Artificial Inspiration: A Post From Cat Rambo

Image: Melanie R. Meadors

Fantasy and science fiction author Cat Rambo has an interesting new anthology out from Hydra House, Neither Here Nor There. It’s a dual-sided book; “Neither Here” on one side and when you flip the book over, “Nor There” is on the other. Cat talks about inspiration, and how we can create wonderful things on this week’s Geek Speaks…Fiction!

I know that I can inspire myself because sometimes I accidentally do the opposite. If I binge watch a television series or read too many works by the same author, it starts creeping into my writing, and can end up have a major impact, particularly on the tone or style. Whether or not that’s a good thing can vary widely.

I can still remember the summer where, after my ex and I had spent many evenings reading first Tom Sawyer, then Huckleberry Finn, out loud, I had to wrestle not with the spirit of Mark Twain, but with his voice. I produced two or three pieces that were simply bad Mark Twain, and one piece, “Bigfoot,” that I did think managed to get some of the voice yet remain my own. Still, I’m glad to no longer be using that voice, and it’s something I keep in mind every time I read a lengthy piece by someone else out loud.

Now that I know the trick, actually, I have been known to use this to my advantage, dosing myself heavily in Trollope in order to create a fantasy piece with that feel to it, or reading Victoriana in order to better craft a steampunk patina to the prose.

I used this when I was writing my current book, Hearts of Tabat. To write a love story, I went back to the love stories I’ve enjoyed the most and took them apart. But more importantly, I read books about cities, nonfiction and fiction, trying to create an urban feel in my head that I could then put down on the page. I knew that if I read deeply enough, things would begin to happen in my own head.

Image: Hydra House

This phenomenon underscores the fact that authors need to pay attention to what they’re putting into their mental buckets, particularly whenever they’re working on a project. The old computer adage, “Garbage in, garbage out,” comes into play. Or turn it around and aim it in another direction: put marvelous things in, get marvelous things out.

In some ways, I think of it like learning a language. We all speak storytelling, we’ve heard it spoken around and to us in fairytales, myths, fables, and a kerjilliion other texts, down to the format of many ads. And just as, when you’re around a number of people all speaking with the same accent, that accent begins to creep into your own speech. So if you’re only hearing one kind of storytelling, all that you speak in that language of storytelling will have that accent–or flavor, or texture, or however you choose to conceptualize it.

Want to create something wonderful? Then you must read wonderful things and not just read them but study them. Take the sentences apart as carefully as a pathologist dissecting an organ and figure out how they work–and then apply that knowledge so you know you’ve got the tool down and have added it to your writerly toolkit.

Add some things that aren’t prose too. Make art that you’re not worried about selling, draw flowers or sew a quilt or bake the perfect loaf of rye bread. Or appreciate art: go to a museum or sculpture garden. Read a poem out loud and relish the way it comes out of your mouth, how it shapes your mouth and tongue.

Those things, too, will seep into what you create. Pay attention to the details of the world around you, to the delicate constructions that are human personalities and the way the same pollution that made you cough in the afternoon shades the sky in phoenix-bright reds and golds that evening.

In his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot talks about the relationship between poet and literary tradition, saying that the poet’s mind takes in and transforms the latter, creating art as a result. I’d like to take that a step further and say that’s one of the things writers must do: be open to not just the writing that’s come before them and that surrounds them, but to the world and all its quirks and randomnesses, its monstrous unfairnesses and evils, and its joys, both great and small.

Control what your mind produces by changing up the things that it transforms. Not just healthy meals, but varied ones, exploring a range rather than digging a rut. Give it new sensations, even if they scare you a little. Step outside your comfort zone, even if it’s just to know what that feels like.

Want to be inspired? Don’t wait for the Muse; she is a fickle and dilatory thing. Take control and do it yourself.

About Cat Rambo: Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches atop a hill in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She is an Endeavour, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee. Her second novel, Hearts of Tabat, appears in 2017 from Wordfire Press. She is a frequent volunteer with and current President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. She teaches a series of online classes for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see http://www.kittywumpus.net

Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available April 12, 2016.