“The more you have of conscious creative moments … the more chance you will have of a flow of inspiration.” (Stanislavsky, pg. 15)
I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance of mine who is a writer and poet. She insisted that she couldn’t write anything unless she was absolutely inspired. Even when she had a subject to write about and a story in mind, she couldn’t put a word down until she was inspired to write.
Inspiration is one of those sticky topics among writers and artists. Some, like my acquaintance, insist that they can’t work without inspiration. Others say that waiting for inspiration to hit is like a mouse running a wheel – you will never get anywhere.
In her article “To Be or Not To Be a Writer”, Amanda Brooke talks about two elements that she needed in order to write her first novel: “[T]hat overwhelming urge to write and … the story itself, and by that I don’t mean the one I wanted to write, but the one I had to write.” (Brooke, par. 3; emphasis original) Both of these require inspiration and it’s very true that sometimes, artists can’t work without it, especially when they are faced with difficult times when their creativity is overwhelmed by the traumas of real life. Brooke faced discouragement after hearing a bestselling writer insist that writers are born rather than made and personal trauma with her son. But these eventually inspired her to write her first novel in her thirties.
Personally, I have always been a bit suspicious of inspiration. It’s one of those things that’s become part of the mythos of the creative arts but the theory is prettier than the practice. The brilliant godfather of method acting, Constantin Stanislavsy, was wary of the idea that artists must be inspired in order to create as well. As he puts it in his book An Actor Prepares, “ ‘[Artists] are supposed to create under inspiration; only [their] subconscious gives [them] inspiration; yet [they] apparently can use this subconscious only through [their] consciousness, which kills it.’ ” (Stanislavsky, pg. 14) This Catch 22 is the problem of inspiration – It’s an illusive thing that is supposed to drive us but once we have it, we must make it tangible and visible. It comes from a place we supposedly have no control over but once we recognize it, we must control it.
This might be why many professional writers and artists advise newbies not to count on inspiration. Even Anais Nin, a writer known for her intuitive writing, didn’t approve of putting off working to be inspired. In her book on writing The Novel of the Future, she advises, “writers who do not exercise and sit and wait for the great moment of the geyser, often find their writing fingers rusty by the time it erupts, if it ever does!” (Nin, Chap. 5, location 2683). For Nin, writing in her diary was her exercise for her fiction. For many other writers, it might be about scheduling a specific amount of time or number of words to write every day and hit those goals, even if they have no motivation that day.
But inspiration isn’t as random as it seems. The idea is not to wait for inspiration but to go out looking for it, or rather, to create the circumstances for which inspiration can come. As Stanislavsky puts it, “ ‘[N]ever manufacture inspiration… only prepare a favourable ground for it.’ ” (Stanislavsky, pg. 302). Artists create favorable ground by keeping their eyes and ears open, absorbing what is going on around them. I wrote about this in my blog post about the artist as observer. When artists observe the world around them, they have so much to inspire them that they could never create enough works to accommodate the constant inspiration.
My novella series, The Waxwood Series, was originally inspired more by an idea than by a specific situation. I wanted to tell the story of wealthy family members estranged from one another whose seemingly routine summer vacations at an exclusive seaside resort town unearth the lies and illusions they’ve been living with all their lives. However, for the second novella of the series, I wanted to focus on a different character in order to throw a more objective light on the Alderdice family. The novella wasn’t inspired but created as a piece to fit the puzzle of the series. This novella, The Claustrophobic Heart, is not about the Alderdice family, though they play a small role in the story, but about Gena and her aunt Helen. Their story fits into the series because the themes of family alienation and disillusionment are there as Gena copes with her aunt’s deteriorating mental health.
This is not to say that inspiration is useless or nonexistent. Many artists have created amazing works of art in an inspired state. Even a small thing can trigger an inspiration. I hadn’t originally planned on participating in this year’s National Novel Writing Month since I’m preparing for the release of my first short story collection, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. But a few weeks before the event began, I watched the film Juliet of the Spirits (1965) by legendary Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini. It was a film I had always wanted to see but never got the chance. The film inspired me in a way to come up with the story and characters of House of Masks, where I take the idea of a woman who finds her independence through the her friendship with her eccentric neighbor in a different direction.
Inspiration is a beautiful thing but not something that many artist can always count on. It’s a gift that artists must grab when it comes.
Brooke, Amanda. “To Be or Not To Be a Writer”. Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books. Women Writers, Women’s Books. 8 March 2016. Web. 23 November 2016.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.
Stanislavsky, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Aristophanes Press, 2015 (original publication date 1936). Kindle digital file.