Tag: Inspiration

What Can We Steal From Peter Sutton’s “White Noise/Black Silence”?


Title of Work and its Form: “White Noise/Black Silence,” short story
Author: Peter Sutton (on Twitter @suttope)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in 1000words, a cool online journal that celebrates flash fiction.  The journal pairs stories with the photographs that inspired them.  The story is available here.

Bonuses:  Here is a story Mr. Sutton published in Hodderscape.  Mr. Sutton also reviews books for Oneworld.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration

What a disturbing little piece of flash fiction!  If you’ll notice, Mr. Sutton was prompted by Heather Stanley’s image of a long, bleak hallway fitted on either side with heavy metal doors.  The third-person narrator tells the story of a man who has been locked in a small cell behind one of those yellow doors.  He has done something “unforgivable” and is now hobbled and force-fed to atone for his sin-a transgression left ambiguous.  

The first thing I have to point out is the conceit of the story.  Mr. Sutton saw Ms. Stanley’s image and put to paper (or Word document) whatever popped in his mind.  We all have trouble finding inspiration at times, but there’s really no reason for us to have this problem.  Not in the beautiful, complicated and ugly world we all share.  Whether or not you’re having trouble coming up with a story or a poem-worthy turn of phrase, simply turn to Google Image search.  Or the coffee table book in front of your sofa.  Or whatever magazine is closest.  There are powerful spells to be cast in each image.  Check out this beautiful image of Holland House, a building that was destroyed during World War II:

holland house
The public domain image comes from the British Library. (Isn’t public domain wonderful?) URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11221250334/sizes/l/

There are so many stories in this single image!  Who are the people on the grounds?  What are they saying to each other?  Where are the Hollands now?  (You know…where could you imagine they are?  Why are there iron gates surrounding the property?  Are there servants?  What are they up to?  Who under that roof is sleeping with whom?  Who under the roof is contemplating murder?  Suicide?  Bank robbery?  The possibilities are limitless.

What about this one?

From the British Library. URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11247455113/sizes/l/

From London to Australia in only forty days on a steam ship?  Sign me up!  (I’m not sure I’m even joking.)  What are the passengers trying to escape?  What are the passengers hoping to find?  What happens at sea?  What about the person who sells you the ticket?  What are their lives like?

Mr. Sutton (in addition to all of the other 100owords contributors) is teaching us that a photographic representation of a moment in time can be turned into a prose narrative.  Mr. Sutton is also following the example of John Lennon, who cadged the lyrics for “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” from a circus poster from the 1840s.  Why not thumb through some images and see what your muse decides to do?

Mr. Sutton makes a necessary and shrewd choice in the story.  The narrative isn’t very complicated; it’s a man locked up in a room.  The conceit doesn’t exactly allow for a Michael Bay movie to take place.  How does Mr. Sutton compensate?  He makes use of all of the sensory information that he can.

  • Sight: “He could see the short corridor of yellow doors…”
  • Hearing: “There was a hiss, like a radio tuned into the highest frequencies of static.”
  • Taste: “…he woke hours later with a cotton wool feeling in his mouth…”
  • Smell: Implied with the details about the character’s difficulty during use of the toilet.
  • Touch: “He had been stripped of the simple papery all in one suit he had been wearing.”

Mr. Sutton does take care to point out that the tiny cell seems to the protagonist to resemble a sensory deprivation chamber, but he frees the narrator from such a restriction.  (He didn’t have a choice, did he?)

And what about that ambiguous ending?  I do wonder why these men are locked up. (And Mr. Sutton does seem to make it clear the inmates are all men.) What is unforgivable? What crimes justify hobbling a man?  By leaving the transgression ambiguous, Mr. Sutton avoids any counterproductive debates. Sure, we’re all pretty bummed about dogfighting, but we might get mired in a discussion as to the seriousness of the punishment an offender should receive.  Mr. Sutton sidesteps anything that may derail the enjoyment of the story. What did the protagonist do to find himself in his situation?  It’s up to you.

What Should We Steal?

  • Swipe a story or a phrase from a public domain image.  You can certainly steal from a friend’s work if you have permission. You get the idea. What are some unique phrases that come to mind when you look-really look-at a Mathew Brady Civil War photo?
  • Make use of all of the senses, particularly when your character can’t.  Sure, you know the basic five, but don’t forget that plants, animals and machines can sense all kinds of different stimuli.
  • Employ ambiguity to avoid debates that may derail a narrative.  You may wish to focus on the aftermath of the divorce, not the issues that resulted in the breakup. If you leave out details, you prevent a literal and sticky “he said/she said” and keep the reader’s focus on the story.

What Can We Steal From Lorrie Moore’s “Referential”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Referential,” short story
Author: Lorrie Moore
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.  Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor selected the story to appear in Best American Short Stories 2013.

