Inspiration: Waltzing with Twain

by Phong Nguyen

It’s a dimension of writing we often ignore because it is something we cannot control. As writers, we often remind ourselves that all we can control is the number of hours we spend at our desks, composing or editing. Dwelling on inspiration is counter-productive, because it is outside of our control—a matter of mere chemistry, or luck.

Yet we can control what we read, what writers influence us, and to some degree we can control our own attitudes about that influence. We can partake in what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence”: an agon between the genius of our predecessors and our own original vision, where we painstakingly separate ourselves from the works and authors that have inspired us. Or we can embrace Jonathan Lethem’s “the ecstasy of influence”: partaking in the stream of creative afflatus, embracing the syncretistic nature of art-making, accessing the same spirit of play that animated our earliest encounters with story. This means ceding our claim to radical individualism—the notion that you or I represent an unprecedented unique vision that is divorced from all the voices that have come before it—and accepting a communal identity as writers who see themselves as a part of a continuum of language, of generations of tale-tellers, of an ongoing patchwork quilt of stories.

I used to make a habit of reading only the most non-intrusive literary voices while writing: Hemingway as opposed to Faulkner; Carver instead of Cather; Proulx instead of Proust. If a writer’s language is too distinctive, the theory goes, then their style will overwhelm the readers’, and the result will be a pale imitation of its source, rather than a sui generis “voice.” It’s cheating, in other words, to draw inspiration from the voice of others. Or worse, it’s a doomed enterprise from the start, because it will be the dreaded “D” word: derivative.

My first novel The Adventures of Joe Harper is a literary spin-off from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The relationship to its source material is shameless. The nature of the project is such that I could not wage a war in which I emerged triumphant over my influences (a la Harold Bloom), so by necessity, I warmed to my influences instead. I started out wrestling with Twain, and ended up waltzing with him. I read Twain copiously while I wrote The Adventures of Joe Harper, and I let his voice in.

My discovery in writing this novel was that inhabiting another writer’s voice was liberating, enthralling, and ultimately conducive to inspiration. But I soon found that dwelling in the author’s voice was not enough—for the purposes of this novel, I had to take possession of an individual character, one that was a hybrid invention of Twain’s and my own. I lived as Joe Harper for the duration of the writing, and frequently did not let the character go after the day’s writing was done. His voice and my voice fused to the point where I frequently felt as though I were channeling the story more than authoring it.

Several different authors seem to have simultaneously happened upon this revelation on their own: that “Method Acting” has a fruitful and useful analogue in writing. Earlier this year, The Independent featured an article by Thomas Hodgkinson citing Thomas Fink and Alexander Fiske-Harrison as the precursors to “Method Writing.” Also this year, the BBC did a write-up on Hodgkinson himself, whose novel Memoirs of a Stalker was written immersively. At least two writing teachers, Dick Bentley and Jack Grapes, maintain websites that promise writing results from what they independently title “Method Writing.” The earliest reference I came across to “Method Writing” was from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who in a 1998 interview with Creative Screenwriting wrote, “I joke about it, but I’m very much a method writer. I really become the characters when I’m writing them. I’ll become one or two of them more than others, I’m consistent that way. I become all of them when I’m writing, but I’ll become one or two when I’m not writing.”

All of these seem to me paths towards inspiration. Call them shortcuts if you would. If you remain open to its influence, dwelling for a while in another author’s voice can sometimes be the spark that fires the engine of inspiration. But inhabiting a character and letting him or her take control of the wheel is, for some, a necessary point of departure, after which one knows for sure that the story’s work is truly begun. There is still the hard work of laying words down on the page, but that work feels much more like just living your life when your character is, like the author herself, embodied and animate.

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phong-04c-1Phong Nguyen is the author of the novel The Adventures of Joe Harper (Outpost19, 2016) and two story collections: Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014) and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011). He teaches fiction-writing at the University of Central Missouri, where he currently serves as editor of Pleiades. His own stories have been published in more than 40 national literary journals, including Agni, Boulevard, Iowa Review, Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

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