The Anatomy of Inspiration

This is a case of art inspiring art.

I know I’m on the tail-end of the Jay-Z/Kanye “Otis” rage. The song has been blaring through car speakers, stereo speakers and MP3 devices for the past few months. At my cousin’s wedding reception back in September, the DJ cued up “Otis” and the crowd went lost their minds.All the young people flocked to the dance floor, moving their bodies to the infectious, driving rhythm of the song. Meanwhile, the older folks sat on the sidelines listening a familiar voice from their past crooning and then being looped while Kanye and Jay-Z rapped at a rapid-fire pace.

In a case of old meets new, the younger generation got introduced to Otis Redding, the soul legend probably best known for “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” who died too soon. The older generation, on the other hand, already knew of Kanye and Jay-Z, both provocative, multi-award winning artists that can be seen or heard on any channel of the TV or radio any given hour of the day.

What comes first? The inspiration or the inspiration? I’m always intrigued by what inspires artists to create their art. In music, I appreciate inventive uses of samples, and in this case, I love what Jay-Z and Kanye did with “Try A Little Tenderness.” Kanye took the driving part of the hook and let it go until Redding got into a guttural groove and then looped it. I thought it was brilliant.

There was a video clip of the audio of the song (that has since been removed from YouTube). The comments from posters were rather interesting, if you ask me. (Please note, the time stamps in the comments below probably do not match up with the video that’s posted above. But you get the gist of what they’re saying.)

  • “2:00 is where Kayne found his treasure……..he took a chunk.
  • 3:263:29 is where the magic happens…..he looped the Hell out of that!
  • Shout out to Def Jam for sending Otis peoples (sic) that Royalty Check!” – BrainFood

Art has been inspiring art for as long as man has been creating. I took a class in grad school examining the history of the short story. It was interesting to learn who inspired whom. We spent much of the semester deconstructing some of early short stories of E.T.A. Hoffman, Heinrich von Kleist, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Guy de Maupassant and others. We looked at the progression of the short story form and how one author was influenced by a predecessor and so on and so on. Then we were challenged to write pastiches, allowing ourselves to be inspired by one of the many classic short stories we read in class. My most successful pastiche in the class was inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s “Madame Tellier’s Establishment.” I used the framework and some techniques from de Maupassant’s work to create a story that could stand on its own. Some who have read it suggest I should enter it in a literary contest of some sort. I just might do that one of these days.

Who or what has inspired you lately?

Post Haste

“I post, therefore, I am.”

I recently had surgery and now am traveling on an eight-week road to recovery. What was supposed to be a two-hour surgery and a two-day hospital stay, ended up being a four-hour procedure and five-day ordeal. The first two days after surgery, I was very woozy. Nurses struggled to keep me upright when I wasn’t in the hospital bed. I don’t remember much else about those first two days. But once the fog of anesthesia and painkillers wore off, I was ready to trade in my scratchy hospital gown for fluffy pajamas, and the uncomfortable hospital bed for my own.

Unfortunately, the doctors and I didn’t see eye to eye. They said my post-surgery vitals weren’t up to par and that they needed to see significant improvement before they would discharge me. That was frustrating. I had been doing all that they had instructed me, including taking short walks around the hospital floor, and doing breathing exercises on several times a day. Still, the doctors saw little improvement over the next couple of days.

What was I to do?

I started tweeting about it.

Social media provides me with an outlet and, at times, a lifeline. I have found that social media apps such as Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook are great tools for connecting with friends and people who have similar interests.

Many of my friends on Twitter and Instagram were happy to see my posts from the hospital, and the interaction with them – the outside world – was refreshing. Who wants to be cooped up in a hospital room for five days with a bunch of prodding nurses and a TV with just twelve channels?

Hey, the Washington Post liked my pic on Instagram!

During my stay, I had a few visitors and phone calls from friends and family. Those moments provided some bright spots along my road to recovery. Yet I missed interacting with my friends on Twitter, reading through the timelines, engaging in discussions. My loving husband took pity on me, and after two days brought my phone to the hospital because he knew I missed tweeting, chatting and interacting.

Apparently, not all my “tweeple” and friends on Facebook were happy to see me back online. Someone relayed a couple of snarky comments from a couple of friend-slash-associates, “Oh, Kim must be doing well. I see she’s online.” I was advised that my posting online possibly was giving people the wrong impression: that my surgery wasn’t as serious as I had told them, or that I wasn’t taking my recovery as seriously as I should. That irritated me.

