My high school art teacher was mostly (where I was concerned) nasty and inept, but once in a while he said something worth hearing. One of these things was “Don’t depend on inspiration. Art is 98% work and 2% inspiration.”

I now know he probably didn’t invent that saying, but he’s right, though for myself, I’d give inspiration a few more percentage points. I find there are two moments of inspiration; there’s a moment when you get an inspiring idea and there might be a moment in the midst of working out the idea that you are inspired again, inspired within the work you’re doing. This happens to me all the time. I think a lot of writers/artists can be inspired BY their work. I hope so, anyway, because it’s the best.

For nearly two years (I think?) I’ve been writing what I’ve called “The Schneebelis Come to America.” It’s been pure drudgery most of the time. The protagonist I found unlikeable. I didn’t want to write a female heroine for many reasons but mostly because, right now, a female heroine almost MUST be a certain type of female. Since the Schneebelis (and their adventures) are based on my own family and its history, and I would have stayed in Switzerland, and would like to be there now, I kept getting a little angry them for emigrating. And, the damned thing was (is) a love story. I didn’t want to write a love story.

But I had to write it. I felt not only compelled but IMPELLED (impaled?). It was the strangest inspiration I’ve experienced. Once in a while, I’d get to it and the story would go somewhere and then it would just kind of die in a pool of my resentment over any one of those problems.

And then…

Before my hip surgery, I contacted a woman — Beth Bruno —  whom I’d hired to edit Savior and The Brothers PathI wanted someone to read it and tell me what they thought was missing. I think in my heart of hearts I KNEW what was missing, but I just didn’t want to write the damned thing any more and was hoping for absolution OR “Gawd, woman, this is awful. Put it away FOREVER.”

What I got was:

I must say, this is a touching story about family with its focus on marriage and how two people in love can still find it impossible to move ahead because their life goals are so different. Love doesn’t conquer all after all. They explore difficult issues of love, loyalty, compromise and taking risks at various choice points in their lives.
The reason I think it deserves a longer ending that allows the story to develop further is that I don’t think enough happens after the family reaches America to give the reader some sense of whether the trip was worth it or not. The fact that their passage wound up being on a death ship only makes letting the survivors cope for a few weeks that much more important. Otherwise, the loss of Verena and Elisabethli is for naught and teaches Hans Kaspar nothing at all. The part about the ending that I do like is seeing Conrad come into his own and go forth into the future with a sense of purpose and readiness to create a family that honors Verena’s memory.
Again, I found myself caring deeply about these people because what they are going through is so real — not only from the standpoint of your wonderful writing but also from the historical truths they portray.


OH well. We then had a phone conversation. After that, I was inspired.

So I went at it. Most important, I went at it with a not completely clear brain (it takes a while for anesthesia to fully leave an older person’s system) and not caring at all about the outcome. I really had nothing else to do. My main jobs have been regaining my physical ability and integrating a new dog into the “pack.”

As I worked, the work started to inspire me and the time I had spent writing blog posts went into the story.

Inspiration is a drug. It’s very intoxicating and no one who’s in the throes of it thinks clearly or has an objective mind. Inspiration just feels SO GOOD. One of these days I felt the whole day had been a dream — it had been a day of successful writing, fifteen minutes on the Elliptical trainer at physical therapy, two dog walks (with three dogs, there are those days) — not a special day, but when it ended I really felt I’d dreamed the whole thing. It seemed to have had no hours or minutes in it.

Yesterday I finished it and I was in love with the ending. That’s the thing about inspiration; it feels a lot like infatuation. You wonder, “Will it last?”

I wrote my editor and said, “I did it. I have an ending, but I’m not telling.” I wasn’t sure. I wanted to sleep on it. When I got up today and read it, I was LESS in love than I was yesterday, but I was happy with it.

I thought about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet which is a very wise piece of advice for anyone? Writers? Young people? and I read it first in a bookstore in Denver in Larimer Square in the early 1970s. I thought it wrote it for ME it was that apt — it’s (I now know) that apt for a lot of people. It’s a collection of letters he wrote to a young poet (duh). He warns against “Living and writing in heat.” Inspiration is “heat” — and a wise person will give the products of that ecstasy time to cool

The thing about writing — and unless I’m doing it I don’t think about it — is it is a solitary thing. When I first moved here and was finishing The Brothers Path and I didn’t know anyone, it was easy. Now I know a few people and I like them, but in the midst of inspiration, I don’t have anything in common with anyone. I’m living in a world peopled by beings that are from my imagination (and some dogs). It’s hard to have a conversation when there’s already a bunch of them going on in your head — some with yourself (“Is this where the story really goes next or am I forcing it?”) some between the people in your imagination…

So I’ve spent the last 3 months pretty much alone and, if not alone, somewhat alienated.

