Writers on Writing, and Inspiration

BVC writers have been posting on where we get our ideas. It’s now my turn. Rather than glaze your eyes over repeating what so many have already said, which I suspect would be as interesting as watching moss grow, I’m pulling together some thoughts from writers now gone.

One thing for sure, the dark side of the solitary, inward-looking writing life emerges when one delves into writings about writing from past authors. It can be fun to enjoy the shiny inside your skull, but when the shiny isn’t happening, especially as one gets older, one becomes aware not only of the world gently slipping by while one is motionless at one’s desk, but how the world accepts, or rejects, one’s shiny.

Recently the diaries of children’s author Alison Uttley (“Little Grey Rabbit”) were published. Were they filled with pages of twee? Hoo boy! Turns out she lived in the same town as the more-famous Enid Blyton, whom she despised. They only met once, described here.

Herman Melville wrote about writers and writing within his fiction. “Bartleby the Scrivener” purports to be about copyists (before the days of typewriters, making copies was a career), but it can also be seen as a story about writers becoming more isolated. He delves far deeper, and far darker, in Pierre, or The Ambiguities —a novel so dark that it sank under the avalanche of excoriating reviews, effectively crushing his career. When you consider that he published it in 1852, and he died forty years later, that’s quite a crush.

The thing about writers is that nobody ever sets out to write a bad book. Every book is shiny inside a writer’s mind, though some are shinier than others. Elizabeth Taylor, the English writer, published Angel in 1957. It begins during Taylor’s own childhood era (she was born in 1912), centered around a clever girl who loves words, and who makes up stories in her head that are an improvement over her life. When she sells a novel as a teenager, she rockets to stardom, and begins living like one of her heroines, convinced that she is a literary lion. After all, her books are best sellers, right? She has the mansion and the expensive lifestyle to prove it. She never sees that her books sell because they are trash, bought by the people she despises, and not by the high-and-mighty among whom she counts herself.

Outside of fiction, most writers have written about writing, with more or less success. Virginia Woolf—Henry James—Mark Twain (his true autobiography is supposed to come out soon, and apparently, it’s a corker! Anyone who thinks writing is easy—just a matter of scribbling out reams from the comfort of one’s armchair—should check out one of these works.

What about writing is so addictive, if there is isolation and the fear of rotten sales or one’s work being slammed as trash?

The best words describing the euphoria of inspiration I found by . . . yes! Another writer, Vladimir Nabokov. He describes inspiration in The Lectures on Literature:

A passerby whistles a tune at the exact moment that you notice the reflection of a branch in a puddle which in its turn, and simultaneously, recalls a combination of damp green leaves and excited birds in some old garden, and the old friend, long dead, suddenly steps out of the past, smiling and closing his dripping umbrella. The whole thing lasts one radiant second and the motion of impressions is so swift you cannot check the exact laws which attend their recognition, formation, and fusion . . . it is like a jigsaw puzzle that instantly comes together in your brain with the brain itself unable to observe how and why the pieces fit, and you experience a shuddering sensation of wild magic . . .

And on understanding what inspiration is:

. . . For commonsense will point out that life on earth, from the barnacle to the goose, and from the humblest worm to the loveliest woman, arose from a colloidal carbonaceous slime activated by ferments while the earth was obligingly cooling down. Blood may well be the Silurian sea in our veins, and we are all ready to accept evolution at least as a model formula . . .But again it is one thing to try and find the links and steps of life, and it is quite another to try and understand what life and the phenomenon of inspiration really are.

But how can one know if one’s inspiration is good or not? I think the answer is always going to lie with readers, not with the writer, but Nabokov does have thoughts on what he calls genius:

In the example I chose—tune, leaves, rain—a comparatively simple form of thrill is implied. . . .In my example memory played an essential though unconscious part and everything depended upon the perfect fusion of past and present. The inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire cycle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist.

It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the non-ego rushing in to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open.

Oh, yes, that. Even if it turns out that readers don’t fuse with the same wild joy that the author did while writing, it sure explains our addiction.

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Writers on Writing, and Inspiration — 12 Comments

  1. IMO it is a waste of time, mostly, to analyze whether the inspiration is objectively good or not. It is good for -you- if you are compelled to write it. The marketplace, feh. Litcrits, the back of my hand to ’em. Melville is a good example — mildly popular early on, fell into obscurity and ignored for decades before and after his death, and then experienced a critical revival in the 20th century. Yet his -work- was the same through all of these ups and downs. (Had to be, since he was dead.)

  2. One supersaturated one’s memories with stuff, stuff, stuff and more stuff — and then, one day, something jogs it, and like all supersaturated solutions, it collapses into crystals so fast you can’t see it happen.

  3. A passerby whistles a tune at the exact moment that you notice the reflection of a branch in a puddle which in its turn, and simultaneously, recalls a combination of damp green leaves and excited birds in some old garden, and the old friend, long dead, suddenly steps out of the past, smiling and closing his dripping umbrella.

    Beautiful.

  4. Brenda: Exactly.

    Asakiyume: I was thinking of one of your nature walks when I reread that bit–how seeing the photos, and reading the comments then sets off a chain of memories and reactions in my own mind. Voila! Ideas.

  5. The Nabokov quote made me think of those moments in the new Sherlock Holmes movie (the one with Robert Downey Jr.) where they stop the action to show Holmes’ thought processes. They did it to tie Holmes’ analytical nature to the action bits, but those moments gave me a zing of recognition.

    Reality would vanish, then the creative moment, with the visceral images and logical voice over and a touch of charts and arrows. It really felt like what happens during the creative process. (Except not always so suddenly, and I am seldom as successful in carrying it out afterwards.)

  6. Camille: now I really have to see that film. I think it’s time for the magic of Netflix.

  7. Oh, you will enjoy it. It is not -the- Holmes, but it is a different and quite amusing Holmes. And the London scenery is great.

  8. It is significant that the word we use, ‘inspiration,’ means ‘filled or moved by a spirit.’ The Muse is a goddess. it is enlightening to read all the references to the Spirit in the Bible in that light; the third person in the Trinity is obviously ‘inspiration’ as we are talking about it here.

  9. OTOH, this is how you get your ideas, inspiration. It is unwise to expect it to carry you through the work of writing it without your mastering the craft.

  10. It is a combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the non-ego rushing in to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open.

    My first thought was, this is what happens both with writing and with reading. It’s why you can’t get a writer without having a reader — the magic spark for both is either side of the same coin.