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What inspires you?

A songwriter named Justin just threw me an email via my contact form, sharing with me a lyric he wrote with the intention of opening up a two-way avenue for sharing each other’s creative material. He told me some of the short stories he’s read on this site have inspired him to write new songs, or just have new thoughts that one day might manifest themselves into working material. He stated that, as a songwriter, he’s always looking for new thoughts, new ideas, or anything worth writing about. I know exactly what he means. Thanks Justin!

He threw out the simplest and best of questions, which is exactly the same question I’ve asked others in the past. I remember even asking Pablo Ferro a very similar question back in 2001:

What inspires you?

The thing that’s so cool about good questions is that you can learn so much about yourself by answering them. (Ain’t that what therapy is all about?) While you may know the answer in your head, the process of putting it into words is a great exercise. So,

Hi Justin,

Thanks for the email. It’s always great to roll ideas around with like minds.

What inspires me? That’s a great question. Thanks for asking. I’m big on fantasy. And I’m a huge fan of juxtaposition, metaphor, and irony. My mind has always had a heightened awareness of things that can be compared, and my tendency to recognize patterns is something I’ve never been able to shake. Sometimes it feels like a curse. A demon that’s picking on me. I suppose it comes with the territory of being a writer, particularly a storyteller. On the outside, we tend to appear preoccupied, aloof, or daydreamy, when in fact our mind is just busy noticing storytelling opportunities in everyday things. It’s not necessarily fun. The inside of my skull is a very noisy place, and is not a place to find relaxation. There is a certain absence of peace in there.

Juxtaposition: This is loosely the act of placing two very different — typically opposing — things side by side. When experienced together, there’s an explosive dynamic achieved by way of the contrast. Mash-up. I love that stuff. It keeps things from going flat, homogenized, and boring, and is a device that can be experimented with in all the arts. Music, storytelling, painting, poetry, fashion, etc.

Metaphor: Huge fan. Insatiable appetite for it. Related concepts are “analogy” and “allegory”. All involve the activity of relating something to something else. With metaphor, we’re usually drawing a comparison between two things by focusing on their similarities. (This is the opposite of juxtaposition, where we’re emphasizing contrast.) I can’t get enough of metaphor in the graphic arts; I’m a big fan of brilliant logos that play with metaphor. And, of course, my favorite area of the arts to use the metaphor device is in storytelling. There are many ways to do this; I tend to do a lot of things with anthropomorphic objects, which means that I’ll take an animal or an inanimate object and use it as a character to reflect a universal truth about the human experience.

Irony: This one’s my kryptonite. As with pastey brunettes with light eyes, I go weak in the knees when irony is used well. My favorite body of storytelling of all time is the classic mid-century television show The Twilight Zone, which is a collection of short polished films that represent what I think to be the most brilliant examples of fantasy, juxtaposition, metaphor, and irony. From existential trippiness to poignant social commentary, it just doesn’t get better than The Twilight Zone. I’ve been told that much of my work reflects that undeniable influence.

I follow my muse wherever she takes me, and it’s often more a process of discovery than invention. It’s a journey, and I often don’t know where an idea will end up. Sometimes it’ll come out as a children’s fable, other times it’ll decide to be a dark adult tragedy. But none are ever without some element that abstractly touches on the deeper levels of the human condition.

And, of course, the bittersweet beauty of getting older is that your pool of experience gets deeper, giving you richer material to use creatively. The bitter part of that beauty lies in the dark painful experiences associated with being human, which, I hope, make us better artists. The sweet part of experiencing pain is that it qualifies you to write about it, first-hand, using whatever devices you see fit. Whether it be a song, a poem, a short story, or a painting, we simply cannot write about the darker side of life with any degree of accuracy unless we’ve been there in our own shoes. On a very subtle level, people can sense when something isn’t genuine.

Thanks for sharing your stuff, and by all means, toss over any ideas you desire feedback on. Inspiration goes both ways!


1 comment… add one
  • jaced.com September 18, 2008, 4:30 pm

    The conversation continues in an email:

    How do you sort out your thoughts? Journal, taking a walk, handheld recorder?

    First of all, thanks for the questions. The mere process of answering them helps me understand more about myself. Which is a healthy thing. I hope!

