“In an ecstasy of admiration for what is, we ate our simple soup.”
—Donald Barthelme, “Overnight to Many Distant Cities”
Where do writers find inspiration? I guess that’s a rhetorical question, but I wish you could answer me because I really want to know. Writing often feels like an alchemic process that I can’t replicate at will. On more than one occasion, I’ve despaired that I will never again have a good idea mere hours before rushing to my laptop to crank out a thousand words.
However, one consistent source of inspiration is the writing of other people.
“Here and There and Everywhere” is a Donald Barthelme story, there is no getting around that fact. I only learned about him in the last year, and from the get-go I imagined this story as an homage to his utterly original voice and style. In particular, I admire the sense of freedom and movement in stories like “Overnight to Many Distant Cities” and “The Balloon,” which were certainly percolating while I wrote.
This story began with a prompt for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. As I was writing, it quickly became about the sheer joy of language, and I let myself get carried away by what was possible on the page. I indulged in a sort of one-upmanship with myself as I wrote, the voice in my head constantly jeering, Is that all you’ve got?
I wrote this story in two chunks, with the break after the two characters jump into the sea. Sometimes it is easier to spit out the beginning of a story that excites you than to keep going and develop it into something bigger than the conceit. For me, the path forward was to add weight to the actions of the characters. I developed the narrative physics: at first, it might seem like these people live in a perfectly absurd and chaotic world, but as they continue to hurt each other, we start to see the scars. The narrator loses his shoes, and he stays barefoot. Marriages end in divorces, languages are learned but never fully forgotten. A stung tongue still feels a little swollen.
“Here and There and Everywhere” is a Don Barthelme story, but it also feels quite personal. Like all fiction, it is at least a little bit true: they really do light fires on the Metra tracks, and you really can find the best mezcal in Santa Fe. London and La Spezia and New York’s Chinatown are romantic places in my heart, places I’ve walked through and felt like I’m really alive. Do all writers stitch their own histories into their fiction? How could we not, since all of our insights about the world come from our experiences within it. I think our main job, as writers, is to beautify and make ecstatic being human, being in the world, being with other people. To elevate a feeling, a sensation, a certain phrase that in turn might, to another person, end up being inspirational.
ROBERT HERBST is a writer and violinist based in Chicago. His work has been published or is forthcoming at Witness, The Offing, Maudlin House, and other publications. He is a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and he enjoys the company of his dog, Reba, who is a very good girl. Robert tweets @rickarob.