Friday, 29 July 2011

Where does inspiration come from?

Divine inspiration
Image source: Lviv Polytechnic National University
I've read a couple of great posts lately on the subject of writing, one here at Books and Bowel Movements and another at The New Dork Review of Books and Greg from The New Dork Review's reply to my comment got me thinking about something. All my life I have always had this idea that to write a great work of fiction in any format, you need to have a story bursting out of you, something almost alien that consumes you and takes over the function of your hands as you frantically type away, creating a masterpiece. To be honest I have no idea why I think like this because I know, logically, that writing is work. You produce the first draft, then the second and get feedback and rework it and rework it until it's something that you're willing to release into the world. I do this all the time with my non-fiction writing so why have I got myself in such a twist about the fiction writing aspect? Is this idea that all great novels start out as a story begging to be told within the author just a myth? Who started this myth?

I was reviewing my archive of bookish podcasts while I was pondering this when I had a vague recollection of something I heard a few years back from Alice Walker so I went back and listened to it.
"I prepared by changing my life almost completely. I was living in New York City, I was an editor at Ms. Magazine, I was married... and I knew that I could not write this story which started coming to me in the actual voices of the people... I knew I couldn't write it in the city because of the tall buildings, the noise...  I also knew that I could not remain with my husband because the world that we had was charming and good but not large enough for these people and he would not have been able to understand them and he would not have been able to understand who I was to write this, so I got a divorce... we sold our house, eventually got my half of the money from the house, moved here. The people of the story, they were very real to me. They loved the beauty of San Francisco... a lot. They didn't like the earthquakes though so I knew then I had to take them out of the city to the countryside." 
Alice Walker, speaking about writing The Color Purple
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Alice Walker"
Released as a podcast 18 November 2008

Small wonder, listening to this, that I have this embedded idea when I heard such a highly respected author saying she was so inspired that she had to get divorced, quit her job and move cross-country! Then I wondered if I had heard this from other authors and found this from J K Rowling...
Sue Lawley (DID presenter): I've heard writers before, Joanne, say that stories come into their mind and demand to be written. Is that how it was with Harry?
J K Rowling: Absolutely. It was, yes. I was 25 when I had the idea for Harry and I had been writing, if you include all of the embarrassing teenaged rubbish, for years and years and I had never been so excited by an idea in my life. I'd abandoned two novels for adults prior to that, actually the second novel I was still writing when I had the idea for Harry. For six months I tried to write them both simultaneously but then Harry just took over completely.
J K Rowling speaking about writing Harry Potter
BBC Radio  4 "Desert Island Discs"
First released 5 November 2000

If we consider here what Alice Walker and J K Rowling have said, then it really does sound like a story moves in from some other place and takes over. It's the divine inspiration idea that's been around for centuries. It's a perfectly lovely idea, of course for those who want an easy explanation of how and why art of any kind is created and why it is that some art affects some people more deeply than others does. However, for those of us sat in front of a blank computer screen with only a cold cup of coffee to hand and a defiantly blinking cursor tormenting us, it's not much comfort. What are we supposed to do? Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike? Where does this inspiration come? New York city, like Alice Walker? On a delayed British Rail train, like J K Rowling? Personally, I couldn't think of two more diametrically opposed locations in terms of potential for inspiration. What do we do in the meantime? 

I like to take comfort from this quote from Khaled Hosseini. To me, this is a more realistic tale of how a great book came into being. It started off with an idea from the piece of news that the Taliban were going to ban kite-flying in Afghanistan, something which was personally significant to Hosseini since he had loved to do this when he was younger. From there, he said, it grew.
"So then I sat down, and I thought I would just write this whimsical story about kite-flying in Kabul... and of course, stories take a life of their own and gradually what started as this little kite story became a 25-page short story about this kind of complicated friendship between these two boys, this doomed friendship. And it became a story about cowardice and betrayal and honour and guilt and forgiveness and so on. And then the short story sat around for a couple of years until the March of 2001 when my wife discovered it and read it... and then I revisited the story and realised that even though it was really flawed it had a big heart and maybe the nucleus of what could become a really interesting piece of longer fiction. And that was the basis for the novel."
Khaled Hosseini, speaking about The Kite Runner
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Khaled Hosseini"
Released as a podcast  27 May 2008

From an idea to an abandoned short story to a hugely successful novel. It took was his wife's interest and enjoyment of the story for him to realise that this story was one that had massive potential, that 'big heart' despite all of the flaws that he could also see in it. 

