Author Photo: Carmela Ciuraru © Pieter M. van Hattem
Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CORINNA BARSAN
Carmela Ciuraru is the author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms (HarperCollins) and the editor of several anthologies, including First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them (Scribner) and Solitude Poems (Alfred A. Knopf/Everyman’s Library). She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and PEN American Center, and she is a 2011 Fellow in Nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA).
Author website: www.carmelaciuraru.com
The Magazine of Yoga On The Lit Mat Interview
Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
I can’t think of an influential person in that regard. For me it was just a love of reading, feeling awestruck by books and wanting to talk back to them somehow. More than anything, I fell in love with language through reading poetry: Dickinson, Herbert, Hopkins, Berryman, and on and on and on.
Certain children’s books, such as The Phantom Tollbooth, made playing with words seem like the most delightful and marvelous thing you could do.
In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your day-to-day?
I tend to make room for the creative process to the detriment of practical matters—you know, going to the grocery store or doing laundry. And I carry a small notebook with me wherever I go, to jot down ideas or a line or two. Unfortunately, I have such poor handwriting that I’m often unable to decipher it later on.
Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
With writing, as is true of everything else, there are good days and bad days. On good days, there is a feeling of possibility and excitement about getting words on the page. On other days, the act is marred by despondency and doubt. The goal is always to sustain that sense of possibility.
If there’s a memory that defines writing for me, it’s probably my first typewriter, which I received as a birthday gift when I was about eight years old.
Where do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
Chuck Close once said that inspiration is for amateurs. He argued that inspiration is unnecessary–that it stirs not while you’re waiting for work to happen, but while you are actually working. I agree with that completely.
A few years ago, I visited the studio of an artist whose work I love, Joe Fig. Above the entrance was a sign that read, “Motivation – Perseverance – Faith.” I copied those three words onto a sheet of paper and then posted it next to my desk. Those words are all the inspiration anyone needs.
But whenever my thoughts seem cluttered or I’m feeling despair about my work, I find that movement is useful, such as going for a long walk with my dog. Sometimes I’ll just look through my books and read some poems, or turn to the work of a favorite writer (like Joan Didion, for the clarity and precision of her sentences).
Occasionally I give myself a break and head over to an art museum for a few hours. If you’re feeling empty or lost, and you spend time looking at works of art that are almost too astonishing to take in, you can’t leave feeling anything but inspired. And happy. It does the trick every time.
Also, I find that having an afternoon nap refills a dry creative well.
I have to say, though, that most of the time my problem is not a lack of inspiration by any means. It’s a lack of time to set down all my ideas, and figure out which ones I can pursue and when. I get very frustrated about that. Still, it’s a much better problem to struggle with than a dry well.
Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
Once I was visiting the poet Marie Ponsot, and I told her how unhappy I felt about the poems I was writing at the time. She looked at me and said, “It’s none of your business.” I asked what she meant by that.
“It’s none of your business whether your writing is any good,” she said. “It isn’t for you to decide. Your job is to write.”
I must admit, I struggle to follow that advice, but I’ve never forgotten it.
What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
It’s okay to fail, if that’s what you need to achieve something deeper and truer in the end. (I think of Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”)
Failing is nothing to be ashamed of, which is the opposite of what I once believed. I never feel satisfied with anything I do, but now I like the idea that if I keep working hard, in a determined and focused way, I can improve the outcome just a little bit more each time. I love revising, even if that means rewriting something thirty times.
I’ve learned that when you’re writing, it’s important to keep going, no matter what. Just let those initial weak sentences and thoughts flow freely, because you can always go back and fix (or curse) them later. It’s unproductive to judge yourself—or even analyze things too much—while you’re trying to fill a blank page.
It has also come to my attention that eating a bit of dark chocolate during the writing process can significantly improve the quality of your prose—or at least your own perception of your prose, which is what matters.
Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
About four years ago, I started working with a trainer at a small private gym in Chelsea. It transformed my life. And it’s been a kind of sanctuary for me—I let go of everything that’s painful or sad or frightening the moment I walk through the door. I feel whole. And I accomplish things that seemed absolutely impossible beforehand. (Which is ideally what happens when you sit down to write.)
This gym isn’t the sort of place where you hop on a treadmill for 30 minutes and watch “Regis and Kathie Lee,” or zone out with your iPod. It’s extremely intense and the approach to training is very creative and dynamic. During my workouts I have felt the room spin and my fingers have bled, but I’ve loved every minute. I return to my desk with a sense of exhilaration and confidence. It doesn’t last long, but I enjoy it while it does.
This kind of training is like yoga in that mindfulness is a crucial component. I try to replicate that focus while I’m writing. Tennis, which I also love, does the same thing for me. It leaves me feeling relaxed and my mind nice and sharp. I wish I could play for hours every day. I am addicted to it.
What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
I think of “guilt” and “pleasure” as being mutually exclusive. But if one is meant to feel guilty about shopping, over the years I have acquired quite a collection of shirts from Liberty of London. Although I feel a twinge of something close to guilt about this habit, I just can’t get enough of their floral prints and I am always happy when I wear them.
Otherwise, I don’t watch much TV, I don’t eat junk food, and I don’t listen to “bad” music that I’d be embarrassed to tell anyone about.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf wrote that it’s “very, very dangerous to live even one day.” So true. I think of that quote all the time. While I’m here, I’d rather just be grateful for the things I enjoy without feeling any guilt or regret.
If you had to pick one book to recommend as a must-read, which would it be?
It depends on the reader, of course, so I can’t choose just one book. Sorry. But among my “must-read” titles would be Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, Wild Iris by Louise Glück, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Dream of the Unified Field by Jorie Graham, Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson, and The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. Those are all books I’ve given to people over the years.
What is on your nightstand now?
The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg and Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan.
The pause that refreshes! You can find Corinna Barsan’s musings and discoveries on her blog at Shiny White Page.
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.