Friday, March 28, 2008


Do you believe in inspiration? I do. I don't know what it is, though, and worse, I don't know how to make it happen. When I was a younger person I thought that inspired writing was the only good writing. I thought that if writing was worked over and rehashed it was dead. Which meant I hardly ever rewrote anything. It was either good when it came out, or I trashed it.

Once I was daydreaming in a poetry class and I heard this voice in my head. It said, When I was two and a half I stuck a knife in an electric socket. I couldn't believe how vivid it was. I sat up straight in my chair, as if zapped by electricity myself. When I got home after class I pounded the whole story out. It couldn't have taken very long. It was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences of my life.

But reading it again all these years later, the story really wasn't that great. It had a strong voice, but the voice cloyed after a bit, and the story was pretty darned sketchy. It wasn't my best work, though it felt like it at the time.

Later when I wrote a novel, there were parts in it that were anything but inspired. It was the stuff I had to put in to fill spaces, to make one section connect to the next. Ugh, I couldn't even read those pages: they didn't fit and they seemed lumpy and awkward. I complained to JRL; he said he couldn't see any difference between those pages and the others. Later my editor picked out one of those sections as her favorite. WTF!

Now that I'm a grown-up person I have more respect for the hard work of writing. That stuff you toil over is probably better, from the reader's point of view, than the easy stuff. It's more thoughtful, more grounded, more intelligent and honest.

Still -- there's no better feeling than having the words tumble out faster than you can write them, when all the sentences seem supercharged and full of extra meaning. It's really only happened to me a few times, and I have to say I love it. It usually means a new voice, a new way of approaching my work. What is it, I wonder? Is it the unconscious suddenly busting through a wall and standing in the conscious mind's living room? Is there any way to make the walls thinner? Because I could certainly use a bit of that.


bookfraud said...

this was one of my favorite posts about writing i've read in a while. i nodded at just about everything you said -- the flash of inspiration, the thrill of writing something while inspired, the drudgery that is inevitable when writing a novel, and the unpredictability of knowing what others will love. when things are flowing, there's nothing like it in the world.

i hate to say it, but the older i get, the less "inspired" i am. but my writing is better. go figure. the best inspiration i can offer you is high-octane coffee. i can't say what triggers such creativity. if i knew, i would bottle it and make a lot of money.

rmellis said...

yeah, inspiration has decreased as I've gotten older, too. But I do write better, I think: more solidly and clearly, anyway.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

High-octane coffee is the milder, legal version of cocaine used throughout history to "inspire" euphoric writing. Manic episodes also involve euphoric states of writing, usually pretty crappy, though not always. Inspiration offers a physiological high and large volume of words. Quality of words is a whole other "story."

Writer, Rejected said...

I really can't figure it out. My moments of inspiration seem to be very rare in my maturity, too. But sometimes if I go to sleep thinking about a writing problem, I wake up with a solution. And sometimes I get great, inspired ideas in the earliest waking moments, too. But mostly I just wake up with morning breath.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I think dream/sleep related inspiration/writing problem solving has more to do with being very in touch with your subconcious mind at those time. Scientists, too, often solve knotty problems in their sleep.
In 1865 the scientist Kekule discovered the circular shape of Benzene molecules in a symbolic dream of a dragon eating its own tail. Insights in dreams and similarly in hypnotic trances are common. I think of them as different from the euphoric inspiration state described by Rhian.

David Rochester said...

This was quite an interesting post. I have often observed that in many cases, the writing that "feels" the best isn't the best ... as Gloria observes, the "high" that comes with that type of writing often lends a factitious afterglow of quality. It's so exciting, it has to be good, right? Well, not so much, actually.

I think that those moments of inspiration come when the conscious mind is turned off, and what I often suggest is the exact opposite of a stimulant in order to get there ... what often does it more gently is repeitive motion of some kind, such as folding laundry, cooking ... crocheting or knitting an easy pattern with no music or TV in the background is a great one. Practicing simple scales on an instrument. I can often do it quickly with a funny form of borderline graphomania, where I'll just sit down with a pen and a piece of paper, and write the same word or series of words over and over until something shuts off in my brain, and something completely different comes in.

But the inspiration that comes in these mild trance-states doesn't usually feel like a high, so if the high is what the writer is looking for ... I suppose the question must be: What is the actual value of the high? It doesn't usually translate into quality of art. It's sort of the artistic equivalent of sexual infatuation in the eary stages of a relationship ... it feels great, but does it mean anything?

I think artists feel less of that "high" as they grow older because they're actually maturing. People who mature also feel more suspicious of the infatuation "high" when it happens. We learn what lasts, we learn how to distinguish the experience of feeling our true voice flow through our words from the experience of an adrenaline rush prompted by the hyperactive ego. At least, that's my theory.