You could light some incense or burn some essential oil to invoke your muse, but in most cases finding inspiration is a much messier, much less serene affair. Like a wayward pet, it doesn’t necessarily come when you call it. You might be sitting at a tidy desk with the promise of a long work day stretching out before you, and . . . nothing. Later the same day, at a dinner party perhaps, inspiration might crash upon you like some powerful and unexpected wave. There you are at the table, the perfect dinner guest keeping up your end of a conversation, while the writer in you is busy scrambling not to lose that great idea, that perfect solution to the crisis in plot that’s had you stumped, that way out of the narrative cul-de-sac you’ve been stuck in for days.
Quick, where are your pen and notebook? Would it be rude to pull them out and jot down a few thoughts while they are still fresh?
In most cases—depending on the company, of course—doing such a thing would only add to your aura of being a creative and eccentric writer, but I’ve come to learn that it really isn’t necessary to write everything down the moment you think of it. Go on and finish your meal. Continue the conversation. Have another glass of wine. Let your subconscious do the work alone, while you enjoy yourself. Those ideas and solutions are in you, and if they are worth remembering, you will.
Inspiration is an intangible quality that by its presence or absence makes a vast difference to any work of art. It distinguishes the ordinary from the extraordinary. And it inspires in turn.
The etymology of ‘inspiration’ has always been closely associated with the divine. ‘Inspiration’ is usually first defined as being under the immediate influence of God or of the gods, to be God-breathed or God-blown. This means that in the moment of inspiration, we are closest to divinity. Linguists have suggested that the Indo-European root began as an onomatopoeic word: it imitated the sound of blowing or breathing out. In Latin, it came to take over for the word for ‘soul’. But there is more to ‘inspiration’ than the breath of life. It is related to the word ‘spirit’. And to ‘aspire’, ‘respire’, ‘transpire’, and ‘expire’. It is also interestingly, though more obscurely, connected to the words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘instinct’. All of these I find useful when thinking about and practicing creativity.
This leads to the more contemporary view of inspiration: the state of being influenced, moved or guided by some power we consider to be outside ourselves and yet at the same time to be somehow also within us. Nowadays, the subject has shifted. It is no longer the muse or God or ‘the divine’ creating the work of art through the artist, but the artist alone who exerts an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on the art. This doesn’t mean we are any less connected to divinity, just that we are plugged into the divinity that exists in all of us. In Ars Poética, Jorge Luis Borges says: “Art is the mirror that reveals our own face.” And, I would add, our own soul.
Inspiration is like the wind. It can’t be held or controlled, but it can be felt. I don’t try to schedule it anymore. That never worked anyway. Inspiration never arrives on call, but bides its time and, when it does come, descends in a variety of guises. It may appear like a clap of thunder or a creeping mist, like a powerful tide or like the tiniest flutter of insect wings. We may not even recognize it immediately. It may only occur to us that we were under its influence after the cloud of energy has lifted, and we are left facing the result of our efforts.
On the subject, Leonard Bernstein said: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time….The wait is simply too long.” I think this is wise advice. I’m sure every writer has a variety of strategies to turn the grist of everyday life into inspired art. I know I do. First and foremost, I consider all the little things that happen to be a gift. Each tiny event, every conversation, the smallest detail, all are material for my craft. It’s simply up to my powers of observation and memory. Margaret Atwood has described the task of writing to be much like the “jackdaw building its nest”—a leaf here, a twig there, some shiny string borrowed from a rubbish heap, a little mud. And there you have it, a place to rest and raise nestlings.
So where do I seek inspiration? Everywhere. In art, music, poetry. In nature. In everyday life. Any creative act and all creative output hold a piece of the inspiration that went into its production. When we view any work of art—from a grand painting to a garden or a lovingly prepared meal—we find that divine piece of ourselves and connect with inspiration anew. It crosses time, space, landscapes, physical and emotional dimensions.
I keep a notebook on hand (and try not to pull it out too often at dinner parties). It’s filled with cryptic notes—fragments of sentences, disembodied words, locations. It isn’t where I do the work of writing. It serves simply as repository for clues: these are ideas and words I found interesting. Later, when inspiration is upon me, these simple jottings become the scenes and metaphors and themes of my stories.
For example, on a random page I find the word “nest” and the phrase, “wedding dress in a paddock”. “Nest” triggers a memory of the day when my children came running up from our wildly overgrown orchard with a small birds’ nest attached to a peach twig. Inside it was lined with a strange yellow fluff. It took us awhile before we realised that it was my husband’s hair! I transformed this funny little event into a scene I was writing about a man stricken with guilt. His daughter finds a nest lined with his hair, and all he can think is, “I can’t be all bad if a bird would use my hair to cushion its young.” The nest becomes emblematic of a turning point for this character. Up to that moment, he hasn’t acknowledged his wrongdoing or the guilt it has caused him. Facing it, he is able to take steps towards amends and renewal.
As for the reference to the wedding dress, a friend once told me a story about her childhood that has stayed with me for years. When she was young, one of six children under the age of ten, her mother surrendered her wedding dress to their play, just to get a little peace and time to herself. Perhaps I remembered this and wrote it down one hectic day when I was seeking some such amusement for my own children. At any rate, the image of small girls draped in yards of white lace and tulle and dancing in a sunlit paddock became the backdrop for another character, a woman in deep confusion over her marriage.
In the same notebook few pages later, I find a list of words: “skulk, untenable, jaunty, shrink, slink, clink, black despair, fervent, toothed, hamstrung, refraction.” Why I wrote them down, I don’t know. How the list might help me in my writing, I can’t say. But I trust that I was subconsciously drawn to them for some reason and that at some point having written them in my notebook will be useful.
I flip through a few more pages, and a political cartoon drops out. The next page describes a disjointed dream I had. A few pages on I read lines of poetry by Yeats that I’ve copied out. The facing page holds a conversation—I can’t tell if I’ve overheard it or made it up.
What’s in the notebook is simply the raw material of my craft. It tells nothing by itself. Without inspiration, my notebook is as good as empty. For inspiration’s mysterious power is what links the disembodied images and words, the political cartoon, the poetry and the dream fragments to what goes on within and between my characters. Inspiration breathes life into the world I’ve created. It gives my work soul.
So I keep alert for any incident or word or detail that resonates and take note. I trust the process. I gestate. I give inspiration every opportunity to arrive. Then I set to work. And when I get stumped, when inspiration departs, I stop. I do something else. I might put on some music or read poetry or go to a museum. I might call a friend or take a walk. Because in all these places, inspiration abides. I’m not so concerned about finding it—I trust that eventually it will find me.
First published in Arts Hub in 2005.