Jen Bryant: It’s Not Pretty!

by Jen Bryant

I’ve always had an ambiva­lent rela­tion­ship with the word “inspi­ra­tion.” On the one hand, I acknowl­edge the illu­sive, inex­plic­a­ble aspect of the writ­ing process that I can’t con­trol, when the lines, para­graphs, pages seem to flow from some­where out­side of myself, knit­ting togeth­er almost seam­less­ly. On the oth­er hand (and this is the much, much heav­ier hand) I believe that good writ­ing — like all good art — comes from con­scious effort, com­mit­ment, and lots of tri­al and error. In this way, writ­ing a poem or a nov­el is much like any­thing else we do: mak­ing a home-cooked meal, build­ing a go-cart, or shap­ing a back­yard gar­den. You begin with a vision, but then you must roll up your sleeves, kneel down and set to work.

But how do you know where to start?!” I hear this ques­tion at near­ly every writ­ing work­shop I con­duct, regard­less of the age or expe­ri­ence of the stu­dents. My stan­dard answer is always the same: “Well, I don’t KNOW where to start … but I start any­way. I start at the place where my heart is thump­ing the loud­est, the part that is almost pure emo­tion.” Usu­al­ly, it’s not pret­ty. I might scrib­ble down some phras­es, a ques­tion, or even a few lines of rough poet­ry that focus on one or two images. It nev­er looks like much. I set that aside and go do some­thing else (work on my gar­den or my gro­cery list.)

ph_river_of_words_medalLat­er, I come back to that first scrib­ble and read it over a few times. If it’s the begin­ning of a biog­ra­phy for which I’ve done con­sid­er­able research, I shuf­fle through my notes and choose a few facts about the sub­ject that I find par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing or unusu­al. For exam­ple, when I began writ­ing A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, I honed in on young Willie’s love of wan­der­ing through the fields around his home­town, his sense of phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to his sur­round­ings, and his easy rela­tion­ship to soli­tude. Lat­er, as an adult, these would be instru­men­tal in his suc­cess as a poet. As I worked through the many drafts of the nar­ra­tive, the image of the riv­er became the thread that con­nect­ed his child­hood to his adult­hood, his child’s play to his man’s work.

Ladder and nursery window, Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey.
Lad­der and nurs­ery win­dow, Lind­bergh home in Hopewell, New Jer­sey. Pho­to cour­tesy NJ State Archives.

If it’s a nov­el with some real/historical under­pin­nings, I focus on an image that I can flesh out into a rough poem. In The Tri­al, for exam­ple, I began with the image of the lad­der — the object that became the most impor­tant piece of evi­dence against immi­grant car­pen­ter Bruno Richard Haupt­mann, the man accused of kid­nap­ping the Lind­bergh baby. So how, you ask, did that lad­der make MY heart thump, when I wasn’t even alive in 1935, the year the tri­al took place? Well … I grew up just a few blocks from the famous Flem­ing­ton cour­t­house, and our house was next to that of my pater­nal grand­moth­er, who remem­bered that tri­al from her own child­hood. She used to tell me sto­ries about that time, and those sto­ries some­times haunt­ed me at night, when I would imag­ine a stranger plac­ing a wood­en lad­der against OUR house, climb­ing up to my bed­room win­dow, and snatch­ing me from my room. (See?– thump, thump, thump!)

The part of “inspi­ra­tion” that you CAN con­trol is your com­mit­ment to try. Sit down, pick a phrase or an image that has some emo­tion­al res­o­nance for you, and start with that. If the first one doesn’t lead you for­ward — try anoth­er one. And anoth­er. And anoth­er, if nec­es­sary. Do this often enough, and you will have the first bricks laid on a path that will lead you through the rest of your book.


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Pat Bauer
Pat Bauer
8 years ago

Thank you for some help­ful advice! I real­ly love your account of why you start­ed with the lad­der … going back to your grand­moth­er’s sto­ries, no won­der your heart was thumping!