Social media has permeated every facet of society. It has opened up a world where people can interact with media outlets, organizations, banks, politicians, public figures and religious leaders and vice versa. Social media drives how we get information, form opinions, how we perceive and are perceived. Where it was once largely unaccepted to use social media apps in public venues, it is encouraged on many levels. Performance artists love it when their audience and fans post about their shows. Stores appreciate positive posts about their merchandise and customer service. At the church I attend, the pastor, who is very social media savvy, encourages the congregation to tweet inspirational moments during church services.

However, there are those who haven’t embraced social media, and there are others who only dabble in it, maintaining a limited presence. I find that people who aren’t fully immersed in social media, or at least accepting of it tend dismiss the rest of us as dysfunctional over-sharers. It appeared that some people viewed my post-surgery tweets as over-sharing. Mind you, I didn’t post photos of incisions or IV tubes, nor did I go into detail about my procedure or BP readings or vital stats.

How did I resolve to address the matter? Via social media, of course!

Funny how these same people have yet to call, email or even tweet me to see how I’m doing, encourage me, or to ask what they can do to help during my recovery. I now know where to file them.

Poets & Writers: Rank & File

Poets & Writers MFA NationThose of you plugged into the MFA world – whether it be as a current or prospective student or faculty member of a graduate writing program – you’re well aware of the annual MFA program rankings by the fine folks over at Poets & Writers. I tend not to read too much into the rankings mainly because they are highly subjective in nature.

The 2012 MFA and PhD program rankings created a firestorm in the MFA and graduate creative writing community. (If you ask me, it’s about time…but I digress.) P&W’s editors drew fire from almost 200 faculty from various writing programs across the country. Those faculty members issued an open letter to the publication criticizing the process, the criteria and the results. A press release issued on behalf of the 190 creative writing faculty members, called Poets & Writers‘ ranking system “specious” and “disingenuous”.

At issue is how P&W came up with the criteria for ranking schools, and the small sample of participants (readers of the Creative Writing MFA Blog) polled for the survey. The faculty members take umbrage at the notion that P&W did not factor in “faculty or writing reputations” in determining their rankings. Mary Gannon, P&W’s editorial director countered in a lengthy response that, “faculty quality is too complex to assess.”

I view this “war of words” between P&W and the faculty with particular interest. I recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University, a school with not one, but two graduate writing programs. There is the M.A. in Writing Program, a rigorous, part-time program (from which I graduated this past spring). Then there are the Writing Seminars, a prestigious, full-time, two-year MFA program – which ranks 17th on this year’s list. I aspired to get into the Writing Seminars, but the program is full-time and highly competitive, so I went for the next best thing. Ultimately I want to teach writing, and in order to do so, I need at least an MFA to be taken seriously. But many MFA programs are full-time, and that won’t work for a working girl like me. So I’ve been looking at part-time MFA programs in the region, and have found a couple that I’m considering seriously and applying to now.

Did I look at P&W’s past MFA rankings in my search for an MFA program? Sure. (I should note here that P&W also ranks part-time and low-residency programs, too.) Did the rankings influence my decision to consider or avoid certain programs? Not really. I had my own criteria (location, diversity of faculty and students, good restaurants near campus – hey, a girl’s gotta eat) to factor into my decision. I simply used P&W’s rankings as a springboard in my own decision-making process.

While both P&W and the faculty members at odds with the publication make valid points, I find myself siding with the faculty. Using such an exclusive pool of individuals (readers of a particular blog) as the basis for this survey hardly presents an opportunity to get objective, wide-ranging data. Why didn’t P&W post a survey on its website or print it in its publication? Surely people like me would have seen in and responded. I’ve visited the Creative Writing MFA Blog on a number of occasions as well as P&W’s Speakeasy Forum. I’ve read the opinions and advice from other MFA applicants, current and former students. And to be quite honest, most of what I read was – in large part – questions, opinions and criticisms of programs in P&W’s past top rankings. So rather than reading comments about the same 15-20 schools that everyone was interested in, I decided to take the list and do my own research on a few. In the end, the schools that I am considering now for my MFA aren’t even on P&W’s top 50 for 2012. But I know based on what I’ve read about these programs, and recommendations from some faculty at JHU, these are excellent programs with great faculty and reputations.

Judging by the flurry of activity on P&W’s Comments page, MFA-gate isn’t going away anytime soon. I’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days, that’s for sure. But in the meantime, I’ve got writing samples to gather and a statement of purpose that just won’t finish writing itself.  And right now, that ranks #1 on my priority list.

