Writing With Power: Inspiration And The Beginner

One unique problem the beginner is faced with

today is how to develop an idea for a story or a

poem, or even an essay, of a considerably high

literary standard. It is, however, a problem not

limited to the present age alone.

It is said that while Samuel Taylor Coleridge on his own confessed giving up the writing of poetry because he found the strain of imaginative composition too great for his physical powers, William Cowper, the author of the fine but gloomy poem, The Castaway, took to poetry as a means of escape from the pressure of thoughts and feelings that threatened his very s

But if Cowper found a refuge in poetry, it could only be by keeping resolutely to a world of familiar and friendly appearances, by averting his gaze from those terrible shapes that haunted his dreams and more than once overset his brain- in short, by remaining as far as possible on the plain of intelligent observation and commentary and by denying his imagination that liberty of action the consequences of which he knew only too well.

Before then, once upon a time, writers hailed the poetic Muse, soliciting a visitation.

Milton, indeed, snapped his fingers imperiously at the whole sisterhood of Muses, as if they were a staff of barmaid: “Hence, with denial, vain and coy excuse,” he said.

Nowadays, writers and students of literature, with their infinite capacity in taking pleasure in themselves, may still feel peculiarly chosen and breathed upon; not many, however, would dare say so, lest they risk a reapplication of the raucous line, “Hey Claude, is the divine afflatus upon you?” Yet, while the Muse may be too flimsy a stuffed doll to personify a mystery for our skeptical generation, we must admit that the mystery is there. What has been termed inspiration is an evident psychological phenomenon.

Moreover, when this reality is lost sight of, whether or not for lack of an acceptable name, deception and misdirection can result.

Writers still talk freely about getting an idea for a story, an essay, a play, a novel. But “getting” cannot be thought of as a completely active process, by which a writer who lacked an idea went and looked for it, as simply as picking out a piece of material for a suit. When a writer says he “got” an idea (and if it really is a lively concept) generally, the fact is that he was taken by the idea, it came to him, and a factor in its coming may have been his own wise passiveness.

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So, while we may refuse the word inspiration, it is often, and usually, in a perceptibly argumentative or even anxious tone. We may also remember that Johnson wrote “Irene,” which is only nominally a play, and wrote “Rasselas”, in which, as a novelist, he is only the great bear walking on his hind legs, and we look upon him as he did upon a woman preaching- we marvel that he can do it at all, so slight is his bent for it.


There is some truth, of course, in the maxim that creativity is one-tenth inspiration and nine-tenth perspiration. But we may not suppose that the smaller fraction is of minor importance, that perspiration conquers all, or that an alleged work of art produced doggedly will be nine-tenth artistic. Rather, it may reveal the vanity of a human wish to create by mere strength. This is not to deprecate honest sweat and necessary elbow grease or even the real stimulation of a deadline; it is only to assert the primacy of inspiration in the originative act. The process of creation must depend throughout upon the inciting vision. Where there is no dominating impulse, the composition languishes. Any procedure in fiction writing, for instance, which depends primarily on ingenious development to the neglect of total conception may become preoccupied with mere technique, whether in some aesthetic affectation or in banal, and grossly commercial formulae.

A real creation is never perfunctory, imitative, fashionable or dogged; it is only an inspired assertion.

Effective stories and poems, essays and plays, proceed from minds charged with appreciated experience, spontaneously and perceptively associative, sincerely oriented to the human adventure, and habituated to receive, to inquire, to evaluate, to order and to memorialize.

Yet it is highly believed that the problem of creative writing is essentially one of concentration, and the supposed eccentricities of poets are usually due to mechanical habits or rituals developed in order to concentrate. And concentration, of course, for the purpose of writing poetry, is different from the kind of concentration required for working out a sum.

It is the fusing of the attention in a special way, so that the poet is aware of all the implications and possible development of his ideas.

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Many a great writer, it is true, would certainly not function effectively without having to indulge in one form of ritual or another.

Schiller, it is said, liked to have a smell of rotten apples concealed beneath the lead of his desk, under his nose, when he was composing poetry. Walter de la Mare had told his fellow writer that he must smoke when writing. W. H. Auden admitted having to drink endless cups of tea. Coffee was Stephen Spender’s own addiction, besides smoking a great deal, which he hardly ever did except when writing. It is common knowledge that our own Wole Soyinka would chant the magic powers of Ogun Deity ( the Yoruba god of Iron) to enhance his enormous power of concentration.

Thus, it is hazardous for us to lose sight of a force basic to the process of concentration. “The shaping spirit of imagination”, Coleridge calls it in a famous poem lamenting its lapse, admitting that it comes and goes.

Call it shaping spirit, inspiration, or conception, it’s all the same- that dynamism of mind which seems to underlie all devisings, whether of a wheel, a civil law, an administrative method, or a sonnet. Setting aside the Muse, then and going beyond the notion that inspiration is mere seizure, we may well postulate that the originative function of intelligence is more than mechanical, more than accidental, and more than blindly impulsive. Artistic creation in particular, seems to me purposefully inclined toward the realization of integrated, meaningful and vital form.

Knowing something of how fiction, for instance, is produced, we will not be overwhelmed by the soaring proposition that if apes were allowed to beat on computers long enough, they would finally found out all the world’s masterpieces, past, present and future, including, I suppose, the great modern novel.

Such a calculation, ad infinitum may be what is purest and fairest in statistics, but to literary practitioners, it doesn’t make good horse sense. Writers will insist, and with a more than personal concern, on a distinction between themselves and ambidextrous apes. Genuine artists know that art is strategic as well as impulsive and, on the other hand that art is personal, not just cumulative and methodical.

Thus, the young writer must confront the fact of inspiration without either abject superstition or cynical denial. Superstitious dependence upon the Muse, may admit indolence or lead to the affectation of frenzy. Denial of inspiration countenances the prosaic and may seem to sanction formula. “Mad man or slave, must man be one?” Writers join in saying, “No, neither.” Experience shows artistic creativity to be a natural though complex function of intelligence, the mind’s own associative and interpretative force operating passionately and purposefully upon its actual stores of experience, intending toward the realization of ordered and meaningful forms.

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On the other hand, no less a personality than Dr. Samuel Johnson, the dictator of the English Literary Club in the Age of Enlightenment, asserted that a man could write at any time if he would set himself doggedly to it. But what seems to be a comprehensive and reliable principle concerning the well of memory for the budding writer should include the catalytic current of association, the spontaneously formative vision and the rigorously willed integration of the finished work.

Above all, those who aspire to be writers should read wide enough and study the works of established writers.

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