Stay-at-home inspiration

Welcome to Austin Bat Cave’s Virtual Literary Salon. Originally we had planned to continue this series over the summer, but instead we’re very excited to announce the launch of our Spectacular Summer Seminar Festival. Ten of our favorite writers signed on to teach a one-day, online writing seminar, and you’re invited!

The Virtual Literary Salon will remain open, and you’re more than welcome to come back and revisit and share your favorite writing prompts. Thank you for supporting ABC!

Although this will be our last issue, we couldn’t think of a better person to close us out that S. Kirk Walsh. Kirk founded Austin Bat Cave in 2007 and served as our board president until 2017. Her writing has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Longreads, Electric Literature, among other publications. Her debut novel, The Elephant of Belfast, about the city of Belfast during World War II will be published by Counterpoint Press on April 6th, 2021.

Photo by Erich Schlegel

In the spring of 1995, I took a graduate course titled “The Craft of Fiction” with E. L. Doctorow at New York University. Prior to taking the class, I had read exactly one novel written by Doctorow: The Book of Daniel that fictionalized the tragedy of the Rosenberg family, largely told from the son’s point of view when his parents are prosecuted and later executed for being alleged Communist spies. The novel is a breathtaking read, seamlessly moving between first and third persons, with the rage of Daniel palpable on the page. The masterful narrative made me nervous about having Doctorow as a teacher. Clearly, he was a genius.

            On the first day of class, I mostly remember Doctorow’s soft-spoken disposition as he outlined his expectations of the course: On a weekly basis, we would read selected novels and story collections, and then answer the question, “What can you steal from these writers?” As he casually sat on the desk at the front of the room, he said, “Don’t consume. Steal. When you read, ask yourself what did I learn spiritually?”

We started with a short novella titled Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, the German writer and poet who wrote and published during the early 1800s. During class, Doctorow spoke about the novelistic sweep of the short narrative and its effective mechanism of suspense. “What other writers would spend a page on, Kleist spends a clause on,” Doctorow said. “There is a racing advance to his narration. Nobody can race through a story like Kleist.”

It wasn’t before long that many of us recognized that Doctorow had borrowed some of the plot elements—and the name of the titular character—for the narrative scaffolding of his bestselling novel, Ragtime. (One of the ensemble characters is a jazz pianist–turned–revolutionary named Coalhouse Walker Jr.) As he suggested to all of us, Doctorow stole from Michael Kohlhass, but as it turns out the inspiration for his popular novel also came from staring at the wall of his house.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Doctorow said: “With Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began: through desperation to those few images.”

Story Prompt #1: During these weeks of quarantine, we are all surrounded by familiar walls of our homes. My husband and I live in a modest house in the Windsor Park neighborhood in northeast Austin. Nowadays I spend most of my time in my home office: Twelve years ago, my husband painted the walls a soothing shade of pale mint green; above my computer is a framed silkscreen print of the expansive prairie at Ragdale by an artist named Larry Schulte, who I met the first time I was a resident at Ragdale back in 1999. The wall itself was built in 1957: It was the year that Eisenhower was inaugurated for his second term; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published; and in my home state of Michigan, the Mackinaw Bridge, at the time the world’s largest suspension bridge to connect the state’s two peninsulas, was opened. And there, I might begin: a scene of driving across the enormous bridge over the straits of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and what might wait on the other side.

Similar to Doctorow, stare at the wall closet to your computer, or notebook, and consider the year that your home or apartment was built. Make a list of events that occurred during the year and then make a list of images that you associate with that time period. Pick one image—and begin a scene or story from that place and time. Try and write two to three pages without stopping (and not editing yourself). See where the image transports you and your writing.

Writing Prompt #2: If your walls don’t inspire you, what about the objects that surround you? For those of you on Twitter and follow the amazing Elizabeth McCracken (@elizmccracken), you will know that Elizabeth is obsessed with objects (the ones that she collects and also the ones that are being auctioned online). Like walls, objects also offer an effective point of entry into story and character. When Elizabeth visited my fiction workshop a few years ago to discuss her story collection Thunderstruck, she talked about her affinity with objects: “I like the things. I like flea markets and museums. For me, it’s not just in writing, but the universal always radiates from the specific. And there’s something about that I particularly like about objects that they’re very suggestive and symbolic. If I were to indulge myself in fiction, my stories would be nothing but lists of objects. We’d start with furniture, go onto old photographs, there would be a section on pastries....”

And like walls (again), personal objects in our households are a part of the fabric of our everyday lives more than ever. By my computer, I have a small collection of shells and stones that I’ve picked up along the sandy shorelines of eastern Long Island and Venice, California. Then, there are limpet shells, conical in shape, and iridescent mussel shells that a friend brought back from Godrevy Beach in Cornwall, England (where one can see the lighthouse that Virginia Woolf wrote about!). I have an old campaign button with an image of Barack Obama that I found in my mom’s house when my siblings and I were cleaning it out a few years ago. And a miniature rubber orange Buddha that I discovered on a desk in the library at St. John’s University in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Any one of these objects could introduce a place or a scene for a short story.

Brainstorm a list of personal objects that surround you. Pick one of the objects—perhaps the object with the most emotional charge or memory resonance—and then use it as a starting point into a scene or story. You can begin with the history of the object, or the former home of the object, or the hands the object has traveled through during the years. As Elizabeth suggests, lean into the specific. Or consider bringing magic realism into the narrative: Animate the object, give it unexpected life or movement, and see what happens.

Stay safe and well, and keep writing.


Short stories for inspiration:

“Some Terpischore” by Elizabeth McCracken (object)

“Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” by Zadie Smith (object, time & place); also in her recent collection titled Grand Union.

“The Deep” by Anthony Doerr (time & place)

And from Alexander Chee’s “On Becoming an American Writer” for more inspiration: “If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.”