Thursday, June 11, 2015

Inspiration is Overrated

I am not a great believer in artistic inspiration, that is, in writers waiting for the muse to stir them into creative action. I believe in plunging in and getting started.

In addressing writer's block, a topic on my mind this week as I prepare to teach my annual writing workshop, I usually refer to my own experience and the comments of successful authors who value the importance of reading and observing as key ways to develop ideas for fiction or non-fiction.  And I value the work of Julia Cameron, William Zinsser, and many others who advise beginning writers not to sit and wait but write: anything you jot down can become the beginning of something to develop.

Sometimes just paying attention to the people around you will be enough to provide an amusing or revealing incident that might figure into a piece of writing.  Everyday, it seems, I hear something that I file away for possible use.

Today, a 94-year-old friend nearby, shuffling along toward her church with her walker, came to a low fence around a parking lot that impeded her progress, so she threw her walker over the barrier and then climbed across.  It might have been only mildly amusing, if I had seen it instead of hearing it recounted. But knowing the lady involved, and what a determined Irishwoman she is, I suspect many stories could be told about her adventures in living.

So a valuable piece of advice for writers is: observe what's in  front of you. Observe it closely.  Make note of it. Maybe you can use it in some future writing. If not, the act of writing it out in your journal is itself a breaking down of a fear barrier.

Observing what's in front of us is one of those "centering devices" that keep us grounded in the present moment; the result is that our busy minds are less likely to be scattered and full of the tension that inhibits creativity. Being relaxed, and having no interruptions, is important.

Of course, a certain amount of "stage fright" is inevitable as we compose--and probably healthy as the unconscious mind thinks about potential readers. Getting started, even for an experienced author, can be a challenge. I think of how Hemingway worked: he wrote "one true sentence," then another; and soon he had a paragraph.  Some days, that was enough.  Even just one thoughtfully composed sentence was enough to build confidence.

I quote John McPhee:  "If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer."

(This is an excellent example, by the way, of those right-handed or periodic sentences in which the main idea is held until the end. We don't use them a lot, but they have a unique emphasis Concern with style is part of the revising process, once the initial draft has been done.)

A writer needs many things, patience and a good sense of humor topping the list; he or she should not expect divine inspiration.

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