Bonuses:  Here is an interview Ms. Moore did with The Paris Review.  Here‘s a brief New Yorker interview in which Ms. Moore discusses “Referential.”  Here is what Karen Carlson thought about the story.  Here is another interesting discussion about the piece.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration

The female protagonist is a widower whose sixteen-year-old son has some mental health problems.  He cuts himself and has been institutionalized.  Her boyfriend Pete has been around for a decade, but he’s now as far away from the narrator as the son is.  She and Pete visit the son, whose problems only seem worse when added to customary teenage rebellion.  During a quiet scene in her home, she and Pete talk around their problems until she fibs: “Someone is phoning here from your apartment.”  Pete hightails it, confirming that his affection is alienated.  The story ends with another phone call; “she” answers the phone, but no one answers her.

This might be a fairly short story because of its genesis.  Ms. Moore borrowed some of the tone and ideas from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.”  Both pieces are brief and both deal with a couple whose relationship is under stress and with mental illness.  Mr. Nabokov and Ms. Moore both end their stories with ringing phones.  Ms. Moore certainly didn’t “steal” in an improper manner, of course.  She simply thought of “Signs and Symbols” and allowed her muse to dictate a new story while Mr. Nabokov’s work was rattling around in her head.

When Henry Ford built his first cars, he had the automobiles of others in mind as he scribbled down designs.  The makers of the first automobiles thought about horse-drawn carriages.  The makers of horse-drawn carriages thought about more primitive wheeled vehicles.  The point is that we’re all influence by those who came before us.  Why follow Ms. Moore’s example with a public domain story that may have slipped out of regular readership?

We’ve all read “Young Goodman Brown.”  Mr. Hawthorne wrote a lot of other short stories that were popular in his time.  Why not make a cup of tea, curl up with one of his lesser-known works and see what comes to mind?

I love the 1001 Nights.  (You should, too.)  These stories are very much in the public domain; what would happen if you adapt one of the tales into a modern setting?  What does your muse say about the very different ways in which contemporary people solve their romantic problems?

You probably know who Vladimir Nabokov was.  What about the writers whose work is no longer given a great deal of critical attention.  Read the stories and poems in an ancient issue of The Atlantic Monthly and see what you come up with.  If nothing else, you’ll likely be the only person in the world who has interacted with T.R. Sullivan’s “The Whirligig of Fortune.”  And check it out!  Sullivan stole his ending from one of our favorite writers!  (Do you know which one?)


Ms. Moore has a LOT of exposition that she needs to dump in the first couple pages of the story.  If we don’t understand the protagonist’s relationship with Pete, we won’t care about the end of the story.  If we don’t understand the struggles she has had with her son, we won’t feel the full weight of her situation.  What are some of the techniques Ms. Moore employs?

  • A provocative first sentence:

For the third time in three years,

Uh oh…that’s a problem unless we’re talking about winning the lottery.


Okay, there are multiple characters in this undesirable situation.

talked about what would be a suitable birthday present

The characters must be fairly close; how often have you asked a cabbie what kind of present you should get your significant other?

for her

Okay, exclusion by pronoun.  I’ll point out more about this in a moment.

deranged son.

Aaaaand there we go.  The son has some kind of serious mental health problem.

  • Efficient use of pronouns.  Ms. Moore indicates the boy’s parentage with the simple use of an unlikely pronoun.  It’s “her” deranged son, not “theirs.”  A lesser writer (such as myself) may have wasted a whole sentence on this bit of exposition.
  • Condensing the basics into description.  We need to know how old the kid is.  An eighteen-year-old in a mental institution carries far different connotations from a five-year-old in the same place.  We also want to know how long Pete (the “not the father”) has been around.  In the second paragraph, Ms. Moore gives us all of this information in one sentence.
  • A pushy narrator.  Instead of beating around the bush, Ms. Moore simply has her narrator tell you why Pete hasn’t committed to the protagonist:

(He did not blame her son - or did he?)

Employing these and other techniques is particularly important when you’re writing a story as short as “Referential.”  Very short stories are harder to write because EVERY LITTLE ELEMENT MUST BE PERFECT.  On the other hand, this efficiency makes the story that much more beautiful.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make a conscious effort to gain inspiration from a classic or forgotten work.  Reach outside your comfort zone or familiar bookshelves for new literary soil to till.
  • Condense your exposition bombs in as many ways as you can manage.  We want to spend more time watching your characters interact and less time learning the basics about them.

What Can We Steal From Heather Dubrow’s “Interview by the Board, or, Barking up the Wrong Hydrant”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Interview by the Board, or, Barking up the Wrong Hydrant,” poem
Author: Heather Dubrow
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Asinine Poetry.  You can find the poem here.

