Most artists probably would agree that inspiration constitutes an integral part of the creative process. It seems I can have all the motivation in the world, but without inspiration, writing becomes a chore for me, an action more akin to drudgery than enjoyment. Perhaps it’s because motivation is a rational kind of activity, something you need to engage in to psych yourself up and get the job done. It’s an intellectual process, I’d say, and it’s approached more with logic than with emotion. Inspiration, on the other hand, comes from the heart and entails a spiritual element, as the name implies, and for so many it’s the fuel that burns the creative fires. The only problem is that inspiration is such a fickle mistress, coming and going only as she sees fit. So what can we do when we’re in dire need of inspiration?
I find that there are two basic ways to find inspiration, one being more active than the other: You can sit around and let inspiration come to you, or else you can go after it yourself. I think the latter is why so many of us have our favorite coffee shops and other haunts where we do our writing. These getaways provide us a comfortable setting, a retreat away from home, where we can be alone yet still be among the living. (And given the solitary nature of writing, isn’t it good for writers to get out in the real world every now and then?) The beat-up old sofa in your favorite coffee shop, that corner booth in the neighborhood diner, at the counter in your favorite dive – wherever you chose to set up camp, what you’re really doing is providing a vantage point from which to watch the world and be inspired.
For me, travel provides a never-ending source of inspiration, especially the more exotic the locale. Last month I spent two weeks traveling around Peru, and my mind is still reeling from all the colorful images and the many story ideas that lodged themselves in my brain. But, alas, those far-flung destinations are too few and far between, for my liking, and sometimes I just have to make do with what’s at hand. Those are often the times when I go in search of a simple change of scenery and hope I drum up some inspiration there. A forest, for example, or an Adirondack chair in the backyard. A bench near a pond or a picnic table at a roadside rest stop.
Call me strange, but I love to find a tree and plant myself underneath it. Sometimes I take my laptop or a notepad along, but often I go empty-handed. Every now and then I search out a tree during the daytime, but I really like to do it after dark, so I can melt into the shadows and see what’s going on around me. And I really love going late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, after most of the daylight world has gone to bed and turned the streets over to night owls and misfits. I find the best place to do this is in a local park or a stand of trees along a public thoroughfare, someplace where you can sit unobserved but still have a good vantage point. I try to avoid trees in my neighbors’ back yards, or anyone else’s back yard for that matter, because that can lead to problems.
Some might disagree, but sitting under a tree does not count as voyeurism. Look up the term voyeur in any dictionary and you’ll see it describes a person who observes others in intimate or private situations, and who usually gets some kind of kinky satisfaction out of it. I don’t get kinky satisfaction out of sitting under trees, just regular satisfaction. The kind you get when you go to the gym even though you don’t feel like it, or when you spend months trudging through a Russian novel and stick with it to the very painful end. Besides, when I’m out sitting under a tree, it’s usually in the wide open, even if I might be hidden from view myself. And people tend to not engage in very intimate activity when they’re in public spaces anyway.
When you’re sitting under a tree at three in the morning, you tend not to see too many people, however. There are long stretches of stillness, the silence emphasizing the distinct lack of any human activity whatsoever, but more often than not you’ll get sounds of some sort – the wail of train in the distance, a barking dog, the quiet rumble of a car in a back alley. But I love it when these sounds involve local wildlife. Squirrels rattling the branches overhead, strange birds cawing and bats fluttering by. Depending on where you live, these sounds could come from a black bear, moose or mountain lion. Or maybe a penguin. Once, when I was sitting under a huge elm tree in the park near my house, I listened as a raccoon shook the leaves and then made its scratchy way down the trunk right next to me, ran across the street and disappeared behind the hedge. The way the creature loped across the street, the lamplight reflecting off the fur on its back, struck me a certain way and the next day as I was working on a story I incorporated a scene with a raccoon humping across the street. I love raccoons.
Human life forms become more and more scarce the later it gets, but when you sit under trees in the middle of the night you will eventually see people. Of course, I’m talking about sitting under trees when you live in an urban area; if you sit under trees out in the middle of nowhere, your chances of an unsuspecting stranger passing by and inspiring you are pretty slim. But, in your city or town, people will wander by now and again when you’re sitting under a tree in the middle of the night, and these chance encounters can provide great inspiration. I once met a gypsy by the name of Neptuna Petulengro under a tree and she gets an entire chapter in a book I have coming out next year.
One chilly night not too long ago I found myself wide awake at four o’clock in the morning, so I got out of bed, put on some jeans and a sweater and walked over to the park. Other than the dull flashing of the traffic lights, the normally busy intersection I had to cross was totally devoid of activity as I entered the park and followed the path up the hill into the trees. The leaves had just started to change and several cascaded to the ground as I went in search of an inviting canopy. I found a large oak and took a seat between two exposed roots right as three young deer came running across the meadow and bounded off into the nearest thicket. I could still hear them crashing in the underbrush when an owl started hooting in the topmost branches of a dead tree nearby. Off in the distance, another owl hooted its response and I smiled to myself because it was such a wonderful feeling to be sitting under a tree and breathing the frosted air while animals went about their regular routines. As if to add their two cents’ worth, a dozen honking Canada geese dropped from the sky and started to waddle around the meadow below me. I watched them for a half hour and then I noticed something interesting: As fingers of sun started piercing the horizon, fog seemed to magically rise from the ground and envelop the geese, leaving only their bobbing heads and dark beaks visible above the mist. The image had such a dreamlike quality about it that I made an instant note to myself to somehow include it in a future story.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, there was a commotion and the geese started honking. Then, one by one, they jumped up into the air and fluttered away in group flight. I watched them disappear into the brightening sky and when I looked down to the meadow, I discovered what had scared the birds away. In the haze, six distant figures could be seen approaching the flat expanse of grass and when they reached the spot where the geese had been, they formed a circle. That’s when I saw that they were wearing hooded white robes and appeared to be modern-day druids. Jackpot! I watched as they performed some kind of ritual that involved raised hands and unintelligible chanting and swaying back and forth. Fascinated, I sat under my tree and watched for at least fifteen minutes before they wrapped up their ceremony and went back the way they came. By then the rising sun had burned off most of the fog, but enough darkness remained so that it looked like they were swallowed up by the night as they disappeared.
Several minutes later, I rose from my spot under the tree and returned home. As I walked, I realized that it was the first day of fall, and the ritual I had just witnessed must have been related to the equinox and some kind of pagan holy day. Pagans in Louisville, Kentucky? Whatever it was, the sight had swept me away for a short while and removed me to a different place and time, and I was grateful for the experience. I don’t know if other people would have found such a spectacle inspiring, but for me it was exactly that. It reminded me that inspiration sometimes comes when and where you least expect it and that as artists we need to keep our eyes open and see the strangeness and wonder and beauty that is out there at every turn. Our job is to go out there and search out these sources of inspiration and then share them as best as we can.
I haven’t incorporated a druid scene into my writing yet, but the vision from that night is still there, at the back of my mind, securely stored away among images from previous nocturnal outings and hours spent sitting under trees. Memories of forest animals and hauntingly beautiful hoot owls, smells of dead leaves and dewy grass, the distant sounds of a lover’s quarrel and homeless people pushing creaking shopping carts over bumpy sidewalks. Sometime in the future, that image will make it onto the pages of something I’ll write, in some form or other – I can assure of you of that. In the meantime I plan on sitting under many more trees and seeing what the muses throw my way.