How to find inspiration in the air, the dark and other unlikely places
Where do we find inspiration as writers?
Stories are everywhere. We grow up in stories. We narrativise our lives. In the Wave in the Mind Ursula Le Guin notes that, Wave,
Fiction results form imagination working on experience.
In the air
Stories in the air like sculpture is in stone. For writers originality is about what we weave from the ideas we find all around us in the world; how we process experience and ideas which, to quote Le Guin again, are
fused, composted, recombined, reworked, reconfigured, reborn.
The writers art is allowing what is witnessed, researched, lived and thought about to find new forms and shapes so that it ends up looking like invention (a captain and a whale, a girl chained to a rock…)
But there’s no such thing as pure invention. It all starts with experience. … There are monsters and leviathans and chimeras in the human mind; there are psychic facts. Dragons are one of the truths about us … People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons from within.
Whether we are writing fantasy or social realism, a dystopia or a poem, there are always real things at stake. For the writer, there are real internal battles about what it means to craft this particular piece of work. And even the most fantastical fantasy is as
deeply concerned with the truth as the grimmest, greyest realism
Where do we find these truths?
- From the lives we live
- From the lives we observe and meet and witness, both close at hand and a distance
- From reading and research and colliding disparate ideas
- From what has gone before us
Every writer stands on the shoulders of every other preceding writer. We use each others’ ideas and skills, plots and secrets. Writing can be a lonely business, but literature is a communal enterprise.
This doesn’t mean it’s all repetitive plagiarism, but it is simply to acknowledge that the way stuff gets into us is multiple and complex. And to acknowledge that even the most inventive piece of writing didn’t arise ex nihilo.
In the dark
In her brilliant book of lectures on the role of the writer, Margaret Atwood acknowledges how any living writer has to ‘negotiate with the dead’. In other words, there are influences and forbears. For Atwood these include such writers as Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, Alice Munro, Virgil, Borges and Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich.
Atwood notes that both prose writers and poets use the metaphor of going into the dark to retrieve their stories. She develops this into going into the underworld where the dead have the stories that writers want.
All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them. But you don’t learn only from writers — you can learn from ancestors in all their forms. Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truths — what Wilfred Owen, in his descent-to-the-Underworld poem, ‘Strange Meeting,’ calls the ‘truth untold’ — so if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. Even if that time is only yesterday, it isn’t now. It isn’t the now in which you are writing.
Writers plumb the darkness to bring back treasures. As Atwood says:
All writers must go from now to once upon a time; … all must descend to where the stories are kept… And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation… The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — …the realm of the readers, the realm of change
In the rhythm
For Virginia Woolf, beneath memory, words, imagination and experience there is rhythm. The words we use as writers have go deep enough in to move in this rhythm:
Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.
Woolf’s wave in the mind is fragile and elusive. If we try to grasp it before the wave breaks we miss the words, but if we attend to it, inspiration comes. As Le Guin notes:
physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Once we get the beat, the right beat, our ideas and our words dance to it, the round dance that everyone can join. And then I am thou, and the barriers are down. For a little while.
Using the experiences that are all around us, diving deep into the dark to bring back the treasures of the underworld and being present to the rhythm of emotion, of humanity, is also reminiscent of the poetry process of William Stafford.
Stafford insists on simply staying true to the feeling of what is happening around him and allowing it to become a pattern. To write a poem is to speculate — afterwards you can talk about planing and assembling, but this doesn’t explain the trance state of writing, which is a wilder yet trustworthy process. For Stafford, echoing the warning not to try to grasp the rhythm, writing,
takes a certain amount of irresponsibility
- Too much intention endangers creativity. He adds that creation is not about putting our material to the sevice of goals. It is about process, not product.
- Writing must follow the feeling, the intuition… accept what occurs and follow it to its rim.
- Having followed the feeling, we must be willing to abandon it and start again, going even deeper.
In a ball of string
Creativity is not a baton race, Stafford continues, ratherit is something more fragile and exploratory, as the quote from William Blake shows:
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s wall
A poem comes from a life, not a study.
Art is interactive. It’s not mechanical and whilst conscious ambition might give us a subject, it won’t yield a poem that has compelling authority. The cumulative power of the epiphanies we have as we interact with the world, will always speak more deeply than writing that has designs on us. And on-trend pieces will soon be seen as mere ephemeral products of conformity. For Stafford:
Literature as product is bad myth.
In stepping out of time
When we are writing at our most authentic we not only lose a sense of time as we writer, but the writing itself springs us out of time. In this flow state, all kinds of inspiration occurs and we have to be sensible to it, attuned to what emerges. Every decision we make opens and closes other decisions so that in this out of time space we have what Stafford calls:
A reckless encounter with whatever comes along
In the surprise of ourselves
We find inspiration
- in the air, in the stories that surround us
- in the dark, by daring to dive deep and by going to the underworld to bring back the treasures of the dead
- in the rhythm of every sight or emotion that is deeper than words, that we attune to without grasping
- in the golden string that we wind as we explore
- in the timelessness of flow, where we lose ourselves and open ourselves to process
- and in the surprising parts of ourselves that surface as we do deep work.
In the words of Thomas Mann:
The truth is that every piece of work is a realisation, fragmentary but complete in itself, of our individuality and this kind of realisation is the sole and painful way we have of getting the particular experience — no wonder then, that the process is attended by surprises.
Becoming a Different Story
Thank you for reading becoming a different story — if you want to learn more about working on creativity and the writing life, sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. https://janfortune.com/
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