Where Does Inspiration Come From?
How a creepy, postmortem photograph compelled me to write
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I believe that the subjects I write about choose me, not the other way around. Like how in the summer of 2012, my dad handed me the creepiest thing I can recall from childhood. “Here,” he said. “You’re the family historian. You should have this.” As I held the framed photograph in my hands, a familiar chill shivered through me.
When I was little, Grandma Lillian used to pull this antique photograph out of her ancient camelback trunk she kept in her basement’s guest bedroom. That trunk— dating back to the 1880s when our ancestor first arrived in this country six generations ago—was a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Equal parts wonderful and horrifying, the trunk contained locks of her parents’ hair, rattles from rattlesnakes killed on the Sandhills ranch where she grew up, an extensive, carefully labelled seashell collection, inexplicable in landlocked Nebraska, and this photograph:
Once I grasped the crumbling antique frame in my hand, I knew I had to write about it. I needed to understand why I was so creeped out. I wanted to know what had happened, why they’d taken a photo of corpses in the first place. What was this strange curiosity that compelled me on?
There’s always something that feels mysterious and out-of-control about inspiration. Creatives of every ilk have spent a lot of time trying to explain where inspiration comes from, and the answers are vast: a muse, nature, God, wood gnomes, ego. As early as 1300, the word inspiration was used to describe the “immediate influence of God.” The Latin root inspirare meant to breathe upon, insight, inflame.Inspiration in the Middle Ages meant to impart reason to a human soul, which isn’t all the different from what a powerful piece of literature, art, or music does: it speaks to our soul.
Sometimes, when I get an idea to write about, or a flash of insight about how to solve a problem in a piece of writing, it feels very clearly like it comes from outside of myself, and from something much bigger than myself. Something Divine.
When inspiration comes to me under these conditions it feels hardly worth my business to know how it is received in the world. Just as I didn’t control the insight that led to the creation of the piece, I also cannot control what happens to it when it goes out into the world.
The essay, “Lightning Flower,” inspired by this creepy post-mortem photograph has had surprising legs out in the world. Ten years after its original publication in the Colorado Review, after it received a Notable in Best American Essays, it’s now been produced as a podcast by PenDust Radio, and it will appear in my first book, What Will Outlast Me?, which will be published in June.
While it is wonderful to receive praise and accolades for my work (who doesn’t love being recognized and compensated for work well done?), the longer I write and publish, the more I try to ignore what reception in the world my work may get, while simultaneously having the faith that it is worthy of having an audience. It is my job to be open to inspiration and to bring it into being with the skilled craftsmanship of language I am continuously honing. Being a writer is a strange balance of humility (I was merely a conduit of inspiration) and arrogance (my stories are meaningful enough to speak to someone’s soul). I hope you’ll listen to the podcast of “Lightning Flowers.” I offer it as a gift, and what you think of it—well, that’s really none of my damn business.