Category Archives: Professional Development
This week’s “Musing on Inspiration” features gifted author, teacher/coach and visionary Mark David Gerson. Mark David has taught and coached writing as a creative and spiritual pursuit for nearly 20 years in the U.S. and Canada, guiding writers and non-writers alike to connect with their innate wisdom, open to their creative power and express themselves with ease. Author of two award-winning books, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write and The MoonQuest: A True Fantasy, Mark David is also a popular speaker on topics related to creativity and spirituality, host of radio’s The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson and a regular featured guest on Unity.fm’s Spiritual Coaching radio program.
For more information about Mark David and his books, or to sign up for his email list, visit www.markdavidgerson.com .
TSC: How do you define ‘inspiration’ for yourself?
MDG: Inspiration is that spark of creative fire that fuels not only my writing but my life. It’s that aha moment in which a bolt of clarity suggests a project, a direction….sometimes even just a word or a step. Like a flash of lightning, it’s that momentary illumination that reveals just enough information to get me going or, if I’m already going, to keep me going. It’s not the whole picture, or the whole story…or even the whole scene. It’s just the minimum required to ignite my imagination and my faith.
What inspires me? I think life is what inspires me. At the same time, I enjoy living in inspiring places and have lived in many. Although I’m about to move to Los Angeles, I’ve spent the past several years living in the mountain foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Being able to walk in those natural areas has been very inspiring to me. It has grounded me and opened my heart. I think that anything that opens our hearts is a potential source for inspiration, and I’m sure the ocean will pick up where these mountains have left off.
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? And where did it lead you?
MDG: When I was in school, I hated writing….anything creative. What I see now is that I was afraid. I was trying to avoid anything that involved the potential for judgment, that didn’t exist in that fuzzy realmbetween black and white. As a result, I gravitated towards math, because if I somehow recognized that if I got the right answer, I couldn’t be judged.
Apparently, though, my Muse had different plans for me and had marked me as a writer from day one. I just had to be eased, unknowingly, into the process. It began in high school, when I somehow got talked into doing publicity for a high school musical production and had to learn to write press releases. From that safe (because it was formulaic) place, I began to do more publicity and PR work, which led me into some journalistic work and a surprisingly lengthy stint as a full-time freelance writer and editor. Each of these steps propelled me to the Point of No Return: a creative writing workshop that an editing colleague persuaded me to take, against my better judgment, in the early ‘90s in Toronto.
That workshop was a life-changing experience, a nurturing, supportive environment that belied all my fears and beliefs about writing classes. The experience not only sparked a creative awakening but also a spiritual awakening. It also turned out to be my gateway into teaching about writing and creativity and into coaching writers.
TSC: What is your most ‘inspired’ work? Why?
MDG: I suspect most of my readers would say it’s The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, my book about writing. But for me, it’s my novel, The MoonQuest, probably because it’s a powerful metaphor for my own journey through and past my creative blocks.
The story, about a mythical land where stories are banned and storytellers are put to death, begins with the main character as an old man, pushed by a “dreamwalker” to write the story of his MoonQuest, the odyssey that restored story and vision to the land and light to a darkened moon. So often, when I give readings from that prologue and encounter his resistance to his stories, I’m reminded of my own. And so often, it moves me so deeply that it’s difficult not to cry.
I didn’t know I was writing my own story when I wrote The MoonQuest. Frankly, I didn’t know what I was writing when that story was coming out of me! In fact, I knew nothing at all about the story when I began…or, rather, when it began me. That it takes a profoundly personal story and turns it into something universal — and that it does it in a way that transcended my conscious awareness as I was doing it—still moves and humbles me.
TSC: Describe your muse, and how you invoke your muse, and do you use rituals?
MDG: Given the title and cover of my writing book, I’d better be careful how I answer this one! Seriously, despite the book’s cover, I don’t see my Muse in human-like form. Rather, I see it as an energetic force, a free-flowing river of creativity that’s always available to me.
I don’t believe Muses need to be invoked. I believe the Muse is always present and willing to speak. We’re the ones who need to be invoked! We’re the ones who turn away and say, “No, not your way. I want to write it my way. No, not your story. I want to write a different one.”
As long as we’re in a place of surrender to that creative source that is our Muse, it will always speak. And as long as we surrender to all that it would have us write, we will never be be blocked. I rarely engage in pre-writing rituals anymore, though I used to meditate before beginning — not to call in the Muse, but to put myself in a more receptive state for its words and stories. These days, I just sit down with some gentle, ambient music and begin.
TSC: What is your take on the notion that any artistic creative work is more about perspiration than inspiration?
MDG: Honestly? I think it’s bullshit! Of course, unless we’re writing there is no output. But the notion of perspiration suggests heavy labor. And although writing can be difficult at times, that difficulty is all about our resistance to the story our Muse would have us tell.
The more we surrender, the more access we have to inspiration and the less laborious is the process. At its best, creativity is about playfulness not hard labor. The more playful we can be, the less seriously we take ourselves and the process, the easier it always is.
TSC: What do you think is the most problematic misconception about inspiration?
MDG: That we have to do something to access it. Inspiration is around us in any and every moment we’re open to it. There’s no switch to flick, no Muse to invoke. When our hearts are open to our lives and to the world around us, inspiration pours in. Then it’s our job to listen, to surrender, to trust the process…and to write it all down.
TSC: List a few tools or practices or methods that work reliably for you to get you in the mood to create.
MDG: Rather than shifting into a zone, I do my imperfectly human best to live in the zone — to keep my heart and mind open, to live in a place of trust and surrender in all aspects of my life, not just my writing life. When I’m feeling stuck or shut down, a walk in nature will usually shift my energy and my mood — again, not just in my writing, but in my life.
For me, life and creativity are inextricably linked. If I’m living from a place of passion and faith, there’s less I need to do to switch gears. And if I’m experiencing writing issues, I need to look at my life, where the underlying causes of those issues most often reside.
TSC: What are you currently feeling inspired to do?
MDG: Where do I begin!? I could talk about my works in progress (a sequel to The MoonQuest and a just-started memoir). But in truth, inspiration for me is less about specific projects than it is about a way of life. So I would say that I feel inspired to trust more, surrender more fully and life more heartfully — in my life as well as in my writing.
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…?