I know that all stories have to come from somewhere, but I'm starting to think that they don't have to necessarily be that lightning strike of inspiration. Perhaps not everything we write is going to be that number one bestseller or Booker Prize winning story. Maybe we need to write a bunch of so-so stories before we can write the really good one. In the same way that you would never imagine that you'd go out and run a marathon with no prior training, maybe I should reconfigure my view to think of all writing as training for the 'big event', that hoped for and dreamed of published book. I mean, seriously. Even J K Rowling said that she'd been writing for 'years and years' before Harry came along and do you think that Alice Walker never wrote anything before The Color Purple? Exactly. I don't doubt that they really did experience that extraordinary 'boom' of inspiration but looking at Hosseini's story, it doesn't seem like it is as necessary as I once thought it was. Sure you need an idea, but that idea can just as easily germinate from a small seed as it can be transplanted into your brain. 

Looks like I just need to get myself into training for when that idea comes along. 

How about you? What do you think of the "story that just had to be written" idea?


  1. I don't write fiction, but when I do write something (a blog post, an article for a website) if it is of any length at all it's usually of the "BOOM! Inspiration!" variety, not the slow, hard work variety. I even have this crazy notion that people can tell when I'm feeling inspired and when I'm not while blogging - the inspired posts tend to be long and fluid, far longer in length, and even though I post first drafts (I know...I know!) they make internal sense. When I feel like I want to write something but am lacking that "BOOM!" I try to force my way through it and churn out something good through sheer hard work...and something comes out, but it's just not as good. I can tell the difference. I wonder if my readers can as well. When I wrote an article on the idiocy of the term "Bridezilla" for, it was a case of literally waking up on a Sunday morning and thinking "I Have To Write This Now", sitting down and doing it. One fluid stroke. Although it could use some editing, I still consider it to be one of my favorite pieces. My long post on why there are so few expat women in Asia was the same way.

    So yes, I can produce a piece without inspiration, but no matter how hard I toil at it, it just won't be as good. I might employ a few catchy turns of phrase but the piece as a whole will be mediocre.

    I've been meaning to write a book (which may or may be something I attempt to publish - I might just do it in blog format) cherry-picking stories from my travels in the style of Ayun Halliday's "No Touch Monkey!", but I haven't done so because I need that rush of inspiration to make it any good, and the rush hasn't come yet. When it does I'll start writing.

  2. I love this post! The sources of inspiration for fiction is endlessly fascinating to me. Walker's story is especially interesting - but I still wonder how much of that "story that just had to get out" and her subsequent divorce and move was more a function of the fact that she wanted to get divorced and move, and the story was the reason - even if subconsciously - she used.

    I'm pretty sure if you ask 100 fiction writers where there stories come from (or how they get their ideas - but don't do that, because they generally hate that question!), you'll get 100 answers.

    In On Writing, Stephen King says some his better stories come from realizing an intersection between two seemingly disparate ideas - and the story becomes bringing them together.

    Anyway, again, great post! (And I promise I'm not just saying that because you linked to me. ;) )

  3. Fantastic post. I'm glad that Greg linked over here so I could read your thoughts. I've always been frustrated by the idea of ideas coming in a flash of inspiration because it makes the writer seem nothing but a vessel for someone else's words, and it undermines that writing IS work. I wonder if so many people would say things like, "I've always wanted to write, I just don't have the time..." if we described writing more as work, less as inspiration. As it is, so many people seem to think nothing is required but time - not work, sweat, tossing out bad ideas and stories that don't work - because the ideas just "strike" writers. I like the way Nabokov described it when he was asked about that common image of characters "taking over" a story; he said that his characters are "galley slaves," that they aren't the ones who control the stories they're in. That's more what I like - the image of author as master and creator of the world they're writing about, not as someone sitting around, twiddling their thumbs while they wait for a character to come in and demand to be written about.

  4. This is a wonderful, thoughtful post. I've thought about this myself, because I love to write but I've never felt I have "that novel" in me. Writing book reviews is easy though. I've been reading books about writing lately, an interesting one is "Becoming a Writer" by Dorothea Brande. She says you have to decide to BE a writer first before you decide what to write. She also advocates, like most writers, daily writing. Most writers seem to say it's mostly discipline and "showing up to write" rather than the one idea. And that you have to come up with strategies to "free your mind" so the real ideas can come. For me they seem to come when I'm either outdoors walking, or just waking up in the morning.

    I think too, there are writers that produce many great works, and then some that never get past that one truly great idea. That may be Rowling. So maybe it makes a difference if you're driven by the idea versus driven by the need to write.