Saturday, March 21, 2009

Writing Sample: "Lunch with Inspiration"

This piece is based off an old college creative writing assignment, with the theme of finding inspiration.

Lunch with Inspiration

I looked for it in coffee shops, in run-down dives and school cafeterias, in French bistros and once in an expensive Turkish place on Newbury Street. I tried to entice it to meet me in libraries, museums, jazz clubs, raves. I tried begging, arguing, sneak attacks, seduction, and threats. Nothing. Not a whisper. A blank page day after day. Flat characters, impossible situations, unreal emotions.

Then, late one night, the phone woke me.

“Hello?” I mumbled.

A voice made bizarre alarm-clock beeps at me. Sounding quite young, female, her voice on the edge of giggling, whoever it was was far too cheerful for this far past midnight.

“Who is this?”

“You know me! You’ve never met me! You’re meeting me for lunch today-tomorrow!”

“What? Who is this?”

“No way to talk to someone you’ve been pestering for the last month and a half.”

I sighed. I had an early class the next day. “Look, it’s late and I’m in no mood for a damn prank call.”

“Fine,” the chipper voice answered. “See you tomorrow at half-past a rainbow!”

I hung up, turned over and went back to sleep.

It was around two in the afternoon and I left class feeling cranky. I’d overslept and had had to rush to one class after another, missing both breakfast and lunch. A light but persistent drizzle matched my mood as I headed towards the dining hall, already dreading the drowned pasta and limp lettuce which were undoubtedly awaiting me.

The rain tapered off before I’d walked twenty yards. Watery rays started breaking through the clouds being dispersed by a rising breeze. Mirroring the other students in the quad, I paused and raised my head to the sun, appreciating the light despite the fact that the fitful rays gave off no discernible heat. I noticed a girl pointing something out to her friend, and when I followed her finger with my eyes I saw a rainbow appearing intermittently over the library. Pale and tenuous at best, wavering like a guest uncertain of his welcome, the colors were nevertheless a highly welcome relief from what had so far been a gray, depressing month. I smiled.

Too soon, it began to fade. There was the merest hint left of prismatic purple and red reflecting off a wispy cloud when I felt a tug on my sleeve. I looked down and beheld one of the most peculiar people I’d ever seen.

The figure, barely pushing five feet in height, was dressed in an odd brownish greenish tunic and leggings which somehow simultaneously gave the impression of being both fine silk and rough wool. I was utterly unable to decide to which gender it belonged. It had an elfin face, with large eyes and a pointed chin, which could well have been either male or female. At that moment, that face was grinning up at me, and when its wide lips opened to speak I recognized the irritating voice from the phone the night before.

“Well,” it said, “you coming?”

The situation was just too surreal, too influenced by my lack of sleep. “Yeah, right,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

And then, abruptly, I was no longer where I had been. There was no sense of movement, of shifting, of strange magics or drugs; I was standing in the university quad, and then I was sitting at a table in a restaurant. No interval. I blinked and started violently, and half stood up to demand to be told what was happening, when I noticed my luncheon companion. It was not the asexual imp from the quad; this was most definitely a woman, in a dark red dress which would have been appropriate any time of day or night, with a heart-shaped face and long honey-brown hair. She made a soothing motion with her hands and I sat obediently, mesmerized and frightened. She had a young, beautiful, innocent face, from which deep, dark, knowing eyes belonging to an aging concubine stared out incongruously.

“Calm down,” she said in a melodious voice. “It’s still me.”

Still? I’d never seen this woman before. And yet… when taken with the odd contrast of her face and her eyes, her voice held a slightly mischievous undertone which reminded me of the elfin creature back at school.

“Who are you?” I asked. “I’ve never been more confused in my life.”

“How rude of me. Inspiration,” she inclined her head, “at your service. You lucky girl.”

“Inspiration? What’s that supposed to mean?”

A small frown appeared between her eyebrows, and if such a lovely woman could be said to pout, that’s what she was doing.

“Like the muse, you twit!” Yep, definitely a pout. “You’ve been looking for me all over! What, the magical translocation didn’t sort of tip you off that something out of the ordinary was happening?” I nodded, wide-eyed. She took a deep breath and controlled herself. “I brought you here because, despite the recent writer’s block, you have potential. So I’m going to give you a bit of a boost. Ah, our orders.”

Our orders? I hadn’t ordered anything. I hadn’t even seen a menu yet. But here came an impeccably dressed waiter bearing two plates, and a sommelier following with a bottle of wine and two glasses.

“I took the liberty,” Inspiration said. The food set down before us was creatively arranged, colorful, smelled fantastic, and I had no idea what it was. “Just pâté,” she said, “a little foie gras and some goat cheese.” I shrugged and dug in, and the food lived up to its aromatic promise. I mumbled appreciatively around a mouthful.

“So, tell me the story of your life,” she said.

I raised my eyebrow in confusion. I started to say that I hadn’t thought this to be a social call, when I found myself talking. I spoke of my great-grandparents in India, my grandparents in Pakistan and the ones in Idaho, of my parents’ childhoods and of their meeting at a cocktail party in Islamabad. And yet… everything I said, though I knew in my bones that it was all accurate, was in greater detail than I thought even I knew. I found myself pieceing together snatches of overheard conversations, photos in the family album, old letters I’d once found in a dresser drawer – all to make this narrative, well… perfect. It was like hearing a stranger speak. I was making the story historically accurate, bringing in politics of the time and social movements – but I was also weaving in details that made the whole thing funny and personal and tragic. I couldn’t help just listening to myself in amazement.

