Years ago my daughter found a possum skull in the woods behind our house. She washed it with a hose then left it on the retaining wall. A few days later, some creature must have run off with it, for it was gone.
But that one tiny event has had a remarkable impact on my writing. The title short story from my collection The Owl That Carries Us Away is about a boy who finds a possum skull in the woods behind his house, washes it with a hose, and brings it into his room then pets it like a cat. And my poetry collection, Possum Nocturne, has several poems about possum skulls. What’s more, I have a new YA novel project in which a possum skull figures prominently.
But more than this, I have found that, for me, the source of inspiration in my writing is often connected to my original response to that skull. I am not superstitious—we have an all-black cat, for one thing—but somehow I am drawn to work about characters who interpret the natural world around them as full of portentous meaning.
A question writers often field, of course, is what is the source of our inspiration, or where do we get our ideas for stories and poems. Often, I think, we roll our eyes a little at the question, but part of that, I think, is that the answers seem a bit mysterious to us as well.
I do know, though, where inspiration does not come from, at least for me.
Trying to “fit in” to the market and to write the kinds of works that seem to have some immediate currency (I have tried . . . I just can’t).
Trying to be more “literary” or more “commercial” or more something (rather than letting the works choose how they want to be).
I guess I need to feel that little rush of pleasure in the first instant when an “idea” for a story or poem occurs to me. It needs to make me sit up suddenly, smile crookedly.
And if I were to define why some ideas strike me that way, I suppose it’s because they contain dark ironies. That, apparently, is what appeals most strongly to my sensibility.
And I have learned over the years not to fight that feeling. If the “idea” (usually quite vague at first) doesn’t please me for being sufficiently dark and ironic, I am better off moving on to the next project.
Oh, what about the possum skull on the cover of Possum Nocturne? It is with me in my office as I write. So where did I get it if the original one was lost? (It’s true you can buy anything on eBay.)