Literary Distance, Mark Mayer, And A Song From Hercules

As a writer, one of the most difficult tasks can simply be finding inspiration for your work. Sure Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and a score of other canonical, platitude-spouting authors say you should write and be inspired every day (lest you be doomed from the start), but for the rest of us mortals, how should we go about finding and, more importantly, pursuing inspiration?

I can’t say I have the complete answer to this question. But, as I found out by sitting in on Mark Mayer’s Lit Fest class, Distance in the Literary Imagination, inspiration in part has to do with the way writers approach their subjects. According to Mark, every subject in writing involves traveling some kind of distance. It could be literal (as in I’m sitting in Denver trying to write about Antarctica) or it could be metaphysical and emotional distance (maybe I’m trying to connect with a character whose only desire is a serenade from Kevin Federline). Theoretically, if authors can tap into and traverse this distance, they have a key to finding the heart of their subject.

At the beginning of class, we started with distance as a requisite part of desire by exploring Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which is best summed up by the lines, “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.”

From Hass’s poem, we moved on to a letter from Rainer Marie Rilke to Emanuel von Bodman in which Rilke argues that marriage should be an exercise in guarding the other’s solitude: “[O]nce the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!” Although here Rilke is talking about people in real life, the same notion applies to authors and their characters. There’s an immense amount of pressure on writers to anticipate every action, every thought, and every decision their characters make. In working against this idea and in embracing the insurmountable distance between you and your characters, you allow your characters to reveal themselves to you.

In addition to Hass and Rilke, we also looked at Rebecca Solnit’s “The Blue of Distance,” a few excerpts from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. In the endless search for inspiration, on the one hand, you can follow Calvino and explore the distance between yourself and a physical place. What immediately speaks to you about the setting? What makes you feel close to or far away from it? On the other hand, you can follow desire like Solnit. What do you currently want more than anything else? What objects do you feel particularly drawn to or repulsed by? What will drive your character to act when nothing else will? On the proverbial third hand, you can take a page from Maxwell and use interwoven levels of distance to transport yourself across time (backwards, forwards, sideways, you name it) to see what stands out from a particularly strong memory.

So in short, instead of following aphorisms—“If your character sneezes what color is the tissue?” “If your character meets Kathy Lee Gifford, what kind of wine do they bring as a peace offering?”—consider romancing your story a bit. Try to approach your subject, setting, and characters by feeling out the distance between them and yourself. To quote Michael Bolton’s song from that animated version of Hercules, when searching for inspiration, I encourage you to “go the distance.”

Sarah Crum was Lighthouse's summer intern. Mark Mayer will be teaching our 4-Week Revising the Short Story class starting September 12.