Rilke also writes against literary criticism (amen), saying, “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them,” after which he describes what it means to be an artist:

Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

I’m happy I didn’t force this and that I didn’t give up. I’m happy for the clear eyes of my editor who saw the love story as it is — a love that just wasn’t going to make the people involved happy. I know a lot about that kind of love, which is why I resisted “happily ever after.” The project still needs a lot of work and there are things — research related — that I want to do before it will be finished, but I’m very happy that, finally, the story engaged me and even happier that it engaged my editor in the first place. She saw what I hoped I had written.


The photo is of the Hans Herr house in Lancaster PA. He was an early Swiss immigrant — Mennonite — to Pennsylvania from Zürich.

26 thoughts on “Inspiration

  1. I think you should be both happy and proud of yourself for hiring such a great editor. I know that is (probably) what she is supposed to do, but lots of people aren’t quite so good at their job. This post made me smile, Martha. This was like an ‘Aha’ moment, and I loved reading how you found it.

    • She’s very good, and sometimes you really need the eyes of an outsider who doesn’t know anything about the project and will come to it cold. 🙂

  2. The entire — nearly a year — I spent writing felt like a dream. I barely had time to stop to sleep or eat. I don’t know how other people deal with it, but I suspect it is much the same for everyone. You’re just better at it than most of us. For me, the astonishing part was how the characters knew what they were doing and where they were going even when I didn’t. It’s a very trippy thing, the writing world. Creating characters with their own goals which may or may not have anything to do with what we intended. And when it works, when the characters come to life not just for you, but for others — well — that’s the best of all. Congratulations!

    • Writing Martin of Gfenn felt like a dream the whole time. But I learned from that the need to wake up and get to work afterwards. 😉

  3. I hear ya on this. I have found many times I feel like something I’m writing become work and so I stop. Fortunately, I’ve also found that if I just drudge through it suddenly I hit a breaking point where it gets somewhere and I’m inspired by what’s coming along, spurring me on to a final wrap up.

    Great post!

    • Sometimes there are legit dead ends but other times it’s just plugging along until you get to some magic spot you didn’t expect. 🙂

  4. That balance between inspiration and perspiration. Need both. Showing up is so important, as is trusting oneself on timing and when to work and when to rest. I’m not a writer, but I’ve found it to be true in a good many aspects of my life.

    Glad you were able to get so much done, Martha, and that the book is now there. Work remains, yes, but it sounds as though that blocking puzzle has been solved. And your hip is much healed, and you are back to a three dog household. Quite the summer!

    • Definitely quite the summer. I feel like hiding from it! What’s next? 😀

      My surgery will have been (how often does even an English teacher get to use fancy verb constructions?) three months ago a week from tomorrow when — as it happens — my friend’s husband is having his hip replacement done by the same doc. I’m going to spend the week with them in the Springs helping out or being moral support or running errands. Godnose but she wants me there so there I shall be. It is the friend who cared for me.

      I was really hoping to come to Boulder and go to Lost Lake before the summer ends. I don’t see how that will happen now, but who can say? I still cannot get on my real bicycle in a normal way, but I plan to ride it tomorrow anyhow. I get on it by lying it on the ground, straddling it and lifting it up. Pitiful but undaunted, I guess. 😀

      • Oh my–future imperfect? Learned the tenses in spanish, but that was just a few years back. Have fun in the Springs this week, and hope things go as well for your friends husband as they did for you. Happy bike riding. No rapid dismounts, please.

        • I dunno any more. Future passive I think. I am definitely opposed to rapid dismounts and I have scarred up knees as evidence of having had (ha ha another one) the experience before. Oh and a scar on my lip from the time the truck helped me dismount rapidly and the little dot it my vision from a retinal tear related to the same event. I’m going to ride at the slough… 😀

  5. I think that maybe, there is a piece of you that wished your family had taken a different path – staying in Switzerland: it’s tantalising because a dream life doesn’t include the daily grind that our present life does. From what you write it is spilling over into resentment of the character who represents this ancestor who made the decision – you disagree with your characters because of this.

    Your editor does not wear the same ‘spectacles’ which is a good thing, because she has been able to value the story for what it brings to her – and that will be different for every single person who reads this book. It is so good that she has helped you see the book has value to go out into the world.

    You might want to use this opportunity to discover the feelings that arise by the choices your ancestors made which impacted on where you are now. It might bring you peace.

    We can’t change our past, but we can reframe how we think about these unchangeable aspects to our lives. I saw this message the other day and it really helped me

    Happiness is finally letting go of the way your life should look like and embracing and celebrating it for what it is.

    You are a talented writer and being American means that your target audience for your books is a whole lot bigger than the Swiss German or Swiss French one would be… that’s a starter?

    warm wishes to you.

  6. Congratulations!!!!!!!!! That really must feel good. You’ve written something worthwhile, a memory of your family, but a story that is relatable to everyone who reads it. Well done, I’d say!

  7. I really enjoyed this piece. The process of creation can be filled with many highs and lows, big and subtle, and it’s reassuring to hear those stories. It’s also a good reminder that sometimes a little outside perspective can open doors, even if it seems counter-intuitive. Congrats on your ending!

  8. Wow! I can honestly say I am interested in reading the novel you are creating. It was intriguing to read the relationship you share with you’re editor!

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