In 2013 my consulting company at the time received a sizable grant from a large foundation to figure out how to integrate smallholder farming communities in rural Appalachia and Alabama into mainstream commercial markets. The communities we were looking at were small, isolated and marginalized. It was disheartening to me that in the world of poverty reduction, we could probably raise on the order of a million dollars for a single project, in a single farming community located in a developing country in Africa, Latin America or Asia more readily than if we tried to raise half or even a quarter of that amount for several communities in the United States. It is shocking, quite frankly. But that is another story.
As part of that work, we expanded our scope to include a few non-farming communities including Boykin, Alabama, which is more popularly known as Gee’s Bend. The most recent population census data I could find was from 2010, and at that time, the small community had 275 residents. Located on a tight bend of the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend is abutted on three sides by the river making transportation a challenge and its residents isolated. Nevertheless, the community has established itself as one of not only historical significance but also of cultural and artistic importance. The quilters of Gee’s Bend are a group of women who continue to sew quilts in the particular style and tradition of their mothers and grandmothers before them. Today, their quilts are recognized as pieces of art that have a unique place in American culture. What I found of particular interest with the quilts is that the women say they each tell a story. So, I thought, what if the seers, the Angels of the House of Nebiyah fell in love with the Gee’s Bend community and it was they who inspired the tradition of storytelling through the making of quilts as a way of preserving their ocommunity’s history. All of their hardship, their pain, their hopes, desires … poured into the patterns of their quilts the same way that the history of the angels is recorded and seen by the Nebahyu on the parchment that Aurora is drawn to. The idea of the parchment was also inspired by quilting, in which pieces of textile, odds and ends, from different articles of clothing are stitched together to create a mosaic. The parchment has been put together in the same way. But what odds and ends they are, you will have to find out much later (likely in Book 2).
Now, about how the ink that appears on the parchment. I hope you noticed that it doesn’t appear line by line they way it would on paper if someone, an invisible hand, were writing words. The idea of the ink racing through the entire parchment and then linking themselves together to create words was inspired by something at an A.R. Rahman concert. As a backdrop to one of the more haunting songs of his, was large white screen on which lines of black “ink” snaked across in time to the music. These lines then came together at different parts of the song to create wonderful imagery that, I can only assume, were related to the lyrics (since I don’t speak Hindi or Tamil). It was beautiful and the visual effect spoke to me.
On finding inspiration: the first books I read when I began to write were Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Among the many useful insights she shares about tapping into your inner writer is her advocacy for stimulating your senses. According to her, one should go out and feed your senses by doing something differently at least once a week. It is critical, she says, to get out of one’s routine and create a new experience for yourself. This could mean writing at that coffee shop down the street instead of your study, going to a museum, taking your dogs for a walk in a new park, going to a concert or show, anything different that gives you an alternative perspective to the status quo. This piece of advice has been a saving grace. I’ve never experienced writer’s block but there have been many times when I struggle to find the words to convey a complex or highly nuanced concept in the exact way that I want. My tendency, which might be that of other writers as well, is to bang my head against the wall some more and force it to come out. By now I’ve learned that when something isn’t coming to me, I best step away from it for a while and go do something else, be somewhere else completely unrelated to my writing and let the dust of frustration settle. To feed a flame, you must allow the fire to breathe.
What are the muses for your stories? What are some of the strangest places or situations from which you have gotten brilliant ideas? What do you do to step away?