In Greek mythology, a Titan named Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, allowing civilization to blossom. We can do the same for our writing, filching a little of the heat from somebody else to help our own work flourish. The good news is that, unlike Prometheus, we probably won’t end up chained to a rock with an eagle eating our liver every day for eternity.
When I find my writing-gauge hitting the E—low on inspiration, energy, new words, fresh momentum for the plot—I’ll read passages from some of my favorite authors before I start writing.
The polish of other people’s strange images and startling action will often jar my own brain to realize the many paths and twists a story could take, or the potential of words to leap dynamically from adjective to verb. Instead of, The leaves on the grass were brown, I might try, The sun-browned leaves lay scattered on the grass, or even some personification with, The sun browned and curled that season's dead leaves on the lawn.
Here are excerpts from powerful books, filled with color, self-consciousness, and the worst and best of people. I hope they might do for you what they did for me.
This elegiac memory:
Sixteen years since then, but Laurel remembered the long tail and thick beak, how the green and red and yellow were so bright they seemed to glow. Most of all she remembered how light the bird felt inside the handkerchief, as if even in death retaining the weightlessness of flight.
—Ron Rash, The Cove
This bitter fight:
She made a claw of her hand and clutched at her collarbone…”Oh, you poor, self-deluded--Look at you! Look at you, and tell me how by any stretch”—she tossed her head, and the grin of her teeth glistened white in the moonlight—“by any stretch of the imagination you can call yourself a man!”
He swung out one trembling fist for a backhanded blow to her head and she cowered against the fender in an ugly crumple of fear; then instead of hitting her he danced away in a travesty of boxer’s footwork and brought the fist down on the roof of the car with all his strength. He hit the car four times that way: Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!—while she stood and watched. When he was finished, the shrill, liquid chant of the peepers was the only sound for miles.
—Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
This prophetic awakening:
[The boy] felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth…Rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out…He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the graves, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood.
—Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
Which authors’ works push you to write? Is there any author whose work makes you “jealous,” a book you read and say, “I have to do that, right now”?
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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