Irrational inspiration


Recently Abbe and I went to the beach for the week.  It was wonderfully and kind of terrifyingly remote.  A good place to write, I hoped (although it was really a working vacation).

Sometimes I think I’m a loon.  Three years ago we went to the Outer Banks and I wrote one story (“Jellyfish”) and came up with the idea for another (“Grandfather Vampire”).  They weren’t the first short stories I’d written, but they were the first stories I’d written that didn’t feel tied to anything I’d ever done before.  Some of that, I think, was the setting.  Some of it was that I’d just read George Saunders’ Tenth of December and it made me re-think everything I’d ever thought about writing, and about short stories in particular.  “Jellyfish” was inspired, to a great extent, by the equally short but immeasurably lovelier “Sticks” in the Saunders collection.

I loved that Saunders story.  In less than 500 words (I think), he was able to create an extraordinarily moving–and lyrical–narrative.  That just blew me away.  I read it at six in the morning because our dog, who we’d brought along for the first time, was vomiting and pooping nonstop, and so I was awake every day by the time the sun came up over the Atlantic.  I read, I thought about things, and then I wrote.

So the form of “Jellyfish” was inspired by Saunders.  “Grandfather Vampire” was probably the first story that felt like mine.  Like no one else could have written it.  Not that it was an incredible story, but it was mine.  And it was so exhilarating to realize that, to start to spot the things that could make a story mine, to realize that those were the things I had to cultivate.  Even if they completely sucked.  Because anybody can write a good story.  The only chance I ever had, as a writer, was to find and follow my own voice.

Because of all of that, I have a crazy relationship with the beach.  The beach is talismanic.  And that’s clearly ridiculous, but there’s a part of me that thinks: Okay, so what?  If some other, deeper part of me believes in that crap, then maybe it’ll help me get inspired.

And I needed to feel inspired.  I have half a dozen uncompleted stories.  Nothing I loved, at least not yet.  And I need to love these stories.  It kills me when I don’t love them.

Remembering “Jellyfish,” I decided to write something new, something short — 500 words.  So I wrote a version of another story-in-progress–something inspired by Cheevers–and finished it one day.

I have no idea if it’s any good.  But, re-reading it now–a week later–I love it.  It’s weird and specific and surprising, and isn’t that what we all want to create, as writers? Maybe it’s also dumb as hell.  But at least it surprises me.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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