One of the questions I’m asked the most about my books has to do, naturally, with inspiration. “You must have loved stories about the Old West and devoured books like Tom Sawyer and by authors like Louis L’Amour,” the inquiry goes. And the truth is, well, not really.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the heck out of adventure stories, as I’ve shared previously on this site and others. But—true confession—until James Witmer suggested I meet Mr. L’Amour prior to diving into my first Dead-Eye Dan novel a few years back, I had never read anything by him.
So what did I have?
The answer—a pair of cassette tapes.
One was a blue-and-yellow read-along version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a radio theater-style production with sound effects and character voices: the dripping of water inside a cave, the crackle of a campfire; my mind danced to these tunes and filled in the mesmerizing gaps between the narration.
The other tape was a bit further afield. This summer, while our family wandered around Manhattan, in awe of the hustle and flow of the city, I suddenly had a flash of memory— falling in love with the Big Apple for the first time through the sounds of taxi brakes and sizzling street hot dogs which opened the cassette tape which narrated the story of the Disney-animated movie Oliver & Company. And the Huey Lewis-performed opening lines, “It’s always once upon a time/in New York City…”
In these two tapes, and in much of my early childhood, what I had to enjoy wasn’t so much a vast quantity of resources, but rather a few from which I drank deeply, finding wells of inspiration, which, combined with my own fertile imagination—a God-given storehouse which lives inside each of us—gave rise to stories that spiraled out in dozens of different directions. In addition to those tapes, I had access to records from 60’s folk singers like Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Irish Rovers, a shelf full of paperback adventure stories from Verne and Stevenson, and the three meager television channels in our house which introduced me to Andy Griffith and Duck Tales. (Yes, that’s right, three channels.)
Maybe, I am coming to realize, less is more.
We live—and my children are coming of age—in a time of “infinite content,” promising to make us “infinitely content,” to borrow a phrase from the band Arcade Fire. A simple swipe of the index finger can yield hours of entertainment and stimulation: songs, monologues, dramatic scenes, spaceships exploding, people expressing their heart’s desire and true love to each other, and on and on.
But somehow, I suspect lost in the vast oceans of stimulation is the simple encounter with a simple story, one which a child returns to again and again, drinking deeply from a rich, familiar well: one doll, one action figure, one VHS or cassette tape which contains a greatest hits mix culled from hours of listening to the radio or watching re-runs of Duck Tales.
(“That’s piracy!” my own kids exclaimed when I told them about this habit for the first time. And that’s a conversation for another time.)
“The mind drinks less,” Ray Bradbury says in Fahrenheit 451, when Professor Faber explains to Guy Montag the consequences of rapid, constant stimulation. In my mind, I always see a hummingbird when reading this passage, but the speed of flight might run counter to my point in this piece. Instead, a more apt metaphor might be the same small deer traveling daily to the same source of nourishment. The slow dipping of a paw into the pond, the tongue lapping slowly.
Or, the slow trek a Samaritan woman might make day after day to a single well at Sachar, lugging empty clay jugs in the hot afternoon sun. Alone with her thoughts, she is surprised by the arrival of Jesus, who promises deep, rich, “living water” to replace her unfulfilled life of regret and abandonment.
True water needs only the simplest of entry points to provide nourishment that lasts. Less is needed for our minds to drink deeply. Much, much less. A single cassette tape, a single Lego set or minifigure. So much can be made of so little.
I’ve experienced this as well when it comes to the travel lust which can consume an adult alone with a social media feed. I’ve stood in awe of the photo of the majestic mountain peak featured in a friend’s photo, instantly turning my attention to the next trip, and believing the itchy, hypnotic lie that more is more.
It’s not. It’s just more.
A camper, a full tank of gas, and a free weekend. The sound of a stream flowing past, the buzzing of insects and the whisper of a breeze through the trees. This is no cliche of a summer idyll. It’s true. A mind with a few pieces of inspiration and the time to drink deep can produce any number of brilliant thoughts, or poems, or stories.
So let’s take it slow.
Featured image by Freepik