Who inspires you?

I’m lucky enough, for now, that the basics are covered: income, savings, health, good marriage, interesting work, a few new and intriguing projects, good friends.

It’s a lot, I know, and it’s come after a few years of fairly terrifying hanging on by the fingernails as the recession hit — my third in 20 years in New York.

What I crave now, possibly more than anything, is inspiration.

It’s been a word in use since 1300 and, technically, means to draw breath into one’s lungs — something I’ve been doing with difficulty for three weeks due to bronchitis. So I do badly want to breathe deeply and easily, but I also want the other sort, seeing something great in others and finding a way to incorporate it or emulate it in my own life.

Over the past week, I’ve been reading some books about the craft of writing. I was really looking forward to learning something so cool and compelling it would re-new my excitement about writing. Something, (forgive how arrogant this sounds), I didn’t already know after 30 years of writing for a living.


It’s like trying to appreciate the exquisite beauty of Satie or Chopin or Couperin by practicing scales. Yes, all the notes are there, but they’re not making you sigh in appreciation and awe at what someone has done with them.

So I picked up a book written in 1986, “Arctic Dreams”, by Barry Lopez, which won the National Book Award.

Topography of the Beaufort Sea area
Topography of the Beaufort Sea area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that’s inspiration!

He writes with tremendous delicacy and insight and I’ve already learned a slew of new-to-me words, like crang and flensing and saxifrages. I never read books about nature or natural history, so I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but I do love the Arctic, a place I visited for a mere 24 hours, on assignment for the Montreal Gazette, in December 1987.

I’ve never experienced anything so alien, beautiful and mysterious and have been dying ever since to return.

Lopez so skilfully limns this place, with observations both simple and profound.

On the tiny, stunted trees one finds so far north:

Much of the tundra, of course, appears to be treeless when, in many places, it is actually covered with trees — a thick matting of short, ancient willows and birches. You realize suddenly that you are wandering around on top of a forest.

I love the naked delight he shares with us, the startled realization he felt and wants us to feel as well.

Or this:

Imagine your ear against the loom of a kayak paddle in the Beaufort Sea, hearing the long, quivering tremolo voice of the bearded seal. Or feeling the surgical sharpness of an Eskimo’s obsidian tool under the stroke of your finger.

These sentences are, to my ear, exquisite. They make me want to read and re-read them. They make me want to close the book so I can savor them and think about them.

His word choices are deliciously specific: tremolo, the alliteration of “surgical sharpness”, the naming of obsidian (gorgeous word!), not the vaguer “stone”. And the “stroke of your finger” — not the pad of your finger (which I think he might have written.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such good writing it makes me want to de-construct it so see why it moves so smoothly and efficiently. So much of what I read is a broken-down jalopy — Lopez opens the door to a smooth, seductive ride in a literary Bentley.

Arctic whaling in the eighteenth century. The ...
Arctic whaling in the eighteenth century. The ships are Dutch and the animals depicted are Bowhead Whales. Beerenburg on Jan Mayen Land can be seen in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m envious of his skill — but also (yay!) inspired to try to whatever I can, whenever possible, to reach this level of excellence. (I was also amused, and delighted, to read the name of a friend’s husband on the very first page of Lopez’ acknowledgements, Kerry Finley, a Canadian expert in bowhead whales.)

In your personal life or your professional life, who inspires you and why?

Is it someone you know personally or someone you admire from a distance?

39 thoughts on “Who inspires you?

  1. I have plenty of inspiration in my life, from people I know, from people whose work I’ve read, and from the Superdome going out (that was a great post I wrote about it; one of my uncles said he was worried about me because I was inspired by it, but…).

  2. antonferrie8

    My people inspire me. Meryl Streep inspires me. The world inspires me. Brilliance inspires me. You inspire me.

    No matter if you’re a waiter in a restaurant, or an Academy Award-winning actor, belief, hard work, and guts inspire me.

    But I think the most inspirational, uplifting and tremendous thing of all is when little steps are taken every day to become better, to do good, and in doing that, in seeking the truth, you change the world with it. Because the truth, that’s all we really want, you know? That’s all we really need. I see the world becoming a better place every day, not just because of the efforts of world leaders and great politicians, but because a young Pakistani teenager faced down the Taliban to promote fair and equal education in schools, and because a British soldier sacrificed himself to save a fellow troop with a young child, and because my own next door neighbour baked a cake for my Granny when she was ill. That inspires me.

    1. Wow…never thought I might end up in a sentence near Meryl Streep! πŸ™‚ Thanks for the compliment.

      I love your thoughts on this and find THEM inspiring. I agree, it’s often action that does it. And I like your trifecta of belief, hard work and guts. Good to hear from you again!

  3. Artic Dreams is one of my favorite nature/wilderness books. I am inspired by nature in general. The hours spent gardening or running in the woods are something I take with me, “in my mind’s eye” (Wordsworth) all year round. A lot of people inspire me, too, but they are not famous – they’re my everyday people.

      1. Years ago, I started reading nature/conservation books for a writer’s workshop focused on wilderness writing, so I have a list of favorites that I return to on occasion: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Walden or Walking by Henry David Thoreau and John Muir: Nature Writings.
        These books cover different approaches to the wild and different types of terrain – they’re wonderful for inspiring how to write about nature, whether it be for nonfiction or fiction. Better yet, they inspired me to look a little differently at the natural world. Enjoy!

