It Was Fresh When I Started: The Sell-By Date on Inspiration

Many years ago, while driving down Charles Street, in Boston, I had what I call a “speculative vision.” It had rained during the night, and the morning sun glaring off the puddles was casting weak, golden halos around everything. Two men in long woolen coats suddenly passed in front of me, and in the strange morning light, they looked like hunched, wingless birds. That’s when the vision struck: Beacon Hill transformed into a ghetto of crumbled buildings and flooded streets, miles of barbed wire holding in a population of cold, dying bird-people.

Who were these people? How could Beacon Hill become a ghetto? Who would be on the inside and who would be on the outside? Why? These were the questions I had to answer, and since I was writing not long after the Reagan era (yes, I’m that old), the story I created—“Mercy Street”—reflected many of the issues of the time: AIDS, gay rights, religious extremism, conservative activism.

Almost as soon as I finished the story, the ground started to shift under my feet. The Boston Garden, a crumpled heap in my dystopian vision, got turned into the sparkly Fleet Center (now TD Banknorth Garden—yuck). The 93 overpass, meant to sag into the water, got cut up and trucked away during the Big Dig. And the Charles Street Jail, a granite hulk in my story, is now the luxurious Liberty Hotel. The only detail that has stayed faithful to my vision is the flooding of Storrow Drive. But it’s not nearly as often or as deep as I’d like.

The thematic aspects of my story suffered, too. Federal funding for HIV research, better treatment and higher survival rates all made my vision of the future seem more paranoid than speculative. And the shift in the national dialogue on gay and lesbian rights, inching away from “Who cares about a disease that kills gays?” to “Should we allow same sex couples to marry?” has had the same effect on my story as leaving the cap off a bottle of seltzer. Flat. Flavorless. Dead.

Which brings me to my question: What do you do with a story that’s past its expiration date? Can you change the details and recycle the main ingredients? Can you substitute fresh problems for old ones without turning the whole thing into an indigestible mess?

Conventional wisdom says true art is timeless, and I guess that’s mostly true. The Iliad and The Odyssey haven’t lost much of their appeal, despite the fact that no one (except maybe Rick Riordan) has sacrificed anything to a Greek god in over a thousand years. And Jane Austen doesn’t seem to be losing fans, despite the disappearance of nearly all Victorian sense and sensibility.

But what about during the writing process itself? If the shadows of totalitarianism had begun to fade before George Orwell finished 1984, would he have kept going? If the civil rights successes of the 50’s and 60’s had taken place in the 30’s instead, would Richard Wright have kept working on Native Son? Would he have believed Bigger Thomas’s fate was as inevitable as ever? Or would he have begun to doubt the mechanistic vision of racism, poverty, and injustice that drives the novel?

Okay, it’s pretty hard to second-guess the literary greats. And since they are literary greats, we know their ideas passed the “sniff test” right up to the moment of publication, and beyond. But you and I, racing to preserve what we know in a world where everything sprouts and dies faster than the vine over Jonah’s head—we’ve got our work cut out for us.

So it’s worth repeating the question: What do you do with an idea that’s gone past its expiration date? Do you toss it aside and start something new, the way you’d pour old milk down the drain and open a new carton? Or do you do what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years—open that story up now and then, see if there’s a way to turn vinegar back to wine?

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