Musings on Inspiration: Author Alan Chin
This week in my continuing series of interviews with writers and other artists on the subject of inspiration, I feature Alan Chin, author of celebrated gay novels such as ISLAND SONG and THE LONELY WAR (Zumaya Publications, 2008, 2009), and MATCH MAKER (Dreamspinner Press, 2010). Alan writes a weekly column for Examiner.com which focuses on GLBTQ literature. There he posts book reviews, author interviews, and random information concerning GLBTQ writers and their work.
He also writes book reviews for the Lambda Literary blog and Queer Magazine Online. He was awarded the Qbliss magazine 2009 Pride in Literature Award for ISLAND SONG.
Alan has been writing for twenty years, and has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco. All his work “attempts to explore the challenges of gay characters relating to a predominately straight, supercilious society.” Dreamspinner will publish his fourth novel, BUTTERFLY’S CHILD, in December of 2010.
For more information about Alan and his work, visit his web site: www.alanchin.net.
TSC: How do you define ‘inspiration’ for yourself?
AC: I seldom come up with an original idea. What generally happens with me is that I combine two or more established ideas together to come up with one new theme or storyline. That’s where most of my inspiration for new stories come from. For instance, my third novel, MATCH MAKER, is the story of a gay tennis coach who teaches a straight teen player on the pro tour. I got the idea while reading THE FRONT RUNNER and at the same time, seeing a special on the Tennis Channel about the role coaches play in a tennis player’s life. When I linked the two ideas, I asked myself what issues a gay tennis coach would have in the straight dominated world of Pro Tennis. A few weeks later, I had an outline of what I consider a great story.
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?
AC: I never had aspirations of becoming a writer until I was promoted from Software Engineer to managing my department of engineers, and I was pretty happy about a management career. However, even though I knew several computer languages, my English skills were lacking. My VP suggested I go back to school to take some refresher English course, and I enrolled in some creative writing classes, which blossomed into me getting a Master’s Degree in Writing. Once I started writing fiction for my class work, I lost interest in a management career. I only wanted to write.
TSC: Describe the ‘inspired’ you. What does he/she look or feel like?
AC: There are so many different ‘inspired’ sides to me. There is the one who blocks out everything else in the world and is wildly trying to record the ideas flashing through my head as I’m writing new prose.
Then there is another side that gets inspired by playing with the words already on the page to come up with just the right verb, or sentence structure, or rhythm to the prose. Then there is the other me who devours another writer’s work, trying to see everything that the author intended. I think the one I like best is the daydreamer who can spend hours within the confines of my story’s setting, getting to know and love the characters. Each different ‘inspired’ me feels different. One feels whimsical. Another feels imprisoned within the boundaries of grammar. Another feels like total freedom.
TSC: What is your most ‘inspired’ work? Why?
AC: My most inspired work to date happened about three weeks ago. The working title is DON’T TELL, because it’s a story that explores the unfairness of Don’t Asks, Don’t Tell. I only have an outline scratched out so far, but I think it will be my most interesting story to date. And I say it’s my most inspired because it came to me in a dream. It was so real and so vivid that I was able to hold the entire story in my mind after waking. I literally leap from my bed and ran to my office to get the story down before it faded away. Now that I have the outline down, my mind is slowly filling in more details, getting to know these characters. And strangely enough, although the story has to do with homophobia, the two gay characters in it play minor roles.
TSC: Who or what or where is your muse? How do you invoke your muse? Rituals?
AC: My ritual for tapping into my muse is habit. I sit down to write at the same time and for the same duration every day. And strangely enough, this thing called muse has figured out my schedule and simply shows up ready to sprinkle that fairy dust over my eyes to help me see the story, or edit the prose, or structure a scene. I think excellence comes from habitually doing things over and over, until it’s automatic, that is, embedded in your subconscious.
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?
AC: I think to be a good writer one needs a variety of different skills. Some of these are an active imagination, curiosity, a love of your fellow human beings and a need to understand the relationships that bind us. Those skills take very little sweat.
On the other hand, my latest manuscript, which will be published this December, took me two years and nine detailed edit passes to complete. If you’re striving for excellence, then it takes patience and sweat and a willingness to keep refining something until it is perfect, or at least the best you are capable of.
I now spend a lot of my time writing screenplays. The average screenplay gets rewritten over twenty times before it’s made into a movie. Tell me that’s not a lot of sweat.
TSC: What do you think is the most common—or problematic—myth or misconception about inspiration?
AC: I suppose the most common myth is that inspiration can be learned – you do the same little ritual as some famous writer and the results will come. We are all different, have distinctive work habits and methods. You have to be true to yourself, work within the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with. Then find your own path to inspiration.
TSC: What is the most ‘inspired’ work you’ve come across so far?
AC: That’s a hard one, because I’ve read so many stories I love. If we’re talking about novels, then I would say THE HOURS by Michael Cunningham. I found it not only brilliant, packed with gay characters but dealing with universal themes, and for me it is a joy to read.
However I recently saw a Japanese made movie called “Departures”, which I believe won the 2008 Foreign Film Oscar. It’s a beautiful movie that I found myself wishing I had written. It’s brilliant. It made me cry for joy.
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’?
AC: Coffee helps. Also being alone in my office. But mostly, it’s just showing up at the same time everyday and being open to Creativity. The other thing that gets me in the mood to create is love of story.
When you create characters that you love, and then put them in interesting situations, you can’t help but want to do the best work possible, because you want to do right by them.
TSC: What are you currently feeling inspired to do?
AC: This year I have completed one novel and two screenplays. All three are wonderful stories and I’m very proud of them. My novel, BUTTERFLY’S CHILD, will be published in December. I’m inspired to find a producer for my screenplays. I want to share these stories with others.
I’m currently working with a screenwriting partner to create a third screenplay centered around contemporary Native Americans. Also, over the winter, I’m planning to partner with my husband to write yet another screenplay for my DADT tell story I mentioned above. I’m very much looking forward to see how my hubby and I will work creatively together.