Musings On Inspiration: Author Wayne Courtois
This week in my continuing series of interviews with writers and other artists on the subject of inspiration, I present Wayne Courtois, author of the poignant memoir REPORT FROM WINTER, published by Lethe Press. I recently read and reviewed this achingly bittersweet account of Wayne’s return to his hometown and the events–internal and external–surrounding his mother’s death.
He was born in Portland, Maine, and currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his husband-in-every-sense-but-legal, Ralph Seligman. In January 2010 they celebrated 21 years together! A graduate of the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Wayne is also the author of the novel MY NAME IS RAND, published by Suspect Thoughts Press. His short fiction has appeared in journals including The Greensboro Review and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly; in the webzines suspect thoughts: a journal of subversive writing and Velvet Mafia; and in anthologies such as Of the Flesh, Love Under Foot, Best Gay Erotica, Out of Control, and Country Boys. Nonfiction work has appeared in I Do/I Don’t: Queers on Marriage; Walking Higher: Gay Men Write about the Deaths of Their Mothers; and the forthcoming The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered.
Wayne has served on his local Ryan White Planning Council, and as a grantwriter in the nonprofit sector he has helped to raise millions for HIV/AIDS services, hospice care, and the arts. Currently he is working on a book-length work of speculative fiction. Please visit www.reportfromwinter.com and write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
TSC: How do you define ‘inspiration’ for yourself?
WC: A speck of an idea, something that needs to be teased and worried into substance. It could be a feeling, an image, or even a title or opening line—something I can’t leave alone. Once I was driving home from work and a sentence appeared in my head—“Warren Stone was a big boy, with big hands.” It was an amazing moment because usually inspiration is more vague than that! But that became the opening line of my novel Hands of Stone, one of the unfinished projects I have lying around.
TSC: What do you think first inspired you to become a writer/artist? Can you identify a moment or experience or influence that turned you in that direction?
WC: It started early, I can’t even remember when; but I’ve always loved language, and the way words look on a page. Those connections among the look and sound and meaning of a word, and how they all come together—it’s magic! I tried to describe my childhood love of books and reading in A Report from Winter:
When I really liked a book I read it very slowly, not wanting to miss a thing—not a word, not even a space between words. I read the fine print of the publication history, noted how the chapter headings looked, felt each page between my fingertips. Was there anyone else in the world who lived only to experience these things? Was it normal to study the red ink edging the pages, and how it bled just slightly into the white margins?
It’s true, I didn’t know any other kids who were as nuts about books and reading as I was. I felt very much like a loner in that respect.
TSC: Describe the ‘inspired’ you. What does he/she look or feel like?
WC: Well, I don’t think I look any different when I’m inspired! ‘Quietly animated’ might be the best way to put it—completely focused on what I’m doing, creating it or making it better. It’s a great feeling, because for a few minutes or hours I’m no longer a square peg knocking against a round hole—I’ve found the place where I “fit” in the world.
TSC: What is your most ‘inspired’ work? Why?
WC: Here’s the easy answer: any work that makes it to the finish line counts as being more inspired than the unfinished manuscripts lying around! Now for the hard answer: I don’t know; perhaps it’s not for me to say. In the end, it’s up to the reader to decide whether a work is “inspired” or not—whether storytelling, language, passion, and metaphor all come together into a great reading experience.
TSC: Who or what or where is your muse? How do you invoke your muse? Rituals?
WC: I don’t believe in the concept of a “muse.” Once you ascribe your creative ability to something beyond your control, you run the risk of losing it. Living without a muse is easier: you don’t have to “invoke” it, or engage in a lot of OCD rituals just to get yourself going.
I’ve seen some authors describe their muses as contrary, uncooperative bitches. Maybe these writers are just letting off steam because the creative process can be so frustrating. On the other hand, Rollo May, in his book The Courage to Create, offered the theory that there has to be inner conflict in order for the artist to produce his best work. Only when there is an obstacle—something to be overcome—will the creative work be optimal. So perhaps you do have to engage your internal, uncooperative bitch, whether you call it a muse or not. I have to admit that conflict does make the sparks fly.
TSC: What is your take on the notion that writing—or any creative work—is more about perspiration than inspiration?
WC: I think people fall prey to believing that creative work “comes easy” to those who have talent. What they don’t realize is that there’s a lot of hard work involved. And “talent” is such an elusive concept—can anyone really say what it means?
I once heard an NPR interview with the late playwright August Wilson, in which he talked about his experience with the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center. For years he submitted plays to the Conference, and year after year they were rejected. August talked to the executive director and asked, “What do I have to do to get a play accepted for a workshop? I’m doing the best I can, I’m writing at the top of my talent.” The director said, “Well, then, you have to write above your talent.” Wilson was nonplussed: “How do I do that?” The director’s basic answer was, “You just do it.”
Somehow—who knows how?—Wilson figured out how to do it. The next play he wrote, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was not only accepted for the workshop but eventually put him on the map. I think this elusive thing called “talent” is just the correct formulation of inspiration plus perspiration. And yes, I’m sure the greater part of it is perspiration. You have to be willing to work to get the results you want. That’s why many people give up writing, or painting, or any kind of artistic activity: they find out how much work it is, and they lose interest.
TSC: What do you think is the most common—or problematic—myth or misconception about inspiration?
WC: A common misconception is the one that says inspiration comes from outside you, rather than from within. Kafka said you had only to become quiet and still and eventually the world would “roll in ecstasy at your feet.” I don’t know if it’s quite that simple—unless you’re Kafka—but I think it’s true that you have to become quiet, or meditate, or at least be aware of your thoughts, in order for inspiration to come.
TSC: What is the most ‘inspired’ work you’ve come across so far?
WC: There is no single work that I would call “most inspired,” but there are bodies of work by particular artists that I admire and return to again and again. John Ashbery comes to mind, because his approach to poetry seems so intuitive and original. I used to have a two-in-one edition of Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days, and for years that book was a kind of bible for me. I managed to lose it, back in the mid-80’s sometime, and out of all of the books I’ve lost over the years that is the loss that grieves me the most.
Ashbery has described his concept of a poem as a “snapshot” of whatever is crossing his mind at a particular moment. You must have to have a lively and highly educated imagination to be able to produce “snapshots” that aren’t just random views of a landfill.
TSC: List a few tools or practices or methods that work reliably for you to get you in the mood to create. How do you shift into your ‘zone’?
WC: Sometimes when I’m writing I like to listen to music. Most recently I’ve been listening a lot to Iron & Wine, because of the vivid, stirring imagery in Sam Beam’s lyrics. When I’m not writing, my favorite activity is still reading. We’re in a golden age of literary biographies right now, there have been such great ones coming out. First there was Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, which he followed up with the monumental Cheever: A Life; and now we have Flannery, Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka.
These biographies bring you up close to the writing life. A common thread among them is that they show how much these writers suffered. You’d think that might would drive a person away, but it only gets me fired up. I’m reading the Carver biography right now, and his tremendous drive to keep writing in spite of everything makes me want to get up—or sit down, as the case may be—and do something.
TSC: What are you currently feeling inspired to do?
WC: I’m inspired to get more books out there! My novel Tales My Body Told Me, which I started working on in 1997, is scheduled for Fall release by Lethe Press. I have two erotic novels, one of them in the spec fic genre, that I want to finish; I want to go back and revise a literary novel that I completed in the ‘90s and needs some retooling; I want to pull an anthology of short fiction together; and I want to complete a book of personal essays that would be kind of a follow-up to A Report from Winter. And…hey Dan, I forgot to ask, is there a word limit on this interview…?