It’s Earth Hour and I’m writing this by Candle Light. How appropriately romantic for a post titled “Inspiration.”
When I tell people I’m writing a novel, the conversation can go one of three ways. Some people just kind of go “oh wow” and then walk away, others tell me about their own projects. The third -- and my favorite possibility by far -- is when a really interesting conversation naturally grows out of my admission and the fact that I have, in reality, been wrestling with the damn thing for a good long while.
The most common question by far is about inspiration. People are always interested in where I get mine -- like my gogi berries or my raw cacao powder. The truth is that, unlike my food, which I am very careful about sourcing, I have no idea where ideas come from... Sometimes they find me, and others, I have to hunt them down.
D says the difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay is like easing yourself into a hot bath versus taking a shower. I’ve been in this bath tub for so long now that my fingers and toes have become wrinkled like raisins, but I can’t say I don’t love every second.
And as for inspiration…
For days, I had been looking for New York moments. Not that I don't have many of them banked already, but memories get old they get stale after being retold hundreds of times. The context of this particular quest is that one of my characters, in order to avoid her own set of issues, makes up stories about the people she sees around her. Rather than dredge up things I saw five years ago, I decided I wanted to go looking for new tidbits, see what came my way. I had been wandering around in search of “them”, but hadn’t really found anything beyond the usual array of kooks, drunks and fashionistas that are no longer interesting to me. Then, the other night, walking towards the subway in Greenwich Village after a very special evening with a classmate and new friend, they all came to find me, to let me know that they weren’t going to let me down – the colorful persons that dot and decorate the City, the moments that make this place what it is.
Thankfully, my Blackberry was working that night, and I typed up what was going on around me in real time, as it unfolded with the kind of perfection that can only come when one is looking for it:
(Note: I have minimally edited the text, corrected typos, etc. but, for the rest, this is what happened, as it took place around me and in my head on the night between Friday March 20th and Saturday, March 21st)
NYC 1 a.m.
I make my way from University Place to the subway. It's the middle of the night by all accounts. The transsexual asks me what time it is and whether she'll make it to Brooklyn in time.
"I hope so" I tell her honestly. It's 1 a.m. And if you’re on the subway, you're either sadly ending your evening like me, or just beginning, like her, in her bright yellow tank top, slugging her Redbull as she hums to herself.
I’d walked the three blocks to the train in a trance. It had been a lovely evening the way only NY nights can be. My new friend was charming, great company, and our "night cap" had turned into revelations so personal that had she not been as wonderful as she is, I would have been embarrassed. But this is not the UK, and definitely not LA, and she had been as open as I could have asked for, as kind and giving as one would hope for from a new friend. (And I don't use that term lightly)
We called the elevator from the hallway of the flat - it was that kind of place, the kind of place where the ceilings are exposed brick and the lift opens up into the living room - and as we waited, she showed me where she does her morning exercises: looking uptown at the Manhattan skyline. I had to laugh. Only in NYC. This is the NYC of my dreams, the one I aspire to, the easy nonchalance afforded by artistic endeavors gone right. D talks about LA that way, about the horizon that stretches on ad infinitum from the bird's eye view of his convertible B-mer that I'd affectionately dubbed "Henry" in tribute to my husband's background. For me it's about the landscaped pent-terrace on the 27th floor of a 10th street apartment, it's about the Wednesday Farmer's Market at Union Square, the religiously raw, vegan beauty of a menu that nonetheless offers the best Mojitos in town.
As I walked towards the subway, the sleeve of my raincoat slid against parallel worlds.
"Walk the fuck in there" a seventeen-year-old tells his terrified girlfriend, "act as if you've been there before, like you know everyone."
"But they kicked me out already" she pleads, her mascara forming a clumpy scar along the bridge of her nose.
A few doors down, a skinny-looking bitch cuts a rich-looking birthday cake as other cadavers look on, including one happy shmuck who is clearly going to be the only one actually getting some.
Two teenagers sneak out for a fag, "dude, I copped this shit for like five Euros. I'd like kill your family for this thing." The sweatshirt he’s referring to is black, hooded and that’s all there is to it.
I wonder which doorman will be working when I get back to the flat, the Jamaican man who loves to tease D about his terrible taste in British football teams, or the shorter, quieter man who takes his job so seriously that he once knocked on my door at ten minutes to midnight to make sure he delivered a package.
The transsexual keeps staring back at me as if I know when she'll get there. I want to tell her I don't know, so I half smile and shrug. "This is the way to Brooklyn?" She asks, twiddling her hair like I often do. I nod. Brooklyn, that bastard that I swore off so many years ago, that I have nevertheless been unable to forget. Though the changes have been inevitable, Brooklyn is still recognizable, just a more mature version of what it used to be. Like me, setting up shop in London, Brooklyn is different and the same, a four-bedroom house, still near enough as filled as a two-bedroom apartment, the student turned adjunct, the adjunct turned professor. We recognize each other, respect that certain something that will remain in the past.
