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Jerry M. Burger, Ph.D.
Jerry M. Burger Ph.D.
Child Development

Looking for Your Muse? He/She Might Be in Your (Old) Backyard

Finding Creative Inspiration

In the recently released movie Limitless, would-be novelist Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) overcomes his writer's block by taking a drug that not only shatters any psychological obstacle to writing but sets in motion a series of Hollywood-worthy events. Sadly, back in the real world, no such pill exists. Yet writer's block remains a genuine problem that has afflicted some of the very best at the craft. Like cures for hiccups and insomnia, there are countless suggestions for how to overcome the problem. But some recent research I've conducted suggests a solution you might not have thought about.

Consider the experience of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon. After publishing his highly regarded debut novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon struggled for nearly five years to produce his already-under-contract second novel, tentatively titled Fountain City. But the book just wouldn't come together. So he abandoned Fountain City and, seven months later, finished Wonder Boys, a literary success that was soon turned into a movie starring Michael Douglas.

How did Chabon go from years of spinning his wheels to sudden inspiration? I asked him about this in an e-mail message. To my delight, he answered (this was 1995). One important reason, he explained, was the setting of the novel. Mysteries of Pittsburgh takes place in, well, Pittsburgh, which also happens to be where Chabon grew up and went to college. The never-completed Fountain City was set in Paris and Florida. Wisely, Chabon chose Pittsburgh for Wonder Boys. He told me he selected his hometown for the novel because "I needed to retreat to a familiar place."

"Write what you know" is standard advice for beginning novelists. But it may also be the case that novelists should write about where they know. No one understands the magical process that turns insight and emotion into fiction. But the deeply held convictions and personal truths that frequently underlie good fiction are often embedded in the writer's early life experiences. And, research shows, those experiences are often tied to specific places from our childhoods. William Styron, the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, suffered through a 15-year publishing hiatus before writing A Tidewater Morning. Not coincidentally, Styron, like the main character in the book, grew up in the Tidewater region. As he explained on NPR's Morning Edition, "I have always felt that in most of my work there (is) a reflection of my first 20 years or so."

Other writers take the inspiration that comes from childhood places one step further. They literally go back to their childhood homes. In an earlier post, I described how people typically develop an emotional attachment to their childhood homes. This connection is so powerful that one in three American adults over the age of 30 has made a trip specifically to see the physical place they once called home. And, as I describe in my recent book, Returning Home: Reconnecting with Our Childhoods (, nearly everyone who visits a childhood home experiences a flood of memories and emotions. Seeing a tree, a bench, or a school yard can trigger memories about an important conversation, an argument, or a tender moment. People recall names, faces and events that might never have surfaced without placing themselves among the sights, smells and sounds they grew up with. More important, people who visit childhood homes often find the experience provides new insights about themselves and the events that shaped their view of the world.

Ernest Gaines, author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson before Dying, also struggled early in his career. The problem, he discovered, was that he was trying to write about the Louisiana he had grown up in while living in San Francisco. So he physically went back to the former plantation where he had lived the first 15 years of his life. "I was trying to be a writer, struggling to be a writer, without ever going back to the South, to the source of what I was trying to do," he once told a reporter. "I did not want to do it. And then I went back, and I spent six months there, and I think that writing career." Gaines made regular trips to Louisiana after that and kept a picture of the cabin he grew up in hanging in the San Francisco apartment where he wrote.

The list of creative individuals who have benefitted from a trip to a childhood home is not limited to novelists. The late playwright August Wilson claimed a visit to his old Pittsburgh neighborhood provided the inspiration for his play Jitney. Woody Allen told his biographer that he makes regular visits to the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. Perhaps not coincidentally, characters in his movies Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors also make trips to see their childhood homes.

Of course, writers can and do produced wonderful works set in places they are not familiar with and may have never even seen. And there is no guarantee that immersing oneself in childhood memories and emotions will overcome writer's block. But visiting the place where you grew up just might provide the inspiration you need the next time your muse goes on vacation.

About the Author
Jerry M. Burger, Ph.D.

Jerry M. Burger, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.

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