The Nature of Inspiration

11 Oct

Divine inspiration, the Eureka Moment… While I often find the work of other writers inspiring, moments of heightened creativity aren’t something I’ve experienced too often. I suspect that the same is true of most writers. And yet ‘uninspired’ is a pejorative term for writing that lacks originality or spark, implying that any work of worth must have been composed in this manner. My writing is mostly a result of thinking hard about words and ideas, drawing on all of the experience that I’ve built up over decades.

Some artists claim to have written in trance-like states or to have ‘received’ works that appeared fully formed in their dreams. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, supposedly composed his epic poem, Kubla Khan in a narcotic-induced dream (the details of which, he like, forgot, man). It’s that idea of something else taking over, as though a visitor from the spirit world were directing our creative processes through automatic writing. I confess here and now that I have no belief in ‘higher forces’ and have been an atheist since I was a small child (there’s nothing like having a strict creed imposed upon you at an early age to destroy your faith gene). There must be unconscious processes at work, then, I’m guessing.

05-10-2013 17;49;06

The inspirational Northumbrian coast. I once spent a week there trying and failing to put the finishing touches to a novel.

I’ve experienced inspiration most clearly, on several occasions, in musical composition. In a matter of minutes, a song appears, apparently out of the ether. I’ve also experienced its polar opposite, periods of total creative sterility that have lasted for months or years. Inspiration struck with a song that I wrote a very long time ago, called I Spy, a slice of throwaway pop that seems to have held up rather well, if I say so myself… The words and music came to me complete in fifteen minutes, one Saturday afternoon. The lyrics are included in Jamboree Bag, the forthcoming sampler of my work. One verse ran:

You only live twice in a double life,
Double agent on heart sabotage.
A secret service and you were a wife.
Now that’s counter-espionage.
 
 I suspect you might defect and find another lover.
Treachery that I detect that goes on under-cover.
 
KGB – a kiss good-bye,
Is this treason that I spy?
CIA – chuck it away.
That’s the reason why I spy.

Very nearly Keats or Donne, isn’t it? I rarely experience this phenomenon in creative writing. No one or nothing else ‘takes over’. I have to concentrate fully and labour away at it. I’m certainly no genius, but I empathise fully with the spirit of Thomas Edison’s words – genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. There’s an irony here. Edison was the inventor of the first practical electric light bulb and yet downplayed the importance of  what we’ve come to call the ‘light bulb moment’ in his work. For me, those revelatory instants occur in relation to the genesis of overall book ideas. A story arc will tend to come to me, almost fully formed, in the course of a few minutes. This is all the stranger, given that the resultant book will usually take me several years to complete. It just goes to show the wisdom of Edison’s famous words. And it’s generally some aspect of my immediate environment that inspires the idea. I can recall most of these moments with absolute clarity. Stopping to look at a war memorial by the entrance to a World War Two bomber base in Lincolnshire, a fly-paper sticking to my hair at the writing den, walking along the corridor of a train carriage in Slovakia… But where the rest of the idea comes from, remains for me a mystery.

I wonder how inspiration manifests itself for other artists…

All text and image © PSR 2013

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4 Responses to “The Nature of Inspiration”

  1. jhuwevans October 11, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    I’ve never thought of inspiration helping me write but more giving the idea that might grow into something worth writing about. I am inspired by the political mess the world and this country are in, Weltschmerz, frustration and despair. But none of that makes me get off my arse and write.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves October 11, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Huw. That’s certainly how it’s worked for me. The state of the world gets me pretty angry though I’ve tended to avoid the overtly political in my writing in recent times. I get off my backside because writing’s just what I do.

  2. Mari Biella October 12, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Like you, Paul, I find that inspiration is rare indeed. For the most part, writing is simply hard work: drafting, editing, redrafting. But when those little flashes of inspiration occur, they are worth waiting for. I think it’s true that they are probably, in the main, dredged up from the more-or-less unconscious mind, which is probably why they seem so true and right. (I must confess that many of my own ‘inspired’ moments have occurred when I’ve had a little bit to drink, so if I’m being guided by a higher force it may well be the god of wine. Sadly, my desperate attempts to jot down my ideas often come to nothing, as the next morning I can barely even read what I’ve written…)

    It’s interesting that your inspired moments tend to yield entire story arcs – my own often take the shape of sudden images and phrases, or individual plot points within a story. Stories themselves tend to gestate very slowly in my mind, sometimes over years.

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves October 12, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for your comments.

    You’re right. Writing is hard work, but hard work of an engaging and challenging kind.

    Ah, inspiration from alcohol! It just makes me tired, I’m afraid. It’s always fascinating to hear how different writers arrive at their ideas. It might take me years to decide that I need to combine two or three ideas or to get around to turning an idea into a book, but the initial ideas are always almost instantaneous. I recognise the phenomenon of the brilliant idea that just can’t be recalled, though.

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