Monday, June 11, 2012

The Nonsense of Inspiration

There are those . . . who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till--inspiration moves him. When I heard such doctrine preached, I could have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.
. . . I therefore venture to advise young men who look forward to authorship as the business of their lives, even when they propose that that authorship be of the highest class known, to avoid enthusiastic rushes with their pens, and to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were lawyers' clerks. . . .                                       Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography

Anthony Trollope wrote 47 novels, 2 plays, 18 books of nonfiction (travel books, biographies, literary criticism, social commentary), and a pile of short stories--all apparently without the aid of inspiration.

I share Trollope's scorn for the nonsense of inspiration, but in me it is probably just envy. I write for a living. I can't afford the luxury of waiting for inspiration.

Then again, I never did think about nor talk about inspiration, even long before I wrote for a living. I always hated talking about writing. Writing is one of those things that one just does. (In those days, I wrote in the middle of the night, when the household was dark. It never felt particularly inspiring to be writing at two o'clock in the morning, it just felt compulsive. Or obsessive. Or both.)

There's something so disagreeably preening and precious about talking about writing, especially if one be a writer.

I hated talking about writing, but I didn't hate listening to great writers talking about writing. One might be fortunate enough to find oneself in the presence of someone who knows a great deal about writing (as I did in college), and then the only sensible thing to do is listen. That someone for me was Mr. Mudrick. Now there are several people in my life who can talk about writing to me, and I listen. All ears. They have something to say of value, and I want to profit by it. They rarely do talk about writing, so one has to be wide awake not to miss the flutter of that bird on the wing.

In my work, sometimes I must talk about (or write about) writing. I try to think of what might be most important for (new) writers to know. When I see problems in manuscripts, I try to talk about how to address those kinds of problems in writing. Because that's the only way to make the work better: to be willing to look at the problems in one's work and then go at them like a terrier after the tennis ball that rolled under the couch.

This kind of talk, being necessary, isn't as horrible as the preening writerly conversations are horrible--there's craft to writing, there's technique, there are methods of accomplishing different purposes. These conversations can be absorbing. How did this writer create this effect, how did that writer create that tone. There are choices to make, there's intention. This gives you a lot to think about.

But that's not the same thing as waving one's inspiration like peacock feathers. My experience leads me to believe that those who talk most of their inspiration (and, God help me, of their muse) are most likely those whose writing one feels least inspired to read. 

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