Down between the tracks, large rats are taking advantage of the lull in subway traffic to scurry from one side to the other. One is fine - normal - but by the time I count five, and then six, it's become a little worrisome. What if they decided to make their way up to the platform? These rodents are enormous, like ardvarks or bears. Would us humans even stand a chance? Another one scurries boldly along the damn electrified bit. It seems in a hurry - I wish the trains were a little more so: in that way we can all learns from each other.
The other day I ran into an ex-boyfriend - a typical specimen of those strange old days: very cute, attractive, with an interesting job. But what a creature. Back then, he said that because we were together it was OK for him to read my mail. Even before anything had happened between us, he didn't close the door when he peed (forget putting the seat down). I'd told him it wasn't going to work. He'd called me a whore. Sore fucking loser. And then he did it again just the other day, after I told him I was married. Ha!
The past has a funny, tearjerking way of pulling you through that eye of the fucking needle. But only if you want it to.
"That was ---" I pointed out an old restaurant to D last time he was here. Now it's a store.
A woman sitting a few people down gets up to cross the platform. She's wearing beaten-up Adidas sneakers, simple jeans and a red sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a messy ponytail as if she just woke up. She hauls a seemingly heavy purse over her shoulder. It's as shiny as the rest of her is plain: silvery flecks machine-woven in with black shimmer. Though she's going nowhere, apparently her bag has plans.
1:17 a.m. My friend, the transsexual won't make her plans. I hopped into a different carriage just in case.
My coconut water is getting warm in my eco-friendly bag that I carry around with me everywhere. By this point it's easier to daydream about tomorrow already, but first tonight has to come to an end. The train conductor gets on the loudspeaker to announce that "makshduevd-pleez-buduevfknxtehjlk-thank you". None of us -and the carriage is full - get a word, but it was so garbled that we don't bother to ask one another.
A second conductor, one who apparently speaks English, hurls "Hey! Listen up!| He demands that we switch trains. It's now half past, but for all the people getting on, grumbling and swearing, it may as well be rush hour. This is New York after all, and everyone has somewhere they need to be NOW, well past midnight, including my fresh Thai Coconut water that’s supposed to last me well into next week.
There's no train to switch to and nobody seems to give a damn, except for the guy with the remarkably long goatee who's looking around for a female consort to share in the community grief.
New York, where you recognize the tourists because they are the only people looking up. Even at 1:30 a.m. I love it. Even when the bitch in the Manolos clips in front of me as if she's late for fashion week (in Brooklyn?!?!), even when I freeze my ass off because nobody said it would snow on the first day of Spring, even when the train conductor tells us all to get onto the next train that is going in a whole other direction, even with bad wine at $18 a glass, it's New York, and like a younger sibling who can get away with murder, I forgive, forget, move on, masochistically loving, lovingly adoring, accepting, because that's just how it is in NYC.
The wrong train arrives and I ask the conductor whether it will be stopping at my stop. My words are slurred, not because I'm drunk but I'm so tired and my contacts seem to want to abort their visionary mission all of a sudden. Behind me, a British man who looks like everyone I've ever met in London - good-guy, brown hair, glasses - asks the same question as I just did and gets the same answer: "hrghuh". I step in just as the doors are closing. No need to sit down. It's just one - oh, two stops (really? Where the fuck am I?). And then, finally, Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn’s Arc de Triomphe (if only because we're both celebrating the triumph of my arrival) is lit blue. The two blocks from the subway stop to the apartment seem exceptionally long. It’s 2 a.m. There are about thirty of us walking in roughly the same direction – more people than I saw in the street when I left the neighborhood twelve hours ago. A woman is talking to her dog, explaining why it should hurry up and go. The dog is looking at the blue mailbox with much more interest than should be legal. There is no doorman waiting for me, they’ve all gone home.
Some part of this will end up in my novel in one form or another. This is the rough material, which I will then mold into new bits and pieces, stories, characters, events that take place for my protagonist, a wide-eyed young woman living in -- duh! -- New York City. It will remain fiction, or rather, reality will percolate through the filter that takes fact and turns it into fiction.
One day I will be asked whether the story is based on my life, whether any of the characters are me, whether anyone in the novel is based on a person I have known. The answers to all of the above will be yes and no, definitely and not at all, completely and no way.
In the mean time, I slug away, hitting twenty thousand words, and then fifty, only to go back down to thirty, and so on. I believe it was Stephen King who said that the reason he sits at his desk at the exact same time every morning is so that if the muse decides to pay him a visit she’ll know where to find him.
I wish I had his discipline, but lacking that, I’m just grateful that when those golden moments present themselves, I’m hopefully awake enough, able to recognize them and get them down as fast as they happen.
The same goes for food. When an idea hits, it just does. It can come as a result of a conversation, from seeing a photograph or a painting, or in a dream. I no longer ask why some part of me needs to go buy fresh cranberries and mint; I just do it.
Inspiration is a the ornamental, beautiful part of intuition.
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