Bonuses:  Here are the books that Ms. Dubrow has published, some of them scholarship and some of them creative writing.  Here is an intelligent review of Ms. Dubrow’s book Forms and Hollows. If you have access to JSTOR through your library-aren’t libraries great?-you can read an essay about the Sonnets that Ms. Dubrow wrote for Shakespeare Quarterly.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration


This brief poem begins with a snippet from the New York Times.  Apparently, co-op boards have now taken to interviewing pets before allowing their owners into the building.  Ms. Dubrow then offers an example of what that interview might sound like.

Ms. Dubrow is a fascinating woman.  I thought I recognized her name from somewhere when I read the poem and I must have stumbled upon her scholarship along the way.  I adore people like Ms. Dubrow, who are full citizens of two important words; Ms. Dubrow helps us understand what literature means and creates it herself.  I also foster not-so-secret desires to be an Elizabethan/Shakespeare/Early Modern scholar myself, in part because all of the people I know who are in the field are incredibly FUN and DEDICATED.  Ms. Dubrow displays some of this playfulness in this poem.  In a way, Ms. Dubrow is honoring writers such as Shakespeare and Jonson and Marlowe because she finds inspiration in the mundane things around her.   Shakespeare didn’t have the Internet or newspapers as we know them, but he was always tossing in references to current events or celebrities or other writers.  Ms. Dubrow found humor in an article from the Times and shared her flash of amusement with us.  Were Shakespeare writing today, would he be sharing his wit on Twitter?  (I’m curious as to what real scholars think.)

The questions and answers in Ms. Dubrow’s poem are offered in a sing-songy musical theater style.  Compare these lines:

Q: In elevators are you subdued?
A: Those growling kids are much more rude.

To the lines from the Monorail song from that classic episode of The Simpsons:

Miss Hoover: I hear those things are awfully loud.
Lyle Lanley: It glides as softly as a cloud.
Apu: Is there a chance the track could bend?
Lyle Lanley: Not on your life, my Hindu friend.
Barney: What about us brain-dead slobs?
Lyle Lanley: You’ll all be given cushy jobs.

The lines of both examples are imbued with easy-to-detect meter and rhyme.  This light-hearted approach is appropriate for both works.  Conan O’Brien and the other Simpsons writers were trying to recreate the fun of musicals such as The Music Man.  Ms. Dubrow offers us the fanciful image of a dog climbing into a chair and speaking to a co-op board.  The poem is very short, so Ms. Dubrow didn’t bog the piece down with a complicated structure or form.  (Not to mention the fact that it appears in a magazine called Asinine Poetry.)  Ms. Dubrow’s approach to this piece is perfectly fitting-she invited us into the Times‘ world of “talking dogs” and left us quickly and with happy hearts.

What Should We Steal?

  • Find inspiration in everything around you, not just the most explicitly poetic.  There is humor and joy and sadness in the everyday, even if the object of your inspiration doesn’t really deserve a 2,000-word essay.
  • Match the mete, rhyme and diction of your piece to its subject matter.   A “silly” piece deserves to be examined in that same “silly” spirit.

What Can We Steal From Philip Levine’s “My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart”?


Title of Work and its Form: “My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart,” poem
Author: Philip Levine
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem debuted in The Forward and has subsequently been anthologized and reprinted.  The poem concludes Mr. Levine’s 1994 poem collection, The Simple Truth, a book that won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize.  You can also find the poem in This Is My Best: Great Writers Share Their Favorite Work, a book edited by Retha Powers and Kathy Kiernan.  Mr. Levine also contributed a brief essay in which he describes the creation of the poem.

Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Levine gave to The Paris Review.  Here is an NPR interview in which Mr. Levine discusses his upbringing and poetry.  Here is the Library of Congress page dedicated to Mr. Levine, a Poet Laureate Emeritus.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration

Mr. Levine and I have a lot in common.  We were both born in the Detroit area and we both write poetry.  Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of it.  Mr. Levine chose to conclude his book with this poem and his entry in This Is My Best reinforces that the poem means a great deal to him.  As well it should; the poem’s first person narrator begins the work by evoking an ancient memory, his father “commanding” a kitchen match to flame with his thumbnail and talking about important things.  The narrator “fast-forwards” sixty years to the present, putting the old memories into context.  Mr. Levine (and the narrator) were children when Hitler was coming to power; the poem presents a slice of what the world was like before it changed and before Mr. Levine developed his powerful critical faculties.

I love the way Mr. Levine opens the poem:

I remember the room in which he held

a kitchen match and with his thumbnail

commanded it to flame

The image explicitly communicates that the poem is a story and implies that the tone will be a a quiet, contemplative one instead of a more intense one.  The match itself is a kind of campfire, right?  How many life lessons have been shared by parents under such conditions?  The beginning of the flame, the beginning of the Lucky Strike moment: these are subconscious cues to the reader that he or she is about to get the same kind of important lesson as the narrator receives.

