Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Inspiration Test

I recently read a blog by a young writer who was depressed because he or she (I don’t know which) wasn’t feeling inspired. So I thought I’d address the thorny issue of inspiration once again. It’s something I used to worry about a great deal when I was younger and I know that some people never get past it.

I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was still a child and whenever I mentioned this ambition to adults they would always say the same thing: ‘Well, if you’ve got something to say, it’s bound to come out in time.’ This comment was meant to be encouraging but it invariably had the opposite effect on me. I used to think, ‘But what have I got to say?’ I got it into my head that only if I discovered some important truth about the meaning of life, could I ever hope to fulfil my ambition of becoming an author. For years I despaired of learning this truth.

Then one day I read that the secret of being a successful writer was to write what you see. At first, this only confirmed my worst fears and I asked myself, ‘What do I see that’s so special?’ But then it struck me: everything I see is special because it’s unique to me; it’s my particular point of view. All I needed to do, I realised, was to have confidence in my own observations and describe my experience of the world.

Of course, that didn’t answer the next question that confronted me. How do you come up with stories? But in the end I worked that one out too: you make them up. That’s what writers do, after all. They make up stories and tell them in their own words.

So what about this business of inspiration? Does it even exist at all? Well yes, I think it does. But I also think that a lot of people get confused about what it means. Last year, for example, I was giving a lift to the friend of a friend of my daughter – let’s call him Roger. Roger is the kind of person who likes to think he knows a great deal about literature. On this occasion he was very drunk and determined to talk to me about writing, even though I just wanted to get home and go to bed.

Roger could write a book, he informed me. Nothing would be easier. But he wasn’t prepared to do so at the moment because he had no intention of writing something commercial. He would rather die than do that! No, he was only going to write when he had something worth saying - when he felt inspired.

A few years ago I carried out my own test on the phenomenon of feeling inspired. This is how I did it. I did a page of writing when I felt inspired and put it in a drawer. Then, a few days later, when I was feeling uninspired, I did another page of writing and put it in the same drawer. Three months later I took them both out of the drawer and I couldn’t work out which was which. I tried to tell Roger about this test but he wasn’t prepared to listen.

The truth is that feeling inspired often has very little to do with the quality of the writing you produce and a great deal to do with your physical state at the time. Maybe you’re experiencing a caffeine buzz, or coming down with a virus, or falling in love, or suffering from a hangover.

Real inspiration, on the other hand, is something that comes through the process of writing itself. It happens when you stop agonising about whether you have something to say, whether you feel inspired, whether you have any talent, whether or not you are going to succeed, whether you are superior or inferior to other writers, and all the other nonsense that fills people’s heads (mine included), and just get on with the process of trying to devise stories, create characters, develop plots, describe settings and manufacture dialogue.

If you do that, inspiration will eventually arrive on its own. It will come because in the act of writing you have lost the burden of self and in doing so you have at last made yourself into a true servant of the muse. As soon as you reach that point, inspiration will begin to flow like water bubbling to the surface from some deep underground well.


Anonymous said...

I am always filled with doom and gloom when I read about successful writers who knew they wanted to be writers when they were children. How old, were you? I ask in anguish. What words of advice would you offer to those of us who can't ever quite get over the sheer presumptuousness of such an ambition?

Tara Flynn

Brian Keaney said...

About fifteen. But everyone has their own timetable. If you make it into a race, there will always be someone ahead of you. I mean, none of us are ever going to compete with Shakespeare, are we? So you either give up altogether or you just get on with it. My advice? Don't look over your shoulder; just keep tapping the keyboard.

Dooks said...

I just got back to reading your blog. Shortly after you commented mine i stopped checking all of the authors that i like's sites for updates since i had a major project in school and did not have time. I just got back to doing so and saw this blog. I am so happy i am mentioned i cant even put it into words.

i'm a girl by the way in case it matters. i doubt it does but still. cant hurt to say.