Looking for Inspiration in a "Life" Worth Writing and Reading About

What makes a writer write?

It’s a fairly simple question, fraught with complexity, that often birddogs me when I find myself enjoying something I’m reading, whether poetry or prose. What caused this author to choose this particular subject and expound upon it for 5, 500, 5,000 or 50,000 words? What compelled him or her to convey these thoughts to me, at this time, in this format? What, ultimately, was the inspiration for this thing I hold in my hand?

beg-borrow-steal-hirezI think this way whether as a writer or a reader. Or maybe I think this way because I am a writer and a reader. On some level, all word-workers are perpetual novitiates, “gradual students” continually learning the craft of writing. As such, I am always on the lookout for clues about how something I read has been constructed, or if it provides better or different solutions for doing the things I do.

As for myself, I’m constantly bombarded by influences and stimuli, but I’m not always receptive to or prepared to handle them. The change of seasons, for instance, can unexpectedly open a floodgate of emotions and memories, causing me to make sentences at random in my my mind, with no apparent purpose: little descriptions of things I am observing (“the coloratura of autumn leaves,” “the symphonic arrival of a flock of geese”), an imagined dialogue between people who may not even exist, etc. During a recent morning walk I was so overwhelmed by an upwelling of words, almost-words, and whimsy that I had to stop what I was doing and start the recording device on my iPhone to capture the gibberish that was burbling in my head — fodder for some future use as a poem or a story, or even a blog entry, I hope, if I can make sense of it all.

Other sources of inspiration include other people’s works and words. As I have written previously (here, for instance), the haiku of 18th century Japanese poet Issa, which I receive daily via email, provide a rich (and endless) supply of nourishment. Just recently, I got two that resonated deeply with my current state of being: “honeybees –/but right next door/hornets.” Who doesn’t live that life these days, teetering between pleasure and pain?

And what about this keening little gem?

the pony also
sets off on a journey…
autumn dusk.

Each of these three-liners packs a wallop and stops me, wham! in my tracks. I must react to them, captivated by what they mean or might mean, and curious about what they seem to mean to me. But only for a moment. Then I set off again, seeking a little honeyed indulgence elsewhere (while trying to avoid the stinging rebukes of others) as I trod clip-clop toward the sunset.

I was reminded of my interest in the origin of inspiration while rereading Edgar Allan Poe’s spine-tingling tale, “The Cask of Amontillado,” right before Halloween. At one point in the story, Montressor, the narrator, recites the motto inscribed on his family crest: Nemo me impune lacessit. Now, I have read these words countless times but never paid much attention to their role in the story until my friend Scott scribbled them on my Facebook wall, in response to a query about which Poe tale was his favorite.

So, unsure about the motto’s meaning, I looked it up and was surprised to discover that it has nothing to do with a prominent Italian family (real or imagined) but belongs instead to The Order of the Thistle, a Scottish regiment in the British Army, and appears on the Scottish Royal Coat of Arms.

Why is this fact important? Well, for one thing this seemingly innocuous Latin phrase, uttered almost in passing, forms the crux of the story. Translated as “no one attacks me with impunity,” it proves to be both the death sentence for the insulting (and drunkenly oblivious) Fortunato, and the acquittal for the murderous narrator. It’s a chilling revelation.

More to the point, because Edgar Poe was adopted as a boy by the family of a Scottish merchant (the Allans), he would likely have encountered the motto somewhere in the household growing up. So it seems to me that mighty little phrase might serve as a source of inspiration for this cleverly twisted story. But which came first, the idea for the deadly revenge plot or an understanding of the implications of honoring those four words?

Not that knowing the answers here matter, really, either to one’s appreciation of Poe’s skills as a storyteller or to the effectiveness of the tale itself. But having such a puzzle to solve makes “The Cask” that much more pleasurable to drink in, at least to me.

