The Tyranny of Inspiration

This doesn’t happen to me anymore.  But through my latter years of high school and my first few years of college, the one time I was guaranteed to be inspired was when I was driving.  I’d switch lanes and suddenly a line pop into my head.  With one hand, I’d pull a pen from my purse, and whenever I stopped at a red light I scribbled, as quickly as I could, on my arm, praying that the light would not change.  At those moments, I seemed to catch all the green lights.  When I arrived home, I transcribed the words scrawled across my skin, desperate to find that spark I felt when I was getting off the freeway.  What I was able to save seemed to die on the page, in that rush to catch the muse’s words I missed something and that magic was lost.

As of late, I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about how poets must allow the poem find its own way, to remove their ego from the process.  If they start out with an idea of what the poem should be, they will suffocate it by trying to make it fit that mold.  I think that this is true—poems are about discovering the unknown.  However, I often felt that my own process is antithetical to this concept; I start with ideas.  Well, maybe I should say I start with questions that I try to answer.  What if Bluebeard had a wife who hadn’t looked in the bloody chamber?  How did Pygmalion’s statue feel about her transformation?  What is in the bathtub buried in my neighbor’s backyard?  Why did our friendship end?  This process still has room for discovery, yet it seems so constricting when compared to the process of other poets.  After all, from the onset of the poem I imagine that I will find an answer.

I suspect that I don’t really understand the process of the other poets.  One thing that I don’t lack is sense of insecurity. So when someone responds to my statement that “I revise the hell out of my poems” with the fact that they tend to do minimal revisions, I don’t take the take the statement as it was meant—a simple observation in the differences in our process—but as a reprimand.  In the end, I can’t escape the feeling that my work is contrived, lacks inspiration, and that I’m strangling it with revision (apparently, I’m my own worse critic).

Yet, when I’m writing I’m often surprised by what shows up on the page.  In one poem where I’m deal with the fairy tale, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” I found it interesting that the bear the heroine married was considered monstrous, but that his human form that visited each night was welcomed without fear (on the part of the heroine).  I started writing with the question “What if the human half is the real monster?”  A few drafts in, I wrote the lines, “Mother should’ve told me/to light a lamp,/ warned me/ that it was the devil/ who visited each night.”  The poem had veered away from the fairy tale.  In subsequent revisions the girl never left home, and I realized that the poem was about incest.  Revision had led me into territory I had not planned to enter that I would probably have never choose to write about.  Like I said, writing is about discovery.

Perhaps the reason that I so doubt my writing process is because it seems to lack that quality of inspiration.  Inspiration—I imagine is when you suddenly feel electrified words burst forth, and they seem to crystallize that very moment.   When I write, I sit down and trudge.  I try to get an idea on the page.  It is usually awful, so I come back the next day and interrogate the thing—I revise.  Sometimes it leads me nowhere—sometimes I write what I (presumptuously) call a poem.  After a good day of writing, I have the same feeling I get after a day of moving or cooking or cleaning.  I’m tired, but I’ve accomplished something.  I don’t feel the elation, the energy of inspiration.

When I go through my old notebooks and look at the car poems—I see ideas that never should have made it to the page.  In that moment of what seemed to be inspiration—when I drove dangerously for what I hoped to be a poem—I’d just gotten an idea, an idea of what I wanted a poem to be.  This so-called inspiration did not allow me to examine each word, to question my assumptions, to let the poem breath and grow with each new draft.  After all, who was I to doubt the muse?  At the time of writing, those words seemed to lack ego, to appear out of the ether.

Looking back, I wonder why I mistook those moments for inspiration, why when I write now I feel that my process is lacking though the writing is leaps and bounds better.  Maybe, it was because those moments of elation were so similar to those moments of coming across a great line or paragraph when reading.  Maybe I subconsciously thought that writing must feel like reading that it should simply flow and that there are moments of epiphany.  But writing is nothing like reading, the same way baking is nothing like eating a slice of cake.  It seems so obvious, but it is hard to resist the elation, to resist what seems to be inspiration.

Poetry by Alphonse Mucha

Poetry by Alphonse Mucha


32 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Inspiration

  1. “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” -Thomas Edison. If it applies to invention, it also applies to writing, since both are very creative vocations. The occasional bolts of inspiration are a gift, but they will come more frequently if you keep on slogging through the hard times. Keep on writing! (and congratulations on the FP!)

    • That must be true, because I’ve been spending the last month writing on one thing, and the inspiration has been more frequent than I suspect would happen at another time.