A Friend of the Written Word

I had the pleasure of meeting one of my favorite authors, Tayari Jones, at the Gaithersburg Book Festival back in May. She’s the author of a fascinating and breathtaking new novel, Silver Sparrow, that has garnered much critical acclaim in the literary world. When I learned that she was going to be one of the featured authors at the book festival, I knew I had to make the trek from Baltimore to Gaithersburg to see her.

It was mesmerizing to hear her read from Silver Sparrow. Her words floated off the page and danced in the air, stirring up all kinds of thoughts and emotions in the standing-room only crowd. A very lively discussion about Tayari’s book, the subject and the writing process soon followed. It’s strange to say, but for some reason I felt energized and affirmed as a writer on that day.

After the reading, I went over to the authors’ signing tent to get her autograph. While waiting in line I gripped the book in my hands, its gorgeously iridescent cover shimmered in the sunlight.  When my turn finally came, Tayari and I chatted for a few, brief moments before she signed my book: “To Kimberly, Keep putting words on the page. Tayari Jones 2011.”

I started reading Silver Sparrow when I got home that evening and couldn’t put it down. It only took me a few days to finish the novel and then to start touting it to friends, family and my “tweeps” in the Twitterverse.

Since then, I’ve been reluctant to loan my copy of the book out for fear of someone else falling in love with it and not giving it back. So imagine my surprise when Tayari Jones tweeted the other day that she was signing bookplates for readers. I jumped on it. Even though she had already autographed my copy of her book, I asked for a couple of signed bookplates for copies I had planned to give to a couple of friends. She graciously obliged my request, and she included a signed bookplate for me:

From one friend of the written word to another, thank you for the affirmation, Tayari! My novel is a work in progress, but I’m still putting words on the page...

Worse Than A Dark and Stormy Night…

Bad writing makes you do this.

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.” – Sue Fondrie

Full of hyperbole and overwrought with dramatic imagery, Sue Fondrie’s opening line has won her top honors from the fine folks who run the Bulwer-Lytton Contest. This contest, established in 1983, was named for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the man who tormented the world of literature with what is probably the most horrific first sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest, which was started by San Jose State University professor Scott Rice, celebrates (in jest) bad writing gone horribly wrong.

Fondrie, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has been included in the “Lyttony” of past years’ winners. You can check out their horrifically wretched sentences, many of which will have you laughing, crying or cringing…or maybe churning your mind like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine.

Don’t try this at home, folks.


Source: Poets & Writers Magazine

The Art of Giving Back

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an article about a writing workshop for ex-offenders in Baltimore’s City Paper that caught my interest. There was something folksy and raw about this grassroots workshop that brought together experienced writers and those looking to find their voice as they re-entered society. Many of the program’s participants had stories to tell about their lives beyond life behind bars and barbed wire. The name of the workshop — Writing Outside the Fence — seemed fitting. After reading the article, a sense of urgency swept over me. I had to be a part of this effort.

My mother instilled the “giving back” mentality in my younger sister and me while we were growing up. As children, we volunteered at church sorting and folding clothes for the needy, or helping out with the church’s soup kitchen. Instead of teaching us to pity the images of the destitute and the homeless on the TV screen, my mom took us out to see what homelessness looked like on the streets of Baltimore. We met orphaned children at a local shelter. We took sandwiches and coffee to men and women living on the city streets, under bridges and in alleyways. I learned a very sobering lesson about life at a very young age.

Reading the article about this writing workshop brought back memories of my experience as a literacy tutor at church. It was humbling for me, then in high school, to sit with men and women old enough to be my grandparents and help them learn to recoqnize letters, numbers and simple words. When they were able to read that first sentence aloud on their own, and write sentences for the first time, their sense of pride brought tears to my eyes. I had taken the letters and the words they were struggling to learn for granted.

And so, on a muggy afternoon in June of 2007, I headed downtown to Enoch Pratt Library‘s Central Branch for a reading by the participants in the Writing Outside the Fence workshop. I had to meet these people. Both the instructors and the participants were rock stars in my mind. I wanted to be a part of this effort to help those struggling to find and hone their voice.

Their writing blew me away. One after the other, they stood up to read powerful, beautifully-written pieces about life, love, loss, hope, darkness, regret, redemption and God. The creative energy in the room gave me a buzz. I wanted to sit in on the next workshop (which is open to the public, by the way). After the reading I introduced myself to the workshop organizer and told her as much. “That’s wonderful, she replied. “But we’re looking for instructors. Would you be interested?” I didn’t feel like I could contribute anything by teaching a workshop. But she asked me to give it a try.

I’m glad I did.