Another incident that rekindled my lust for learning about the nature of inspiration occurred recently when I received a review copy of a new book with a provocative title, Beg, Borrow, Steal, by Michael Greenberg. Although promoted as a follow-up to his acclaimed memoir Hurry Down Sunshine, which I haven’t yet read, it was the wording on the other side of the colon, “A Writer’s Life” — along with the arresting photo of a disemboweled book on the cover — that hooked me.

I know, I know: never judge a book by its catchy subtitle or its expressive artwork. But I couldn’t help myself. As I said earlier, I’m always looking for new lessons on the ways of the writer, and this seemed to feed that need. So I dove right in.

From the get-go, the writing and subject matter were compelling and enjoyable, and I soon began to wonder (as usual) what inspired Greenberg to write this new book. After I got about a third of the way through, however, realizing that it was just a loose collection of personal anecdotes, I started to think, “OK, it’s interesting, but where’s it going?” (Mind you, I’m hardly one to demand strict adherence to linearity and cohesiveness; Scribbleskiff is the antithesis to such ideals. But, come on.)

As it turns out, each of the book’s brief, concise chapters began life in a column Greenberg wrote for the Times Literary Supplement. In other words, there’s no emotional arc to follow or narrative framework to uncover in this memoir — or any literary conceit of any kind, really. What Beg, Borrow, Steal offers instead are short, largely unconnected essays on a wide range of subjects — from family life and Jewish heritage, to racism and history, social commentary, literature, the movies, and even bird-watching in Central Park, to name a few.

Not the book I was expecting and hoping for, that’s for sure. I wanted what the press materials promised, a chronicle of “the life of a writer of little means trying to practice his craft.” I wanted to learn what motivated him as a writer, how he developed his prose style, what writers he read and was inspired by, why he chose to write a memoir instead of a novel, etc. What I got was a recounting of how much he fought with his father and brothers, or how he earned his keep doing menial and often humiliating jobs, or how he helped solve the rat infestation in his neighborhood, or how he was able to get approval from his daughter for publishing his memoir about her mental “crack-up” (the aforementioned Hurry Down Sunshine). Etc. In other words, mere fragments of autobiography.

Admittedly, I am not a fan of memoirs. I don’t often trust tell-all tale-tellers. Even when (and especially if) the subject is someone I admire, I find the act of reading about another person’s personal life to be like learning the secret to a magic trick — once the thrill is gone, it’s disappointing and uninteresting. Worse, I support the belief professed by my old professor, Hayden Carruth: “All writers are custodians less of our own pasts than of others’, and we must proceed with the nicest discretion and respect.” Stuff like this makes me cringe, and I probably would have passed on this book if I had figured out what it was right away.

Is it deceptive or false advertising? I don’t think so. More likely, I was looking for something that wasn’t there in the first place. A case of mis-marketing and false hopes, perhaps.

Besides, once I got past the notion that Beg, Borrow, Steal wasn’t so much about “a writer” but about “a life,” I actually enjoyed reading much of it. For one thing, it’s chockful of great writing — most pieces are well-crafted, poignant, informative, funny, emotional and, in some cases, as compactly written as prose poems. Some were too personal and emotionally raw for my taste — making me wonder, why would he want to publish such a thing? A few vignettes, however, left me wanting more and could likely serve as source material for a larger work.

For another thing, the book proved inspiring to me. Reading the best essays in the book — such as “Milk and Honey,” “A Tailor’s Fortune,” “Zebra,” “Hart Island,” “The Sanity of Darkness,” and “Sound Booth,” for instance — made me want to get out my pen and start writing. Or, at least, click on the recorder and start jibber-jabbering, as I so often do.

In the end, after reading through Beg, Borrow, Steal, I may not know what makes Michael Greenberg write what he writes. But I do see how, when he is truly inspired, he can convey a “writer’s life” that is worth reading about.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you read Beg, Borrow, Steal or Hurry Down Sunshine? What did you think of either book? Do you wonder what inspires authors — or artists of any kind — to create their works? What inspires you? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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