  2. I think this applies to many art forms. It is such a struggle to be an artist that we feel we must be trying all the time, but the best work usually comes when we let ourselves just be.

  3. Wonderful, thoughtful post. I am a slogger, so I take comfort in your struggles over what it means to be inspired. In one way, inspiration is easy. Your mind (my mind) makes a connection that seems just right, but it’s floating in the air and needs a base built under it to keep it from falling or drifting away. The real work is in building the base, and sometimes during that phase, I’ll keep learning new things, often quite tiny but still new, and that keeps me going. Sometimes inspiration is so big that I go on a manic tear. Later, maybe half of what I’ve written, or 90%, has to be whittled away, but what remains is worthwhile, even if a lot smaller than I’d initially felt it would be.

    Anyway, I could blather on (easily!), but won’t. Congratulations on being FP. I’m glad to have found your site.

  4. Inspiration well driving, these days with all the voice activated methods of leaving messages/recording a note I would gladly be struck thus. Alas however I suffer from the dreaded REM inspiration, the one that strikes when you are deeply asleep. You wake up, first wondering if you had too much coffee that night, then realizing it was inspiration, fumble for the lamp, glasses, pen and paper. Hopefully by this time, you haven’t forgot what it was that inspired you. Finally there is the I need to get back to sleep prayer, muttered as you close your eyes, hoping that this wasn’t just a dream, and you really will find that note in the morning.

    • There is a story I heard once, that Winston Churchill, who always kept a pencil and paper by his bed, awoke one night from a dream that he had discovered the answer to all the ills of mankind… In his half waking state he scribbled it down on his pad and went back to sleep. He woke in the morning full of excitement to discover this universal panacea… looked at the paper and saw one word…


  5. I don’t think inspiration is always meant to be electric. When I write, sometimes I trudge, sometimes I found myself writing a lot within a short bursts, and what’s in those bursts sometimes or often surprises me. That’s what I call inspiration.

    Sometimes you just have to trust that inspiration, no matter how strange, or no matter what your ego may have to say about it.

    That realisation itself was inspired, I think.

  6. I know poetry, non-fiction and fiction all exist in their own, isolated little worlds, but your writing doesn’t read as being uninspired.

    I’m of the opinion that inspiration can sometimes trigger certain ideas or lines of thought, but it has little – if anything – to do with the actual writing process.

    Anyway, loved the thoughts! Thanks for sharing.

  7. The challenge is to set yourself a writing routine, so that when you sit at your desk, or when you put a pen in your hand – then your brain switches into writing mode. It sounds like the only time you make time to think is when you’re driving, so no wonder that’s when the ideas come!

    Good stuff – I enjoyed your post.

    • Thankfully I’ve set up a writing routine since then, and I feel that my writing is much better for it. However, those adrenaline filled ideas have stopped coming. Maybe it is because I’m expecting them and am prepared to write them down– I no longer have to scramble to try to write at a stoplight.

      • Ooh, or use a dictaphone! My phone has a recorder thingy on it, so I can just tap and speak! Though I do feel like an idiot doing that, and hate the sound of my own voice when I listen back!

  8. Your very perceptive and insightful comments remind me of a marvelous TED talk that changed my approach to the act of creating art. In the talk, Elizabeth Gilbert explores the idea that we as artists are merely conduits of the muse – not the muse itself. This lessens the intense pressure that creatives feel to produce consistently beautiful work, and takes the burden of genius off our ego.

    What a relief.

    You can find the talk here; I highly recommend it.

    • Thank you for sharing Gilbet’s TED talk. It was one that I found helpful and probably influenced my thoughts on the process.

  9. Pingback: The Tyranny of Inspiration « @1ÇdO

  10. Pingback: The Tyranny of Inspiration « The Book of Ascension Blog

  11. Great post. I have forsaken the ability to write for several years and finally an ounce of inspiration reminded me of the art that can be created by words. A great distance is yet to be traveled by I take joy in the fact I am writing again. Whether or not individuals read my recent creations does not bother me. I am sure I will look back on them and apologize for writing such dry material. I forget which author said this, but it eluded to the fact inspiration will come as it chooses … the best thing to do is to just write. Thoughts will develop as the brain moves through the process.

    Thanks for sharing and I intend to follow your future posts.

  12. the demand: “be creative”! is a passion killer, a remnant of a romantic point of view which, by the way, had a male (black coat? drunk?) creator as a model. it is not so easy to let go of that point of view. good for you, for learning how to say no to inspiration control. your post is inspiring..

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