    How I sort out my thoughts:

    Well, in this day and age, I’ve taken advantage of the Web and electronic tools. At its core, it’s really just the same thing as keeping a journal, or, in my case, a more accurate analogy would be Post-It notes. My blog is, of course, public, and much of my thoughts are ultimately published there. But for what you’re asking about (i.e. the actual behind-the-scenes organization, sorting, developing, etc. of more private yet-to-be-developed ideas), I’ve set up a private online bulletin board for myself using phpBB (http://phpbbb.org). It’s software you’ve seen before. An online forum, with separate threads to facilitate separate conversations. Only in my case, it’s private, on my site in a back door, used only by me. Using that phpBB architecture, I am able to make note of initial ideas (starting a thread, if you will), and then I can go back to it a day or a year later and Comment on it in the thread, to myself, as the idea evolves into something else. I’ve developed lots of my stories this way; stories that are more complicated than a one-take jam. One specific way of using the boards for this is when I’m writing a novel. I’ve got one forum for each character, one forum for each chapter, and so forth. That, of course, evolves, and some of my threads then get edited and moved to fresh new threads. Like, say, I’ll have a thread called “Chapter 1 Jam”, and bang out a draft for Chapter 1. That will, of course, change as I go, but I get it in. Then, for editing, I’ll use the Chapter 1 Jam thread as a starting point for my next draft of it, like, say, “Chapter 1 Jam 2”. The goal in that case would be to eventually create a thread called, cleanly, “Chapter 1”, which is the polished product of all the jams that led up to it.

    When I’m in the hills with the dogs, I’ve sent text messages to my email address, and have even called my land line and left messages on my answering machine. Those captured thoughts will ultimately be organized in the bulletin board that I mention. I’ve written things on bar napkins, my hands, whatever. But all those notes are temporary, and I will find myself getting home and rushing to my bulletin board on the Web and post it for future polishing.

    Oh, and I email things to myself all the time. If you don’t have Gmail, get an account now. It just works better than anything else; namely, you don’t sort your mail in folders. It works like Google, where you simply rely on Search.

    And lastly, the advent of Twitter has changed my life, and completely taken stream-of-conscious to another dimension. Its existence literally encourages thoughts, and keeps that stream flowing. It’s a good thing, but can be annoying to a few of the unassuming souls that I happen to cc — with friendly intentions — after six or seven coldies.

    Where do you grab inspiration from? Conversations, watching television, etc?

    That’s a difficult one to pinpoint, since I’m not very proactive in my “search for inspiration”. I don’t devour fiction, movies, music, etc. There are very few things — particularly in pop culture — that I would call myself a “fan” of. I do, however get immensely inspired by things when I least expect it. Conversations, mathematical things, coincidences, people I see, signs I read, articles and columns, thoughts that occur to me, sunsets, dogs chasing rabbits, wind in my hair, the ocean, the sky, the smell of coffee, and so on.

    And I’m a huge fan of humor. THERE IS NOTHING BETTER. I love to laugh. That doesn’t mean I sit around and watch Comedy Central, but I do tend to notice the humor and irony in things. And nothing tickles me harder than a classic random uncontrived quote overheard in a social situation. And I love great jokes.

    Would you consider yourself a “reactionary” or a “visionary” kind of person?

    Wow. I don’t know. Probably reactive by default, I think. I’ve learned in recent years that one of my natural weaknesses is to be to comfortable with the status quo. I tend to resist change. I find it psychologically tasking. Change makes me uncomfortable, and I think a result of that trait is that I can be a passive person. So I suppose I’m reactive in that sense, as opposed to proactive. I’m not a “go-getter”, so to speak. But it’s something I’m trying to be aware of and improve on.

    On the other hand, I am what one may consider a visionary. I see things others don’t see. I notice things others don’t notice. I find relevance in things others couldn’t care less about.

    Have you ever been to a baseball game or football game in a stadium filled with people and thought about how every single person in that place has their own life, thoughts, goals, problems, personality? I always look at some random person and wonder…what are they thinking about right now? You ever do that? Trips me out.

    All the time! Not only do I think of random people’s individual characteristics, but I also let my mind drift to the reality that, for every person you see, there are two others!

    I got your email while I was stuck in traffic on the way home. I just started looking at all the people in all the cars around me. Unfortunately, the morbid thought that comes to mind is that in 80 years…80% or more of all those people will be dead and will be replaced by new people that will probably be thinking the exact same thing.

    Never thought of it that way, but I do now. It was probably just a matter of time until I thought of it before you. :)

    Another little “thought nugget” I’ve had over the weekend is that everything we see…is of the earth. Cars, buildings, street signs, computers, etc. We call these things “man made.” Of course man did assemble these things, but they are all essentially….EARTH. I don’t know….just a thought.

    Trippy! Hearing ya loud and clear, little dolphin dreamer. 😉


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