep a notebook handy. For me, inspiration, the getting of ideas, is usually quite a mundane affair. The lucky and unlooked for juxtaposition of two TV programmes which led to Out of the Mouths of Babes. A visit to Scott’s Grotto in Ware and then a talk on eighteenth-century poetry to sixth-formers which provided the germ of Spirit of the Place. Looking back over something which happened in my life and saying, ‘Ah, but what if…?’ There’s enough material in our own lives, if we can look at it dispassionately enough, to provide seed beds for fiction which can take us far away from its origins.
Of course I listen to conversations I shouldn’t be hearing, see people with oddities enough to be memorable, and these things set me thinking - all the normal triggers which writers report. But I don’t think they’ve ever given me a whole narrative, though they’ve brought a lot of satisfying incidental joys.
Catherine Czerkawska - visit website
I generally subscribe to the notion that writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration – if I waited for inspiration to strike, I wouldn’t get much done. And I generally write a very rough first draft and then do masses of revising. But every now and then inspiration strikes and it’s a very odd feeling because the resulting piece of writing tends to emerge pretty much whole, and needs almost no structural rewriting, with only a certain amount of polishing.
It has happened to me a few times – most notably with a play called The Price of a Fish Supper. It’s a long monologue – about 50 minutes of it – and it’s an ex fisherman telling his life story, more or less. He’s sitting outside some run-down coffee bar, in some run-down harbour area - not a million miles from the town of Ayr, which used to have a thriving fishing fleet and a fish market to go with it, but now has blocks of flats and not much else. I think the Ancient Mariner was very much in my mind. He has buttonholed passers-by, the way drunks often do, and is intent on telling them his story whether they like it or not. It’s sad, distressing, moving – and occasionally very funny.
The play arrived whole. I heard ‘Rab’ in my head and I wrote down what he was saying. I hardly changed anything from start to finish. It was an extraordinary experience. It felt as though this man was in my head dictating to me and I was writing it down. It emerged almost like a long poem. The line endings mattered. It wasn’t in paragraphs at all really. It was shaped like a poem. Every last little word had its place. I could hear it.
Then, I sat on the play for a while, doing almost nothing with it. I didn’t really know what to do with it. It was too short for a full length stage play and very hard hitting, too hard hitting for your average one act play production. The language was – well, the language was what you would expect from an alcoholic ex fisherman. It was also what’s known in the business as a ‘big learn’. 50 intense minutes of it, for one actor. Then, David McLennan started producing lunchtime theatre in Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue: A Play, A Pie and A Pint. I couldn’t find an email address for David, but I had a tenuous contact in his friend and fellow actor David Anderson and I sent the play to him. He passed it onto David McLennan who replied instantly, more quickly than anyone had ever replied to any submission before, saying, ‘Yes, I want to stage this very soon.’
Gerda Stevenson directed and an amazing actor called Paul Morrow played my fisherman, Rab. I expected Gerda to ask for changes, but she didn’t. In fact we had to make one or two cuts simply for length, but she agonised over every last little cut sometimes even vetoing my suggestions. So did Paul. In fact if anything, he was even more protective of the text and Rab’s character than I was. The play was well reviewed. It went on to be staged at the Edinburgh Fringe, it was produced for BBC Radio 4 and eventually it was published by Nick Hern Books in an anthology called Scottish Shorts, where you can still read it if you want to. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Scottish-Shorts-Davey-Anderson/dp/1848420706)
I’ve sometimes thought how nice it would be to be ‘inspired’ like that more often. But I can see that there was an awful lot going on in my head, subconsciously, beforehand. What emerged was just the tip of an iceberg. And I think maybe that’s so often what even that 1% inspiration really is: your brain saying, ‘Here it is. This is what I’ve been working on while you were busy doing something else!’
I find that whenever I do something highly unusual or out of character (such as the rare occasions I'll travel the length of the country for an author visit) it shakes me out of my lethargy and wakes up huge recesses of my mind which had gone into a dark stupor. In other words, I always come home from an unusual experience with a head bursting with new ideas.
Next time I get writer's block I shall book in a parachute jump or something. The scarier the experience, the better.