On Writing: Finding Inspiration in the Little Things
Updated: May 13
Growing up, my grandmother's small ranch home in Cleveland was like my second home. My parents, brother, and I would pile into our station wagon to visit over the holidays, braving the cold and snow, and singing, "Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go!" These were the years when seat belts were an afterthought and my brother and I stretched out in the "way-back" of the station wagon coloring in coloring books and playing card games and constantly asking, "Are we there yet?" Some of my favorite memories are of Thanksgivings spent around my grandmother's large table piled high with food and crowded with family, many of whom are no longer with us. During the summers, my cousins and I played Hide-and-Seek and Kick the Can in her large backyard, running barefoot over velvety soft grass and calling "Olly-olly-oxen-free" from behind the large birch trees that bordered her property. The windows of her home were always open on these evenings to let in the breeze from Lake Erie. There was a quality to those years, those memories, that has always stayed with me. Like childhood, those moments were filled with a certain magic and innocence that is hard to relive as an adult. I loved everything about our visits.
In the late '70s and early '80s, my brother and I slept in the room that once belonged to my aunt. The walls were red and pink, with twin beds pushed together to form an "L" with large plaid bolsters to lean against. My aunt's keepsakes were all still there: school awards pinned to a bulletin board along with a poster of a matador and large letters saying Visit Mexico, school books and paperback novels lining the shelves above the dresser, and an antique hairbrush and mirror set. But one item always captured my attention. Hanging in a corner of the room was a framed Keane picture of two wide-eyed children holding a dog, standing in a dark alleyway, staring out from the canvas imploringly. I spent many hours looking back at them and wondering what the story of these two lost-looking children could be. In my opinion, the light that shone behind them was somewhat menacing. Perhaps it was meant to be a streetlamp, but I imagined it was the flashlight of someone pursuing them, someone the children were trying to escape. Their tear-filled expressions silently asked for help every time I glanced their way.
This is one of the earliest memories I have of finding inspiration in a single object. A picture. A line of poetry. A sunset. A dream. Such small things can be the spark of inspiration that leads to a complete story idea. I've often joked with a writer friend that coming up with ideas to write about isn't hard . . . seeing those ideas through to a finished piece is where the challenge lies.
I carried the image of the Keane picture with me through the years. In one of my earliest short stories, I described the details by heart in my story:
William often took Serena with him to visit art galleries across the country. They'd vacationed in California and New York just to see the galleries of Soho and San Francisco. His favorites, though, were the small exhibitions given by unknown artists, or the private showings by wealthy art collectors. Once, he had stopped before a painting by Keane. He knew well of Keane's work, of Keane's wide-eyed and forlorn children. The picture that held his attention was of two children standing in a dark alley, a tear barely visible on the boy's cheek. The girl held a poodle in her arms. Their clothes were rags, nothing more, and they seemed lost in the darkness of the midnight street, a single light glowing over their shoulder at the mouth of the alley.
"Do you like this?" Serena had asked, coming to stand beside him when she realized he was no longer at her side.
"It's okay." He'd said.
"You've been standing here a good five minutes. There must be something about it you like."
"Not particularly." He'd lied.
"It's sort of sad, don't you think?" She'd asked, staring into the eyes of the children. He'd only shrugged and said, "Come on."
Recently, the movie Big Eyes was released. I watched it, eager to learn the personal history and motivation of the artist who created an image that has always haunted me. In the movie, Margaret Keane's art was described as "kitschy," a fad of the time. But to me, her work will always be pure art because of the feelings, emotions, and ideas they inspire in me. Her work also reminds me of a time in my life that seems as ethereal as her paintings themselves.
To this day, my grandmother still lives in the same home, but in the decades since my childhood, it has seen many transformations. The dark wood-paneled walls were given new life with a fresh coat of white paint, the ornate Grecian art work replaced by family photos. My aunt's room still has the twin beds, but they now share space with a crib that has cradled all my grandmother's great-grandchildren. When she was redecorating, the Keane picture came off the wall and was stored in a dark corner of the closet. I rescued it and brought it back home. It now sits on a shelf next to my desk, reminding me of childhood memories, of magical moments, and that inspiration can come from anywhere.