07/02/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Finding Inspiration


Inspiration -- that elusive gem, that idea that transforms our thoughts and our maybes into the essential themes of our stories. But, from what magical place does that indefinable pearl emerge? For me, as a nurse and humanitarian aid worker, I find inspiration everywhere. I stand in line at the bank and watch as a woman peers into a glass shelf, and seeing her own reflection, preens with undisguised admiration. I write furiously. I want to capture the set of her eyes, the slight grin as she realizes how much she likes her own image. Everywhere I look there is inspiration and, eager to record it all, I am never without a pen and paper.

When I first went to Afghanistan, I knew at once that everything there was inspirational, not just the people, but the rugged landscape, the steaming green tea, all of it sustenance for a writer's soul. Afghanistan is a place bursting with inspiring people and inspiring stories at every turn, and my first novel, Lipstick in Afghanistan, was written not just to share my understanding of that land, but to help dispel the ceaseless illusion that the people of Afghanistan are either terrorists or wild-eyed peasants. While Afghanistan's ethnic and border wars have long shaped its violent and stubborn history, it has unfairly colored the world's view of its citizens as well. But the reality is that the Afghans I know are at once both resilient and graceful, and it was those diverse, dissimilar and ultimately inspiring qualities I hoped to bring to my novel.

Until 9/11, Afghanistan was essentially off the world's radar screen. People knew little and cared less about a land that seemed so alien and so far away. All of that changed of course after 9/11, and as the world's attention finally focused on that destitute and long neglected corner of the world, the devastating truth of the Taliban rule began to emerge; torture, murder and unspeakable crimes against these people. It was worse than any of us who knew the country well had imagined.

In the spring of 2002, I volunteered with a French aid group and was posted to a remote region of Afghanistan, and I was struck, not for the first time, by the wretched reality of daily life for Afghan women. While they have quite literally woven and then held together the fabric and traditions of their families and country, they have often been invisible -- the last ones fed, the last ones heard, the last ones to really matter. They suffered at every level, and under the Taliban, access to health care for women had been severely restricted. As a result, Afghanistan had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. And though that rate has improved due to the infusion of international aid, Afghan women continue to die at inordinately high rates from complications related to childbirth.

And yet, despite it all, these are women who inspire with every breath they take, for instead of living with bubbling hostility, the women of Afghanistan choose to live with a quiet grace and a hardiness of spirit that takes my own breath away. And even with their countless recent miseries, the women of Afghanistan are nothing if not resilient, and that was especially evident to me in the sparkling eyes of a tiny young girl as she trudged along the village pathways and fields. This young girl, who was destined to live a life of drudgery, of endless chores and arranged marriage, never missed an opportunity to pummel whatever local boy crossed her path. For a female who was surely destined to a life of powerlessness, it seemed to me that she was releasing a lifetime of control in the short time she had to be free, really free. She had a mischievous, engaging spirit that gave me hope for Afghanistan's future, and gave me yet another seed for my first novel. Afghanistan is a place filled with possibilities, with achingly sad stories, where even a dried out riverbed or a lone sunflower can be a source of inspiration.

But there is inspiration here at home as well. I find it in my patients struggling to get well, or in the face of a weary caregiver struggling to come to terms with the looming death of a loved one, but I find it too in rush hour traffic and even in lines at the bank. The world is filled with miracles and with inspiration, and I hope that everyone, especially writers, finds their own miracles and their own special inspiration and shares that story with the rest of us.