Inspiring Creative Magic
Originally posted January 6, 2014
This week as I worked my way through the first draft of a new novel, the writing suddenly became easy. A piece of forgotten research resurfaced to give the chapter more urgency. Characters said and did things I hadn’t originally envisioned. Key details— a tin of cove oysters, a Union flag worn as a petticoat—made the action come alive, at least to me. And by the time I wrapped up the chapter, I realized that I really had two chapters, not one. Now I can’t wait to dive into the next chapter.
How did this happen? What prompted this creative and productive burst of energy?
I can tell you it had nothing to do with some kind of unexpected brilliance on my part. Instead, I think it’s a direct reflection of what I’m reading now—The Once And Future King by T.H. White.
My manuscript has little in common with White’s book. I’m at work on another Civil War novel; The Once And Future King is a classic retelling of the Arthurian legend. It’s fantasy; my novel is historical fiction.
But reading White’s richly detailed, beautifully written novel inspires both delight and wonder, and that, in turn, inspires creative magic. When writers read great books, they aspire to great writing— consciously and unconsciously. In other words, what writers read directly affects what they write. Here, for example, is a passage from White’s novel that still takes my breath away. And makes me cry: “Beaumont licked his hand but could not wag his tail. The huntsman nodded to Robin, who was standing behind, and held the hound’s eyes with his own. He said, ‘Good dog, Beaumont the valiant, sleep now, old friend Beaumont, good old dog.’ Then Robin’s falchion let Beaumont out of this world, to run free with Orion and roll among the stars.”1
In a recent review of The Goldfinch in The New York Review of Books, Francine Prose observes that “artfulness,” the way a book is written, is “what moves and delights us, what makes us return, again and again, to discover what a work of art can tell us.” Yet, as she points out, rarely does anyone seem to apply this principle to contemporary literature. “‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’” she asks.2
I struggled for much of 2013 to find recently published books that measured up to Prose’s standards—and my own—for artful literature. The year started well—with Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies. Susan Fletcher’s young adult novel Falcon In the Glass was an inspiration too. Otherwise, none of the new books I read last year delivered the richness, originality, and beauty that kindles the creative magic that somehow fuels my own work. So I found myself rereading classics to fill the void: North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell; The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and, of course, The Once And Future King.
Last year’s experience could have been a fluke, of course. Maybe I just reached for the wrong new titles. And I’m hoping 2014 will restore my confidence in artful, inspiring contemporary literature so that I’ll have many more productive writing days, thanks to new books as well as old ones. But just in case, I’ve already decided to read a few old standbys along with whatever publishers bring us in 2014. Next up: George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
My writing, of course, won’t begin to measure up to the novels that inspire me, but I’m resolved this year to try. And one way or the other, I’ll continue to search for books— new and old—that inspire, delight, and fuel my writing life.
1. T.H. White, The Once And Future King (New York: Berkley Publishing Company, 1966), 150.
2. Francine Prose, “After Great Expectations,” The New York Review Of Books 9 January 2014: 12.