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