Before I read Mr. Levine’s essay in This Is My Best, I thought that the title of the poem sounded like the title of a work of visual art.  (I swear!  I even wrote “TITLE LIKE A WORK OF ART” in the margin.)  In that short essay, Mr. Levine describes his reluctant visit to a museum, whereupon he was struck by a painting: “My Father with Cigarette,” by Harry Lieberman.  Mr. Levine was inspired for a number of reasons.  The story of Mr. Lieberman’s father bore some resemblance to that of his own, for example.  The poem, Mr. Levine points out, came out of him relatively quickly and easily and he simply augmented the title of the painting.  Why not follow Mr. Levine’s example?  If you look at some visual art, you’re going to be provoked into having some cool ideas.  Art can be a very potent launching point for writers.

Even better, no two writers will get the same idea or feeling from the same work.  Look up Eugene Delacroix’s “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery.”

What kind of stories or images occur to you when you look at her?

What Should We Steal?

  • Begin a didactic work with an image of convocation.  People are trained to understand when a LESSON is about to begin.  Baseball games begin with the National Anthem, court proceedings begin with a standing ovation for the judge.
  • Flip through a book or art or visit a gallery and steal away.  If your mind is open, you’re probably going to get some ideas worth jotting down.
  • TITLE FORMULA #5550199: Borrow the title of a great work of art or modify it to fit your needs.

What Can We Steal From Brian Doyle’s “The Hawk”?


Title of Work and its Form: “The Hawk,” creative nonfiction
Author: Brian Doyle
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece was first published in the February 2011 issue of The Sun.  (The glossy lit mag, not the supermarket tabloid.)  Go ahead; read the piece right here.  Subsequently, the piece was awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration

The titular hawk is a man who, as Mr. Doyle states in the story’s first sentence, “took up residence on my town’s football field, sleeping in a small tent in the northwestern corner, near the copse of cedars.”  The Hawk was, years earlier, a star on that very field who had some success in college and in the “nether reaches of the professional ranks.”  The man tried some business ventures that didn’t succeed and decided to make his home on the very ground where he first tasted glory.  The second half of the piece is Mr. Doyle’s recollection of what The Hawk said to a newspaper reporter who was writing a story about the broken social contract and wanted to use football as a hook.  The Hawk’s statements are appropriately poetic, including one very long, very beautiful sentence about the beauty that still exists in the hearts of all mankind.

If you checked the story out, you notice at first that it’s not very long.  This is not a problem; Mr. Doyle set out to give voice to The Hawk, and he did so.  Make no mistake; whenever we write creative nonfiction, we’re stealing someone else’s life in some way.  Even in a memoir, we are appropriating the lives of others; our friends, our parents and anyone else we may include in the narrative?  What are the responsibilities we have to those people?  Well, that’s up for debate.  The reporter wanted to USE The Hawk to reinforce her point about the way society lets others down.  To her, The Hawk was a character to be pitied, a man who illustrates the mistakes made by our leaders and by individuals themselves.  This is a valid way to go, but Mr. Doyle USED The Hawk to greater effect.  The beginning of the essay is contrived somewhat to evoke pathos.  How could it not?  The guy lives on the football field!  He’s living in the past.  Mr. Doyle makes a great turn, however, granting agency to The Hawk and allowing the man to tell his own story.  You know what?  The Hawk is a pretty deep guy and I’m glad to have met him instead of simply being told what he represents.

And how did Mr. Doyle reconstruct the “quietly amazing things” that The Hawk said?  Well, I don’t know Mr. Doyle, although I’m sure he’s a great guy.  Perhaps Mr. Doyle listened in wonder and then typed out what he remembered when next he was at his desk.  On the other hand, I suspect Mr. Doyle may be the kind of writer who brings a notebook with him as much as possible.  I learned this lesson early.  One day, while waiting for a Greyhound to visit an ex-girlfriend, I overheard the discussion between a man and woman who were clearly very distressed.  “Will we be forgiven for what we did?”  They wondered.  “Don’t you think everyone else will find out our shame?”  They asked.  Boy, do I wish I had had a notebook with me so I could jot down every creepy/awesome line they were trying to write for me.

What Should We Steal?

  • Grant agency to your characters, no matter your genre.  Don’t you deserve to determine the course of our own lives and how we are perceived?  Your characters deserve no less.  If you’re writing nonfiction, consider whether or not you have allowed your characters full citizenship in the work.
  • Bring a notebook with you at all times.  You never know when a great line is going to pop into your head or when you’re going to be stuck in a twenty-minute line at the grocery store in need of something to do.  Even better, you never know when something crazy is going to happen around you that demands to be recorded.