Finding Writing Inspiration; or, That Time I Bumped Into Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Recently I began watching the Masterclass of my childhood literary heroine, Judy Blume. It doesn’t take long to realize that her writing process places a strong focus on serendipity: encounters with strangers, bits of overheard speech that spark vivid story and character ideas, snippets of sensory and emotional experiences she later channels into potent fictional scenes. Though her speaking style is unwaveringly bubbly and upbeat, she gently veers into almost-critical when observing the phenomenon of people around her always on their phones or plugged into their headphones. “What a shame,” she says (followed, of course, by a friendly laugh). To be a writer, she emphasizes, you need to be tuned in; you need to watch and listen to everything around you.
We hear this advice often in other areas of our lives: Be present. If you’re anything like me, you try to take this counsel seriously when it comes to putting down your phone when you’re with your kids, your friends, your significant other. But on the subway, or eating alone in a restaurant, or walking down the street? That’s when we set our eyes on our phones and put our earbuds in our ears, both because the outside world can be overwhelming and because there’s just so much content for us to consume. So many podcasts we’re trying to catch up on. Videos we’ve bookmarked, Instagram stories that will be gone by tomorrow, excellent and worthwhile articles to read. You can easily walk down a busy street and miss everything going on around you while listening to a fabulous episode of “The Writer Files.”
My solution to this is to escape to New York.
That’s not a metaphor. It’s literally what I do. Several times a year, I buy a bus ticket and make the almost-five-hour trek to Manhattan. These days I usually stay overnight, but in earlier, more frugal times, I just made it a day trip. And it never fails to be an adventure—every single time.
When I’m in New York, I have no choice but to be present. I know my way around, but I still have to pay attention to make sure I get where I’m headed. And with the crowded sidewalks, aggressive traffic, and unpredictable people all around me, I need to maintain situational awareness that rules out sticking my earbuds in my ears and tuning out the noise. Serendipity, in New York City, is less about magical moments I receive with wonder and more about being grabbed by the back of the neck and having those moments unfold three inches from my eyeballs.
Of course, I always have a plan when I visit the city. It usually involves visiting a lot of bakeries, an art museum, and often a park. But it’s the unscripted moments that really stick with me. Such as:
· A cellist in the cavernous space inside Bethesda Terrace striking up the song that reminds me most achingly of the man I was falling in love with at that moment.
· An old man sitting at the chess tables in Washington Square Park inviting me to play chess with him for $10, then sweeping the floor with me because, as it turned out, he was a former Grandmaster. And helpfully explaining what he was doing every step of the way.
· A worker behind the counter at a very fancy Upper East Side bakery unapologetically skipping over me in favor of serving the obviously wealthy woman behind me in line.
· Stepping off the bus and unexpectedly walking into the biggest pride parade in North America.
· Stepping off the bus and almost immediately encountering the scene of a fatal bicycle accident, with blood and a helmet still on the street.
· Deciding to have a quick drink at the Met’s rooftop bar and running into Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
· Deciding to sit on a bench in Union Square Park for a few minutes to read a celebrity magazine and getting verbally assaulted and threatened by a (presumably) mentally ill homeless man.
You get the idea. But let me return to the Justice Ginsburg story for a moment. It was a lovely early-summer day, and the Met’s rooftop was full of people taking photos of the amazing skyline view and, naturally, selfies of themselves standing in front of the amazing skyline view. A staff member was accompanying an elderly visitor around that year’s art installation, and it was only when I focused on the visitor—in all honesty, because I was annoyed that they were letting her violate the posted rules against touching the art—that I realized it was Justice Ginsburg.
And here’s the thing: I was the only person on that rooftop who noticed this. There were plenty of Met staff members—and at least one Secret Service officer—who were watching and clearly knew who she was. But as I took one covert photo after another, I frantically looked around to see if anyone else was seeing what I was seeing. Everyone else was oblivious. Groups of young women stood eight feet away from her, posing together and smiling for their Instagram shots. Others sat on the benches with their drinks in their hands, staring at nothing, or waited in line for the bar. Meanwhile, RBG walked around the artwork undisturbed for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was an incredible moment that at least a hundred Met visitors were present for, and that nobody noticed.
We can’t all be acute observers all the time. The constant flow of sensory input can truly be overwhelming. But as writers, we can choose times and occasions to turn on our observational radar—perhaps on a daily walk, or a monthly “artist date” (the creative excursion, usually done alone, recommended in The Artist’s Way), or in certain scenarios, such as on the subway. My own recommendation is to find a place that inspires you and make that the well you return to again and again. Maybe it’s a big city; maybe it’s a coffee shop where you can sit and listen, or a park where you can people-watch, or even at a house of worship you visit regularly. Whether or not religion is your thing, churches, synagogues, and mosques can be incredible places to observe human behavior, much of which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.
The podcast queue can wait. There are stories unfolding all around you, there for the taking. Make them your own.