I promised to post about what inspires me as a writer. The Shorter Oxford gives several definitions of inspiration, starting with ‘Divine prompting or guidance.’ I’m unsure if there are any deities, major or minor, whispering in my ear, so I’ll go for definition 2: ‘The prompting of the mind to exalted thoughts, to creative activity etc.’ This one neatly sidesteps the issue of who or what is doing the prompting.
Writers have a tendency to talk about ‘the muse’, and sometimes to endow said muse with a personality of his or her own. In the Greek tradition there were nine muses. Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Melpomene (tragedy) and Thalia (comedy) are all relevant to the craft of writing. If I had a personal ‘muse of writing’ she would probably take the form of an owl. She’d be self-contained, clever, and not particularly tolerant of lazy thinking. I’d have a dog as my ‘muse of play’, essential as a balance to the serious, working muse.
Not being of a scientific bent, I won’t attempt a discussion of how inspiration relates to brain function. The fact that some people end up as writers, composers, artists or choreographers, while others become accountants, plumbers or truck drivers is probably as much a matter of nurture as it is nature. And where does creativity start and end, anyway? To be a good teacher, baker, gardener or parent, you must be creative; you need inspiration. You need those sparky ideas, the ones that seem to come from nowhere and enable you to communicate with others in a special way. It would be arrogant for us, as writers, to believe that inspiration visits only a narrow group of creative artists.
So, ‘Everyone has a book in them?’ I don’t think so. Sure, everyone has a life story, and many of those life stories are interesting enough to be worth telling to other people. But not all can write or tell their story well. Very few can write it well enough to produce a book worth publishing. Implying that any fool can write a book completely overlooks the skill, training and just plain hard work required to make a go of things as a writer. And it overlooks inspiration – the spark that lights the fire, the yeast in the mix, the potent ingredient in the alchemist’s brew. Inspiration makes us want to write even when times are tough. It wakes us up at night with a head full of ideas. It alerts us to the special moment of beauty, something we will capture later in words, images or music – the rising of a hazy moon, the singing of frogs in a pond, the odd shadows cast on a city street at nightfall, the utterances of a two-year-old lost in her imaginative world. It draws our attention to the sad, the pitiful, the heroic, the cruel, the paradoxical nature of human existence, and compels us to write about it. We don’t seek it, we don’t invite it, it’s simply there.
When I promised to post on inspiration, readers probably expected me to talk about writers who have inspired me. But my sources of inspiration are far broader than a list of writers I admire. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Nature: see above. The natural world and humankind’s place in it are integral to my writing.
2. History: Reading history is not just looking back or focusing on the past. It is learning about the human condition, warts and all. A primary source of inspiration for me.
3. Literary classics: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and many others. Exemplars of that perfect combination: elegance of style + human drama + sheer storytelling ability.
4. Writers who go way outside the square, for example Russell Hoban (Riddley Walker), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). I wish I could be this kind of writer.
5. Traditional stories / poems: Scottish Border Ballads, Icelandic sagas, Greek and Roman myths, Celtic legends, fairytales and folklore from everywhere. I’ve been reading them almost all my life and find them compelling and fascinating. They spark off many, many story ideas for me, and constantly remind me why I love reading and writing. They allow me to maintain a sense of wonder.
6. Real life: love it or hate it, we live there, even when all we want to do is huddle over the laptop and escape to the alternative universe we’re busy creating. I try to keep my eyes and ears open, because inspiration may lurk in the checkout chick’s unusual earrings, or an anecdote told in passing, or something I happen to see while putting out the garbage bins. Don’t let real life get you down. Sometimes it can seem an obstacle to creativity, but in fact it is our primary source of inspiration.
Photo credit: © Photographer: Ana Sousa.