The Mystery of Creativity by Sophy Burnham
New York Times bestselling author Sophy Burnham’s latest, Love, Alba, contains three intertwining and entertaining love stories narrated by the wise and witty Alba, who happens to be a little cat. Sophy shares the evolution of narrative by cat…and explores the magical and mysterious creative process.
Rest is not idleness, and to lie in the sun on a warm spring day, listening to the rustle of the wind in the trees or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. Alba, the cat.
There is a long tradition of writing from the point of view of an animal: Black Beauty, Watership Down, The Golden Ass by Apuleius—and also of writing about animals. I started considering a book about my cat Alba, when a friend at National Geographic sent a letter to Alba from her cat Puma.
“What a great idea for a novel,” I thought and immediately started writing a cat novel in exchanged letters.
It didn’t work.
And then my beloved Alba died, and I began again. Curiously (a quality cats have plenty of), the Alba of my novel is quite unlike the calm, gentle original. A totally new character leapt onto the page (surprise!)– younger, snarky, wise, witty, mystical, and full of observations about the two-leggeds and the emotional tangles they manage to weave.
You’d never find a cat paying so much attention to rejection (thinks Alba, contemptuous of her owner’s dejection). We’d stalk away with our tail in the air, and let the other live with his regret.
She surprised me (the writer) also by her generosity.
I went away, thinking … how goodhearted [humans] are, how courageous, how rich in complexity, and how I hadn’t given them credit for trying so hard to do what is kind, even when it devolved to their disadvantage. I saw… it was up to us to sort things out. We cats! We lovely, brilliant cats! We animals, I thought, extending my gratitude to the whole animal kingdom. Even dogs. . . . How generous, how forgiving we are! How hard we try. My heart swelled with love and happiness. I belonged to Lorna and she belonged to me.
A book has a life of its own. The characters take over. They say the first draft tells you what the book is about, and then you throw it all way and rewrite. I thought I was writing a simple love story; I discovered instead that Love, Alba held themes of aging (a topic of much interest to me these days), friendship, love, death, and life after death, not to mention being about art, Washington society, and breaking free of cultural conditioning. I wanted to write a love poem to my cat, Alba, and ended up writing one to the fragility and nobility of us humans.
I should not have been surprised. In my novel, Revelations, a narrator suddenly appeared on page 10, a man in his 80s. I was so shocked that I stopped writing for months. I didn’t want him in the book (I’m not a man; not 80). But finally I was forced to complete the story he insisted on telling—and discovered at the end that the work was richer for his presence than my original third person would ever have been. It’s as if the writer, is nothing– a thought– a pen in the hand of a higher Spirit or Genius or Muse; and all we have to do is get the willful ego out of the way and write . . . almost to dictation, as it were.
I’m not saying it’s not work. Inspiration comes like a clap of thunder, or a swell of music; you follow the notes of each sentence, not knowing yourself what’s going to happen but writing in a frenzy of creativity, a thousand or three thousand words; and suddenly the spigot turns off.
Afterwards, you polish and smooth the stones of your words, amputating and adding filler, rewriting and rewriting, listening to rhythms, as if the Muse or Creative Spirit weren’t really much good. And finally you have a book. Mystical, angelic, mysterious, the process leaves you in awe. How did it happen? To the writer, every book comes as a surprise.
Sophy Burnham, awarded “Daughter of Mark Twain,” is the author of fourteen books, both nonfiction and novels; award-winning plays, radio plays, children’s books, investigative reporting, essays and short stories. She is best known for her spiritual writing, including A Book of Angels and The Treasure of Montségur. Three of her books appeared on the New York Times (and many other) bestseller lists. Her works are translated into twenty-six languages. A brilliant speaker, she has given talks and workshops internationally, and appeared on scores of radio and TV shows including Oprah (twice), Larry King Live, CBS Morning News, and others. Learn more by visiting her website: www.sophyburnham.com.
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