WRITING LIFE: On Staying Put and Finding Inspiration Within by Sherell Barbee

As a nonfiction writer, my work primarily stems from memory. I hold the specifics of my boss’s eyebrow furrows, friends’ mid-story bracelet jangles, baby cousins’ babbles and everything else in me until I can sit down, put those memories to the page and attempt to find the meaning behind my experiences. Sure, I’ve interviewed family to get the details just right or dug through library archives to learn more about the places my family comes from for my essays. But all in all, my past experiences drive my work. At times, it feels like I have revisited every childhood scar, reflected on each prior argument with former roommates and meditated over each possible meaning behind what old friends and lovers have said to me.

Choosing to rely solely on my past experiences gets old too fast and leaves me with writer’s block more often than I would like to admit. Before the pandemic, I’d go anywhere to cure it. I travelled frequently: visited my family in the Midwest, went on trips abroad, took trains and buses to New England cities and never let a company holiday go to waste by staying put. I broke up my work-home-work routine by dancing at shows and clubs, performing at open mics, singing in a band with my friends, wandering museums and flea markets and hanging out with friends as much as possible. For me, having these experiences was trifold: doing the things I loved, forgetting the responsibilities of my 9-to-5 job and getting inspiration for a new creation. Any topic was up for creative grabs: strange first dates, the time a rude karaoke DJ made me cry and the many sweet people I met. These things I did because it’s who I am—a family-oriented, museum-exploring techno lover who is always searching outside for a new idea to spark my pen.

Pre-quarantine, my writing practice was sporadic. I never made a set daily time to sit down. I would wait for days, weeks and sometimes months until I witnessed or experienced something about which it was worth writing. Whenever my writing slump lasted longer than I could stand, I would leave my desk in my bedroom and go outside. I’d look for anything to draw my creative attention. I’d look for anything to be my next muse.

It has been easy to blame sheltering in place for my lack of creative drive. Sleeping, working, relaxing and attempting to create in the same place makes it harder for me to pick up my pen. Having the same conversations with my housemates and neighbors, taking the same walks and bike rides around town, looking at the same scenes and eating the same things. At times, it feels like my creative faucet has turned off, without even droplets to replenish myself. Each day rolls into the other. Aside from the calendar that glares on my phone, only a few small details help me distinguish my days: Monday’s trash pick-up, Tuesday’s Zoom chats with my boss, the line with 6-foot-long gaps that wraps around the sushi place by my house every Friday and that same, pre-pandemic gray cloud that hovers above me on Sunday nights as I dread the end of the weekend.

The repetition of quarantine life is boring at best, maddening at worst. My boredom seeped into my writing. In the earlier months of quarantine, I stuck to my nonfiction and leaned into writing about the mundane. I wrote pieces about how much I missed hugging my family, how I long to travel again, the strangeness of life in solitude and annoyance towards housemates’ living habits. These pieces never excited me. Never had me daydreaming of what magazine they might get published in. Or what essay collection I hope to include it in. No, I wrote these nonfiction pieces, then tossed them to the side and hoped no one would ever read them. I switched genres: to fiction, poetry and songwriting. By turning to these genres, I can transport myself to new worlds and new creative challenges without the need to leave my house for real-life experience to inspire me. With fiction, I can create stories inspired by my dull domesticity: I imagine what thoughts the spiders that crawl into my room have, what ghosts lurk in the halls at night and the secrets hidden in my lush backyard. With poetry, I have started to utilize different poetic forms like sestinas and tankas, to challenge myself to write with concision. I have even started revisiting older work, pulling out pieces that I gave up on or never felt worthy of expanding on fully. Now I’m sitting with them, pulling lines from old essays to use in poems and song lyrics. I reimagine the ending of an experience and switch it to something fantastical that could happen in a different world.

During this time, I use every inch of my house as a new muse. I bounce from my bedroom to the kitchen, and my backyard to the front porch—keeping my eyes open and ready to find an unnoticed nook or a new spider on which to base my next piece. Forcing myself to stay put and face domesticity head-on. Forcing myself to keep writing. Quarantine life makes it easy to set my notebook to the side and say, “There’s nothing new or exciting worth writing about, so I won’t write at all.” But that’s not true. The inspiration is there, lurking in every crevice of my imagination. Now I have to put in more effort to get it.

 

Sherell barbeeSherell Barbee is a language artist currently living in Boston, Massachusetts. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in The Boston Globe, Passages North, Lit Pub and more. She won first place in the University of Missouri’s 2018 Creative Writing Program Prize in Creative Nonfiction, judged by Jericho Parms. She is also a winner of the 2020 Boston in 100 Words competition, judged by Gish Jen, Callie Crossley and Porsha Olayiwola, Boston’s Poet Laureate. She can be found online at @sherellbee.

 

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