Have you ever been to a poetry reading on a college campus? These events can range from the tedious to the awesome. (I saw Kim Addonizio last year at Georgia Tech, and she is amazing on the page and in person.) The tediousness or awesomeness of these events has almost as much to do with the audience as it does with the poet, and college poetry readings are typically populated by a handful of people who are genuinely interested, and then a slew of people who are only around for the extra credit for an English class they’re trying not to fail.
The crowd is usually quiet through the reading part, but then comes the Q and A portion of the event. It is near impossible to make it out of this portion of the reading without hearing this question: “What inspires you?”
This question always bothered me, maybe because the word “inspire” implies something spiritual to me. It feels a little bit like divine intervention instead of work, and writing is work. I think the oldest definitions of the word support this idea, too. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the literal meaning of the word “inspire” is “to breathe or blow upon or into,” or in a more figurative sense, “to breathe life into” something.
To say that something inspires me implies that something breathes life into me. This definitely holds true to classic ideas about art–the Muses, the gods, etc. And there are moments that I have been truly inspired–by people, events, or images–which is to say that those things breathed life into a new idea.
Inspiration happens. Certainly. I won’t argue with that. It has happened to me, but I can definitely point to the person, moment, or thing that brought that art out of me.
But inspiration doesn’t always happen, does it? People have asked me what happens for me when the inspiration runs out–do I wait for another bit of inspiration? When I was younger, yeah. I only wrote when I felt moved to write. But that’s a bullshit way to do things. That’s an excellent way to never write anything. In fact, it’s kind of a bullshit way to live life–waiting for some kind of inspiration.
I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve read a lot about it, and I’ve heard a lot of authors talk about it. Inspiration is nice when it happens, and it occasionally does happen. But if you wait for it, that’s all you’re going to do. Wait.
At the Crossroads Writers Conference, Sarah Demot (author of 90 Days to Your Novel) offered this advice: “Don’t wait for inspiration.” Pretty profound. The acclaimed filmmaker, Robert Rodriguez echoed the same sentiment in a recent interview on SiriusXM. His advice, to paraphrase, was to make your own inspiration. Sit down, start creating, and the inspiration will come as a result of working.
Stephen King recommends writing 2000 words a day (easy for him to say). That’s the same idea, though–work instead of wait. Eventually, you’ll hit on something you like.
The act of creation is divine, and if you start creating, the inspiration will come. Sometimes you just have to believe in the process.
It’s a little bit of a chicken/ egg thing. Which comes first? Inspiration or Creation? I think we can have it both ways. What do you think?