Inconvenient inspiration, and how to seize it before it slips away

writingA few years ago, I was shopping at Trader Joe’s when I saw every parent’s nightmare unfold in front of me. A woman was gathering fruit from the bin while her toddler stood in the large part of the grocery cart. Without warning, the cart tipped and the toddler fell to the ground. The mother immediately swooped up her screaming child, consoling him while shoppers moved around them. Some people stared, and some were completely oblivious to what happened. I placed myself in her shoes, feeling her shame from any judgment over letting her son be in that part of the cart in the first place, and her worry over her son who could have been hurt much worse from the fall. Then the questions began forming in my mind. What if it was much worse? What if her son didn’t survive? As a mother, what would her identity be if her only child passed away?

That scene inspired my book, The Road to Hope, a story about Jill, a mother who loses her son to this very accident. This story also introduced an accidental character—Maddie, a pregnant teen who crosses paths with Jill. I continued the series telling Maddie’s story, infusing pieces of my life into hers, a process that allowed me to grieve and heal from experiences I’d been stuffing.

I pull inspiration for my stories from many different places. Sometimes it’s from something I witness—like the grocery store scene—that leads me to scenarios and characters that grow by just asking myself questions. Sometimes it’s from overhearing a conversation, which prompts me to fill in the gaps. Sometimes it’s inspired by moments from my life that I need to work out in fiction. And sometimes the story comes from a dream.

My first published book, A Symphony of Cicadas, was based on a dream I had while I was planning my wedding. My greatest fear at that time was that something would happen to me before I got to marry the love of my life. Because of this, I had a dream where I died in a car crash. But instead of waking up as soon as I died, the dream continued, showing how all the people I loved were moving on after my death, including my fiancé. I watched as my fiancé met and fell in love with another woman. As I witnessed this, I experienced a small bit of wistfulness. But mostly, I felt this immense rush of peace because he was happy and I knew he was going to be okay. I woke up crying, and the whole book began flowing through me. I couldn’t outline it fast enough.

This kind of dream inspiration happened again with Numbered, the book I’m currently writing. At the time, I was at a crossroads in my writing life, wondering if I had any more books in me. But then I had this dream. All I saw was a man’s face, but I knew his whole story. He was dying from cancer, despite looking completely healthy, and he knew the exact date of his death. I woke up with a question—what if everyone actually knew the date they would die? How would that affect the way they live? The story began flowing through me and I ran downstairs to get it down before I lost it, spending two hours outlining the novel, and describing the characters and their backgrounds.

Inspiration can some from anywhere, you just have to pay attention and be ready to receive it when it comes calling. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares how she carries index cards everywhere, ready to write down conversations, moments, anything that comes to her while she’s out and about because inspiration rarely comes when it’s convenient. Nowadays, you don’t even need index cards if you have a smartphone, because it’s just as easy to jot it down in your phone’s notes or even record it as a voice memo. Inspiration likes to hit me while I’m driving, which is an awful time for it to arrive. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve lost because I didn’t pull over immediately and get it down. By the time I reach a convenient moment, all or most of the story has already gone.

One of my favorite stories about the way inspiration works is how Liz Gilbert shared in her Ted talk about the late American poet, Ruth Stone, and how a poem would come barreling at her over the landscape. Ruth Stone’s job at that point was to drop everything and race for a pencil because if she didn’t, the poem would flow in and then out of her, searching for another poet who was ready to receive it. Watch it below (it’s less than 2 minutes long).

Have you ever had a moment when inspiration struck you when you least expected it? What did you do to make sure you didn’t lose it?

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Idols, authors and humble beginnings

Last night, my husband and I went to see the American Idol Live Tour. I admit, it was a total impulse buy when season 14 of American Idol ended earlier this year. But we had become so enamored with a few of these contestants, namely Jax and Clark Beckham, that we just had to see them live. So we bought the tickets and waited for this night to come.

My hubby and I, waiting for the show to start.
My hubby and I, waiting for the show to start.

Sitting in the audience, it was pretty surreal to see these kids (omg, I’m such an old-timer) performing on stage in front of us. I say that because we had seen them from the start of their Idol journey. I remember every one of them from their auditions, when they came in front of the judges with hopes of showing they can do well in the spotlight. I saw greatness in Jax from the very beginning, totally blown away with her undercover talent. And Clark? Man that guy can wail! He has this southern soul thing going on that you just wouldn’t expect from a pretty white guy. I will seriously buy any album he comes out with.

The Idols were definitely more polished than we had seen them on TV. And they were already pretty polished at the end of the Idol season. But you could tell they’d received training on how to connect with the audience, and how to make the most of their time in the spotlight. Each one of them held the audience captive with, not only their voice, but with their personal stories of life before Idol – how they were consumed with a dream they just had to make true. They each shared their humble beginnings, and how, despite the challenges they faced as struggling artists, they refused to give up until their goal was met.

And this is the part I love – the story before the spotlight. Every single person who has reached success has this story. It’s the life they lived before anyone even knew who they were, outside of close family and friends. It’s who they were when they were just like everyone else, living with a dream they hoped would come true.

Whenever I come across an artist I admire, I almost always search out their beginning story. Anne Lamott shares a ton of backstory in her book, Bird by Bird, and I have read that book repeatedly, mostly to connect with the Annie that lived before the NYT Bestseller’s List found her. Liz Gilbert shares how discipline and hard work are vital to getting where you want to be, though aren’t a guarantee to reach success. However, she shares that if we love what we do, we should never throw in the towel. Colleen Hoover shared how she couldn’t even afford trash service at her 1000 SF mobile home several years ago. Now? She is every indie author’s inspiration as she cranks out bestseller after bestseller (and I cannot consume her amazing books fast enough). Sharon Hamilton, who I first knew as a real estate agent in my town and the mom of two of my classmates, is now a successful, bestselling romance author. She’s quite the inspiration for those of us who belong to her writing group. But you know what offers me the most inspiration when it comes to Sharon? The blog posts she wrote before her books became big, when she repeatedly shared her all-consuming dream of finding success with writing, and the few posts she wrote where she admitted her frustrations that it wasn’t coming as fast as she would have liked.

I love these beginning stories, because it’s where I hope I’m at now. The other day, I admitted my frustration at how I seem to be on this hamster wheel of authorship, working my ass off to go nowhere fast. But what if, years from now, that post is just a glimpse at my humble beginnings? What if all the work I’m doing now leads to something huge in just a few years? What if my story of frustration and feelings of defeat end up being an inspiration to the next small time author hoping to make it big?

We’ve all got to start somewhere. And if we truly love and believe in what we’re doing, we won’t give up.

Those Idol kids on the stage, they’ve come a long way from where they once were before American knew their names. And, they have a long way to go if they want to remain in the spotlight. They could be the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. Or, they could slip into the abyss that some Idol stars disappear into. Their success depends on them. But how cool that we got to see their journey from the time they were first discovered.

Here’s a video of Jax killing it on the keyboards. Btw, all photos and video in this blog were taken by my wonderful husband. So if video or photos weren’t allowed at this show, you can talk to him. 😉