I’ve been involved in the Writing Outside the Fence workshops for four years now. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. In addition to the weekly writing workshops (held on Tuesday at the Re-Entry Center at Mondawmin Mall), we’ve held several workshops and reading events at the Brock Bridge correctional facility in Jessup. I can look beyond the records and rap sheets and see the stories, the potential and the untapped talent that reside in the hearts of these men and women. Everyone has a story to tell, and no matter who you are, what you’ve done or where you’ve come from, everyone deserves to be heard.

Since becoming a part of the WOTF family, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for writing and for the power of words on the page. I’ve probably learned much more than I’ve taught in the past four years. There is a beauty in helping others breathe life into their thoughts and ideas in order unleash their stories waiting to be told.

A Story Is Born

Columbus Day 2009. I was just a month into my fourth semester of writing classes as Hopkins, a few days into a new job and I had less than 30 days until my wedding. I was trying my best to stay calm and organized, despite the growing frenzy that was brewing. There was still a lot to do for the wedding. The DIY bride in me was not willing to surrender the creative projects to my very capable wedding planner. Add to that the pressure of landing a new job…a government job where everything had a form and an acronym to boot.

On top of all of the real life pressures tugging at me, I had to churn out an endless stream of fresh writing and critiques for my fiction workshop at school. I was able to take an unpolished piece from a previous class, brush it up and submit it for workshop the first time around, but this time, I had to come up with something new. The clock was ticking. I had workshop on Saturday, and I didn’t have a word on the page. With just a few days (literally a few hours) to work with, I wasted no time putting something on the page. I pulled something from recent memory, and started shaping it into a story. I didn’t map it out ahead of time, or create an outline. I just started writing with reckless abandon. Characters just sprung into action. Scenes unfolded as quickly as the words came to mind. I didn’t put much into the piece in terms of consciousness. Looking back on my first draft of the story, I honestly don’t remember writing much of what was there. It just happened.

Then I turned the story in for workshop. My classmates had a week to read, re-read and then write a critique of my story detailing their opinions of what was working, what wasn’t and how I could revise it. I was prepared for a lot of comments about a lack of structure, a lack of focus, or about the fact that I wrote the piece in present tense.

What was said and what actually happened shocked me.

My classmates commented on how intimate and gripping the story was. Someone used the word “organic” to describe the writing. My professor sat at the front of the room, nodding and agreeing with much of what was being said. Then they delved into what needed work. Of course, the story was floundering in places. It was a rough draft. Of course, I had a lot of crying, and dashes of hyperbolic writing in places. I’m an emotional person and it tends to show up in my writing. There were other things that were mentioned as areas of potential improvement, but overall, my classmates like the piece.

The funny thing about writing workshops is that the person being workshopped is much like a pedestrian at the corner of a busy intersection watching rush-hour traffic. You have somewhere to go, you’ve got to get across, but you have to wait until the light changes. That’s how I felt watching my classmates dissect my writing, trying to figure out if my story was based on a real event (it was), or if it was part of a larger work (it wasn’t).

After class was over, my professor asked me to stay for a few because she needed to talk to me. I was nervous because a few weeks prior she had asked the same thing, but that time it was to admonish me for being late to class two weeks in a row. Commuting from Baltimore to DC even on the weekend was dicey as a bad accident or a DC protest could put the breaks on everything. I wasn’t late this particular week. In fact, I was early. I was nervous and embarrased watching my classmates stream out of the room and into the halls to enjoy the balance of their Saturday afternoon.

With everyone gone, and the door closed, she looked at me and said, “I don’t say this to everyone that comes into my class, but I have to say this to you: You have it.”

I was floored, stunned, thinking I knew what she was saying, but then I wasn’t so sure.

“I read your story the first time through and was blown away,” she said.

Blown away by a first draft? A rough draft? This wasn’t even my best writing.

She keenly sensed that I was just framing something on the page and that it wasn’t a part of a larger work (as in a novel or something), but she said, “it needs to be. This belongs in a novel.” She told me my characters — three generations of women coping together through a crisis — resonated with her. She told me my work could go places. She said I was “publishable.” I melted. I’d been called lots of things, but never “publishable” before.

After our discussion which seemed to go on for ever, I floated out of the room, onto the elevator and onto the streets of DC. Two large epiphanies unfolded before me that day. I was affirmed as a writer, by a writer, someone who went through the same writing program at Hopkins and went on to get a publishing deal with Random House. I also accepted the fact that the story that spilled onto the page was much bigger than I was willing to see before. The story had been there all the time; in fact, I had been running from it. However, a room full of talented and accomplished writers saw its merit and gave me the push I needed to acknowledge what had been there all along.