“And so he saw her from across the room, in a mirror set on the mantelpiece, and being a good Pakistani boy, tried to find someone to introduce them,” I was saying as we finished up our appetizers.

“By the time they left Indonesia, the little girl was a favorite of both the locals and her parents’ Western friends.” An excellent duck dish arrived.

“My grandfather was an alcoholic, and when I met him I was three years old. In the way of children, I could tell something was wrong – even if I didn’t know what,” I said as we worked our way through a dish of palate-cleansing sherbet.

“My parents announced that we would be moving – again – on the day of my thirteenth birthday,” I said through a mouthful of salad.

By the time a cheese plate – astonishing in its variety – had arrived, I was winding down: “In a search for God, I began instead to believe in…”

It was my life, in more complete detail than I’d ever imagined it. I found myself almost hearing it for the first time, as though listening to a stranger’s experiences – and my life sounded a lot more interesting when told this way. Things I’d never attached any significance to seemed much more crucial, and things which had devoured my whole world at the time were discovered to be manageable, even funny in retrospect. Finally, as a tiny portion of decadently rich truffle cake appeared, I was breathing as hard as though I’d spent an hour on the treadmill.

“Wait a sec,” I said a few moments after silence had fallen over the table for the first time since we’d sat down to eat, “aren’t you supposed to be, well… inspiring me? Why are you so interested in my life?”

“Your life is interesting,” she said simply. “As you have just found out. And if you’re not inspired by that, there’s no more I can do. Any other questions?”

“Uh, a few…”


“Who was the little fairy-person in the quad? Was that really you? And why do you look like this now, if it was?”

“It was me,” she smiled. “I appear however I need to. For example…” And she disappeared. No fading away, no puff of smoke, just not there between one heartbeat and the next. I started, and looked around for her.

“I’m right here,” a voice said next to my right ear. Not female. Most certainly, emphatically not female. This was the voice every female puts to her fantasies – deep, male, sounding like melted chocolate over steel. I was suddenly glad I was sitting down, since every internal organ had gotten unaccountably weak and squishy. I turned my head hesitantly to behold what was, without any doubt, the most ferociously attractive man I’d ever had the distinct pleasure to see. Tall, dark and handsome wasn’t even in the same ballpark. He moved around to stand next to me.

“This is how I can look sometimes – mostly to women, I admit. Red is for people who need a strong woman to respect –” and he was (to my guilty regret) the woman in the red dress again, “or if they won’t respect anything but age –” and now she was older than the hills, looking wiser than anything under the sun, dressed in a nondescript sturdy blouse and skirt which could have belonged to any century. “If wealth and power appeal to them, I can be the Count,” her firm voice said, and she was abruptly a taller gentleman, grey wings of hair at his temples, carrying an ineffable and crushing sense of authority, an expectation of instant obedience. I was starting to get dizzy.

“From the voice of the Everyman,” and he was a farm labourer, with humor, knowledge and a firm grasp of the way the world works shining from his eyes, “to a magical being, for those who cannot accept the validity of their fellow humans’ advice and opinions” he was that androgynous imp again, who grinned widely at me before its childish voice added “to an abstract,” and it dissolved into a shifting miasma of colors, of half-heard voices and constantly changing images, a cloud of pure energy that spoke directly into my head with the ringing power of the joy of creation, “I am whoever I need to be. I seem whatever I wish to seem.”

And the woman in the red dress looked calmly at me from across the table and sipped a cup of tea. I picked up the cup I had not noticed by my water-glass and sipped as well, trying to sort out in my mind all this fantastic information, praying I’d remember everything well enough to put it down on paper the minute I could. A waiter approached the table and bowed to Inspiration diffidently.

“The matter of payment, madam…?”

“Ah, of course,” she answered. Looking at me, she said, “shall we go Dutch on this, then?” It wasn’t really a question. I nodded, trying to keep the wince off my face: even half of the price of a meal like this would cut painfully into my student’s budget.

“For my part,” Inspiration said in an authoritative tone, “I will spend five hours with the chef in three day’s time.” Before I could do more than blink at this strange response, the waiter was bowing and smiling, saying madam was too generous, no further payment was required… Inspiration smiled at him. “This establishment has always been more than welcoming to me and my kind, and the service was as always excellent. As for the young lady, here…” She considered me through narrowed eyes. “Six sleepless nights, five pounds lost and gained, and twelve rejection letters.” The waiter’s eyebrows climbed into his hairline on an otherwise expressionless face.

“Madam, that much is not necessary…”

“That,” she said, ignoring him and looking at me evenly, “is for pestering me for so long without even thinking of looking to your own life for me. Remember that in the future,” she admonished. “The best stories come from what you know. From the heart.”

I almost fell down the slope. The abrupt transition from sitting at a table to standing on an incline had severely overbalanced me. I looked around, wondering. The clock on the library read barely five minutes since I had looked at it last, just before Inspiration-the-imp had tugged on my sleeve. Damn… it had all been just some sort of daydream… So vivid, though…

I headed absentmindedly for the dining hall to grab some food, when I half-stumbled again, this time from the realization that I was full. Full almost to bursting – with roast duck, with pâté, with crisp vegetables and wine and cheese and truffle cake… and with inspiration. I started running flat-out towards my car, needing to get onto the computer immediately, and already regretting the sleepless nights, the lost weight and the discouragement I knew awaited me, certain as the sunset.

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