I took this picture at a friend’s cabin property in central Minnesota. The crumbling structure in the foreground is a shack with an old, boarded-up cabin in the background. Debris litters the forest floor surrounding this particular spot, with rusted scrap metal, abandoned cars, and a curious circle of old gas stoves not far off in the woods. An old bootlegging operation, perhaps?
The property is surrounded by state forest, with the three main cabins nestled along a peninsular shoreline. Across the lake you have to intently search to find evidence of another living soul, unless of course you catch a fisherman in the late afternoon.
The only way onto the property is by traversal of a marred logging road, with ruts sometimes too severe for even the most capable SUV’s. In the winter, the pathway is nigh impassable. After traveling for some time along this makeshift artery you’d find yourself at an old, iron gate, demarcating the transition to his family’s private property.
As much or as little can happen in this landscape — I have taken peaceful, quiet walks through the forrest seeking mushrooms and signs of wildlife, and I have hollered at the moon with unbridled elation while drinking with my friends. We’ve built effigies of bizarre character and sacrificed them to the fire. We’ve cut canoes across the lake’s surface and dug-up invasive plants to protect the earth.
At night the sky is a brilliant array of silver speckled patterns. The moon is a giant silver disc. Sometimes, stepping out of cabin three for a smoke, the night will be so dark that you might mistake yourself for being alone in space, the only sign of the world being the ground below your feet or the sounds of the woods.
I asked my friend if the land was haunted, if he had seen or heard anything strange during his time here. He answered with a resounding “No.” Still, and perhaps this is my own predilections for the dark underside of things, I’ve held his family’s property in my head as a mystical landscape.
It is a space that reinvigorated my love of nature. It’s a place where time can melt into a moment, where good friends and good food and good beer can be enjoyed. A location that feels disconnected from the busyiness of the suffocating mundane, the dullness of the day-to-day.
As I round out of the middle of week two of National Novel Writing Month, I am finding myself confronting new challenges and realizations. I have had marathon writing days where 3,000+ words escape easily, and I have had nights where each word felt lodged between my hands and the keyboard. That is why I am taking a moment to contemplate what inspires me to write this piece in the first place…
Inspiration is —
1. The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something
— A person or thing that inspires
2. A sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea
3. The drawing in of breath
Creative inspiration involves the act of taking in the world — all of its sensations, events, experiences, personality — and reconfiguring those elements through the lens of our own perspective to be released as something new and innovative. The question of what inspires us, I think, is misleading, because inspiration comes from all around us. The trick is allowing it to lead us to finding that little spark.
In David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish, he likens the discovery of an idea to catching a fish — you sit quietly, patiently, searching deep, and you find the idea there. It’s not necessarily something that you willingly produce, but something that becomes a kernel from all the elements of the world. You do, however, have to nurture it and pursue it. You have to contemplate it long enough and with enough intention to allow it to grow and morph and change, until finally it becomes the basis of something new and wonderful.
For my current project, I am inspired by landscape — not just my friend’s family property in central Minnesota, but also northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, southern Utah, the high desert in California, and northern Michigan. All of the vast spaces that I have seen first-hand have contributed some element to the growing world that I’ve built in my head.
It’s a world outside of time and space, really. It doesn’t occupy a real place, but rather is a synthesis of all these places. And the landscape is a character unto itself. It lives and breathes and exerts agency on the plot, the story, and the other characters. It’s a victim as well as a suspect. It is the core mystery, the source of fright — sylvan dread lies heavily over the atmosphere of the unfolding narrative.
I find myself often thinking about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I am moved by her discussions of our reciprocal relationship to the earth and land, on practicing gratitude for the land, and on what the land can teach us about the world and ourselves. The land will care for us, but we must also care for it.
Place is a living thing, which Shirley Jackson describes so well in a variety of her works. And understanding this truth grows respect for our environments. The simple creak of a floorboard or breaking of a branch becomes an intentional act by the object or place, and that can be the most terrifying — or comforting — element of atmosphere in any story.
I am currently writing from a hotel room in Duluth, Minnesota. A small trip with my father for Veteran’s Day. We plan on drinking lots and hiking lots. Even the gloomy overcast skies and incessant rainfall can’t stop us from enjoying this part of the world. And with all this going on, I still need to write my story, so I will leave this here.
Buy me a beer by following the URL below — no pressure, of course, but it would be much appreciated!