So, it’s been a while since I posted. I’d make excuses, but I don’t have any. This morning, I read an email from a high school student working on a project about inspiration and asking if I would be willing to answer some questions to help them out. I asked my artist friends on Facebook to offer a comment about the one thing they would want someone to know about inspiration, went to work, and mulled over my answers most of the day. I think I might have this all wrong, but the answers seemed worth sharing, and it had been, you know, a really long time since I posted anything over here. So double thank you to the high school student–once for making think this through and then again for giving me a blog post. Here goes:
What is inspiration to you? And where does your inspiration come from?
Inspiration is not a thing. It is a moment. I can’t predict what is going to inspire me, but I leave myself open to it at all times. Sometimes, it’s a particular shade of a particular color in a sunrise or sunset or a woman’s dress or a man’s eyes. Sometimes, it is deep internal reflection about something. Sometimes, it’s a chord in a song or a series of words in something I’m reading or a poignant news story or the tears of a friend. Sometimes it comes from my students: their stories, their triumphs, their epiphanies, their relationships with one another and with me. Often, it is loss. That can be a personal loss–a loved one, a change in major plans, a rejection of some kind–or something I perceive as a societal loss–the failure of a bill that would help people in poverty or people with disabilities, for example, two subjects that I care about deeply. For me, the only way to combat grief and loss is to make it worth something, to bring something out of it that is worth sharing.
Other people can get me to inspiration with three simple words: Tell me more. I start talking about something and as the person I’m talking to asks questions or encourages me to continue, I start to realize what I knew all along. This is what I try to do with my students when I’m teaching. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the words “Tell me more” are a wonderful gift.
Anything–and I mean anything–can set off the moment.
And in that moment, there is a spark of knowing. That’s the essence of that moment of inspiration: knowing something. It might be that I suddenly know why someone said something ten years ago or the chain of events that are leading to someone else saying something in two years. It might be that I suddenly know how butterflies in Mexico are connected to events in China. For a split second, quantum physics makes sense. Whatever it is, the knowing is the important part. It’s there and once I know, I have to do something with it. Whether I’m writing poetry or a lesson plan or a speech, it all begins in exactly this way. There is a moment, and I know. I might not know in three days or three weeks or three years, but in that moment, I do, and I just try to hold onto it long enough to get it on paper. (I carry paper and pen everywhere, by the way, and so do most writers that I know.)
What blocks your inspiration? And what do you do when faced with writers block?
This is a harder question to answer. I mentioned that loss often inspires me, but loss can also be a horrible block. When my dad passed away, I wrote my first collection of poetry. It helped me, and it has helped others since then I’m told. When my son passed away, I didn’t write for more than a year. I simply couldn’t. I think it was the opposite of being blocked of inspiration, though. I think the writer’s block came from being so completely wrapped in knowing – in inspiration – that I couldn’t find an adequate way to let it out. It isn’t that I loved my dad more or less than I loved my son, but rather that the loss was so different that my mind couldn’t process it all at once. Inspiration is the worst block for inspiration.
So what do you do? Robert Frost wrote, “The only way out is through.” I think that’s very much the case for me. First, I had to allow myself the opportunity to be blocked. Then, I had to force myself to write. For me, freewriting is the fastest way out of writer’s block. I don’t try to put a form to it. I don’t try to make it perfect. I just sit down and write whatever comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind–or if I don’t want to deal with what comes to mind as was the case for writing about my son’s death for a long time–I look around the room, choose an object, and write about it or I log onto Facebook, read a status, and write about it. I might have to do this every day for a few days, but eventually, what I know starts to come out. I throw the rest of the freewrite away. No one but me ever sees them.
Do you think inspiration is an important/necessary part of the writing process?
It depends. The writing process means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If someone is writing for themselves and not for publication, inspiration is probably THE most important part of the writing process. If someone is writing an academic paper for a class, inspiration can help, but it isn’t necessary. The same is true of writing poetry or fiction or nonfiction for publication. If you are a professional writer, you can’t be relying on inspiration to get you to your next job. Writing is work–and hard work at that.
Now, that said, some of the best writing I’ve ever done and certainly some of the best I’ve ever read was inspired. I think an argument could be made that uninspired writing is too often published and too often read. But the dirty little secret about the writing life and the writing process for publication is that we aren’t writing for ourselves. We’re writing for a particular set of readers with a particular set of expectations. We can hope that inspiration takes hold and gets us through it, but inspiration isn’t necessary to make it happen. What is necessary is a good idea (not necessarily inspired, but rather thought up) and a dedication to working on the material until it feels inspired to someone who reads it.
How do you know when to trust/commit to an inspiration?
Always. Always commit to an inspiration. Always trust it. If inspiration is knowing, and I truly believe that it is, it’s worth sharing. It’s not usually worth sharing in its first form, though. You get it on paper and then you work with it. You wrestle with it. You hold it. You let it go. You wrestle with it some more. Eventually, your knowing is ready to be someone else’s knowing. And the coolest part? That someone else might suddenly know something that you didn’t even mean to tell them.
That’s how butterflies in Mexico are connected to events in China.