Let’s talk about inspiration.
Where does it come from? Is it stored inside of us and stirred awake when we encounter something in our everyday life that brings out this hidden treasure we never knew we carried?
Or, is it handed to us, as a gift, by someone or something that has you or me are the perfect person to see its true potential?
Elizabeth Gilbert says:
The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
Have you found any yet? Please…share them with us in the comments field. As writers I think we all know how to appreciate them. We know how precious these discoveries are.
I am inspired by places. I suppose it’s always been like that. I fell asleep staring at the illuminated globe on my bedside table as a kid. Spending so much time admiring the intricate patterns of continents and oceans as a child, turned into a chronic travel fever once I hit the teens. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that my inspiration would somehow be linked to places and travels and that the setting would always play an important role in my writing.
This is NamibRand:
Nowadays it’s a nature reserve, but it used to be commercial farmland. I have taken students to the old farmhouse in NamibRand for the best part of ten years now. The first time I drove the track toward the house I had no idea what to expect.
I remember I was nervous. What if it was dreadful? What if the students hated it? What if our car broke down. How on earth would we get out of there? And so on, and so on. It late afternoon when we arrived. Photographers call it the golden hour and it certainly was. I remember how we all sat quietly in the car taking it all in. Then one of the students breathed a quiet, “wow…” And I knew, that no matter how shabby the house would be on the inside, this was a magical spot.
I spent the next day tracing cracks in the concrete walls with my fingers and wonder about the people who used to live there. But the house didn’t speak to me. I paged through the bookshelves and the guestbook, but there was nothing, except paperbacks left by previous guests.
NamibRand became a compulsory stop on our annual geography excursion. I played with the thought of making an effort to learn more about the place, but it was pushed aside and forgotten once the excursions were over.
I have my rituals when visiting the farmhouse. I sleep outside, under the stars, and I stay at the house when the students climb up on the nearest dunes to do sand boarding. When I’m alone, I try to imagine what it must have been like to live here. In this place where the horizon disappears in a shimmering fata morgana at midday and is drenched in red at sunset.
I already knew that most of the farmers had karakul sheep and derived their income from pelts of newborn lambs to make ends meet. Cruel and ghastly, you might claim, but the production was determined by the land itself, by the low carrying capacity and the limited grazing.
It was farming based on small margins. During a cold winter night, the sheep could freeze to death. And a pipe burst during a scorching summer day could lead to mass death around the dry trough. But surely, I figured, this stunningly beautiful and brutally unforgiving environment would affect and shape the people who tried to make a living there in more ways than their income. This red sand had to stain or leave its mark, somehow.
During one of those quiet, private moments I paged through the guest book to read the entries since my last visit, scowling at the entries of demanding tourists who had the audacity to complain or suggest changes (so-called improvements) my favorite place. And that’s when I came across Belia’s neatly written pages.
28 June 2010
What shall I say? Where to begin… When I was a little girl of five, I moved with my dad, my mum and my two sisters to this dearest place. My father was farming here with karakul sheep. My parents created an oasis here, green and lush, amidst the arid desert. We had fruits and we had vegetables, and my father taught me how to swim in the dam behind the house. Here I learned to ride my bicycle. It was pink.
It is late. My daughter is sleeping in my old room. It is the first time she’s here. I sit here and write this at the old paraffin lamp that it still here, almost 40 years later. The framework of the swing that my father built for me is still standing beside the house. To me, it is the absolute symbol of his love for me.
And Belia goes on to tell whoever wants to read about sand storms and loneliness, Sunday barbecues and malaria, Christmas celebrations and the leopard that killed a sheep and pulled it up in the camelthorn tree right behind the house. She writes about how the bottom fell out of the pelt industry almost over night and how the family was forced to move when the farming could no longer sustain them.
And although the walls built by my grandfather and my uncles are crumbling, our memories will last forever.
I wasn’t writing in November 2010 when I read Belia’s entry in the guestbook, but I think I found the hidden jewel Gilbert talks about already back then. I discovered my inspiration before I knew what to do with it.
The small outpost in the Namib desert serves at least two purposes for my writing (in addition to being the most amazing writing retreat).
It provided me with the perfect background of one of my main (and I suspect, all-time favorite) characters. Nick, my Namibian wildlife photographer/daredevil, grew up in the NamibRand. Well, not exactly NamibRand…I don’t name the farm and I have constructed a completely different farmhouse between the dunes in my imagination, but the surroundings are the same. The challenges, the heat, the mocking rain that hovers promisingly in the horizon but never sheds a drop, the mesmerizing beauty…it’s all the same. And it has shaped him, in more ways than he’d like to admit. Nick is part of a contemporary story. He was born in the 70s and grew up during the time when a lot of the karakul farmers were forced to leave their farms, or expand, if they could afford it.
NamibRand also serves the purpose as the location for a historical idea I’m toying with. In the early 1900s, while Namibia was still a German colony called South West Africa, women traveled by ship to Walvis Bay. There, they met men they had corresponded with through letters. They got married as soon as possible. Of course…anything else would have been improper. Then they traveled by train and ox wagons to the farms of their new husbands and became housewives on the African savanna….or in the desert. My mind goes into overdrive at the potential this setup has for a romance or a women’s fiction story.
Cayenne Michaels is the pen name of a Norwegian expat living in Namibia. She’s a scuba diving desert rat and a Jack of All Trades, master of…none? A couple of years ago she woke with the crazy idea of writing a book, and she’s been hammering away on the keyboard ever since. It’s a crazy project, a gigantic slice of life type of story and based on the word count it can probably be sold as a brick instead of a book, if it ever get as far as proper book form.