I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: there really is no such thing as writer’s block. You can always write something, even if it stinks, and even if it’s just a warm-up to something better later. But we all do have days on which our brains clunk around a bit more than we’d like, on which our pens can only seem to scribble out useless verbiage, and on which taking a nap sounds much more promising than finishing a chapter or a stanza.
On these days, and on most days, actually, I’m a big fan of greasing the wheels of inspiration by reading work that’s risen above the clunky level, and even above the level of the good. When gearing up to write poetry, I love to begin a writing session with the poems of Anne Sexton, Richard Hugo, Diana O’Hehir, Weldon Kees, Madeline DeFrees, or any number of personal favorites. Watching masterful work unfold on the page can’t help but inspire.
In working on fiction, I suppose it’s no great surprise that I gravitated to one of my favorites, Rainer Maria Rilke, for inspiration. Perhaps I was living in a cave, but it was only a year ago that I “discovered” Rilke had written a novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Published when Rilke was just 35, The Notebooks is something of an oddity. It was Rilke’s sole novel, written in the period that led up to his greatest works of poetry: Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.
The Notebooks is a very strange little volume. I’m not at all sure it would stand up to scrutiny as a novel for publication today. The sketch-like quality of the musings, the lack of an identifiable plot or character arc, and the Modernist-with-a-capital-M devotion to fragmentation would likely strike contemporary readers as beautiful but aimless. It’s not so much the technical elements of story structure (that we love so much today!) that captivate me about the book, but the gorgeous lyrical moments that arise from the narrative apropos of nothing but a slant of light or a momentary thought. As the protagonist Malte walks down the street, for example, he reflects on faces he sees:
“…I never realized how many faces there are. There are lots of people but still more faces, for everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, of course it wears out, gets dirty, cracks in the folds, stretches like a glove one has worn on a journey. Those are thrifty, simple people: they don’t change it, they don’t even have it cleaned…the question does arise, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them in reserve. Their children will get to wear them. But it also happens that their dogs wear them when they go out. And why not? Face is face. “
What I find so fascinating about such interludes is not so much the content of the aside, but of the evocative quality of such terse language, and Rilke’s ability to communicate emotion without ever telling anyone what to feel. Rilke has much to teach poets and fiction writers; such moments of luscious language as the above are the stuff flash fiction is (or, I personally feel, ought to be) made of. A lot of contemporary flash fiction relies on absurdity, weirdness, or non sequiturs to carry a brief story. And sometimes that’s fantastic; we showcase some excellent examples of the wild and wonderful at The Los Angeles Review. But when I read flash after flash in which dream logic reigns, I find myself missing the qualities Rilke achieves in his asides: it’s fiction at an intersection with poetry.
Whatever you choose to read for inspiration, I highly recommend the practice. And I encourage you to find works like Rilke’s that not only inspire you to write, but also give gentle reminders about how to to write well.