  4. Optimists and thinkers. I tend to be gloomier than my sister and despite many hardships in her life, she retains a childlike joy that invites me to shift my own feelings. Thinkers who are brave enough to point out the logic of other views, they expand reason and help others see depths that they might not see otherwise.

    If I liked James A Michener’s “Alaska”, is there a good chance that I would like “Arctic Dreams”?

    1. Great point…so true. When I started dating my husband, a friend (whose beau is gloomy to the point of scary) pointed out how sunny and optimistic he is. And I know it’s changed my outlook. And thinkers do inspire me as well…if they can do it…

      I suspect Michener’s writing is somewhat different. Lopez’ writing has a lot of detail (I’m getting a little weary of muskoxen right now) but it is also very readable.

  5. Pingback: Antonotations: Passing It On. | MY SPRING AWAKENING

  6. I’m inspired by nature. That’s not really a who, but lately it’s a constant source of inspiration.

    So back to “who”…in the realm of dance, Isidora Bushkovsky is a frequent source of inspiration. I’ve met her a couple times.

    As far as writers go, there are so many. Just to name the first three to come to mind: Barbara Kingsolver, Nabokov, and most recently Parker Palmer.

  7. There are so many things from where I get inspiration. And most of them tend to be the smallest, forgotten details we see daily. I think sometimes we focus on seeking inspiration from something “big” like: traveling to a new city, experiencing a new life event, meeting someone new — that we overlook finding inspiration in the small things. It can be seeing a child smile and remembering there’s still joy in this world, watching an ant carry an object much bigger than itself (sometimes we think we’re too small to take on something great), and the list goes on. I find by recognizing the small, hidden details we’re inspired to do wonderful works!

    1. Welcome to Broadside! I love your blog photo.

      Great point. So much of what we feel and think is colored by what we (are able to) perceive. Two widows, 81 and 96, live on my floor. Both of them inspire me — steps from my door.

  8. It can be anything. The resilience of the homeless people selling papers on the trams in Berlin, and their politeness. The 94 year-old lady I visit who said simply, contentedly last week “I do not want to live to be 100,” funny, sharp, perceptive writing like that of Maeve Higgins, an Irish comedien, friends who suffer from hardship and never wallow and the calmness that comes with snowfall.

  9. As always, a fantastic post. And re. books on writing that don’t inspire – I hear you! However, I was inspired by Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ – honest, erudite and helpful (even though I’m not a King fan).

    Another book that I found unexpectedly inspiring was ‘Sissinghurst’ by Adam Nicholson. Really it’s just about a famous house, but Nicholson dives deep into the layers of place and memory. And he writes beautifully. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/27/biography

    More generally, I’m inspired by people who see an injustice and do something about it. And, of course, people who pursue creative practice even though it’s so, so, so hard and it requires courage on a daily basis. Can there be anything more inspiring than that?

  10. I have a writer friend who continually makes my heart swell when I read his concise descriptions “his eyes disappear into wrinkles” or use of super words (like super foods but literary nourishment), examples: maelstrom, barrage, seismic, salve..as if the word is an action. While reading you simultaneously see it, feel it, have an emotional or visceral response to it. I adore that. Makes me think of Sanskrit. Another source of inspiration is my little girl, not so much that she introduces me to super words, but her perspectives and approach are refreshing and continually result in me looking to the wold with a fresh lens for which to experience and, ultimately, express through writing. A child’s joy of sunshine for dinner, being tickled mercilessly or plucking a rose blossom with no worry about piercing a finger from the thorns of life.

  11. I find inspiration in all sorts of places and ways. Often it’s oblique. Sometimes it’s in discovering that somebody has done something amazing. Frequently I’ll get inspired by somebody else’s writing in the sense of discovering something about the technique – I’ll read it and think ‘how did they evoke THAT feeling?’ Then I have to go and figure it out.

    I know exactly what you mean about ‘how to’ books. The writing equivalent of a Czerny piano exercise. A useful affirmation – maybe a different angle or a tweak that gives a boost, But I think there is a point in the profession where a writer is knowledgeable and experienced enough to leverage their expertise themselves – validly; to become the expert others learn from. We are conditioned to think we must ‘be taught’, that to learn we have to be told – and that is true up to a point. But after that point – no. Every single thing humanity knows was ‘made up’ or ‘discovered’ by someone, somewhere along the line – not taught.

    I hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant…but you’ll know what I mean. I had my first proper writing gig aged 18, for the university newspaper. It was 1981. I’ve been writing ever since – and…well, it works itself into your soul.

    On the other hand, my other operating principle – which has always stood me in very good stead – is that no matter how much I think I know, there’s always something more to learn…and it’s a big world out there. Someone, for sure, will be better at what I do than I am.

  12. I envy your trip to the arctic! Perhaps it’s exactly what you need for inspiration. Another trip to a remote region. I’d recommend Western Australia if you’re willing to endure the heat!

    1. Well, I don’t have another Arctic trip planned for now…but Newfoundland is spectacular and wild and I am dying to see it. I’ll also probably be in Arizona and/or New Mexico in May and June. I love cities but also love being in wild and unfamiliar landscapes.

      Your life there seems very exotic!

      1. Iceburgs, moose, narwal… I’d die to see it all. Canada has so much to offer. Arizona I’ve heard is similar to WA, I bet you’ll find loads of inspiration there!

      2. Me, too. I was only in the Arctic — in December! — for 24 hours. We flew part of the way in a very small airplane and flew through the middle of a halved iceberg…it looked like Toronto’s City Hall. AMAZING!

        I’ve been to Arizona and NM before and love the Southwestern landscape, history and light.

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