On Inspiration

When I was eight years old, I wrote my first poem. It was the first day of third grade, and I can’t recall the prompt we were given that made me decide to try my hand at this format, but I do remember that creativity and independent thinking were heavily encouraged during that year and my inner writer flourished under Mr. Krahn’s watchful eye. Elementary school teachers can have a huge impact in a child’s life – they are teaching students during some of the most formative years of their life. That year, we were given writer’s notebooks, and Mr. Krahn told us to decorate them how we liked. We would use them in class, but we were also encouraged to explore on our own, to fill them with our observations, stories, hopes and dreams, or whatever else we might choose. I wrote my first poem and never looked back, taking the challenge to heart. That notebook went everywhere with me.

I read once that the things you choose to do for fun at a young age can be an indicator as to what you will be passionate about later in life, and I was writing all the time. During recess, after school, waiting for my mom to pick me up, I could be found with that notebook. In the summer, when we went up to our cabin, there was a quiet, secluded path by the lake with docks that dotted the shore. Most of these docks were floating ones, but there was one at the very end that was stable. When we used to walk that path, my parents would be a few steps ahead, discussing life or work or the next big trip, and I would trail a few steps behind composing poems in my mind. On some especially hot summer days, my mom and I would walk to that dock with our notebooks in hand and sit and write for hours. It was a peaceful, calm escape from the world, our secret little nook, and I loved it.

Often, I’ve found that I am most inspired by nature. I write my best poems when I’m walking alone, when I’m in transit or standing in the shower, surrounded by water. For this reason I’ve acquired the ability to compose on the move, retaining several verses in my mind until I can get to a piece of paper to write them down. This also means that I’m not very good at showing my work – nearly all revising happens in my head before the work even makes it to the page. I know some might argue for the flaws that exist in my creative process, but I believe different things work for different people, and this is what works for me.

Learning to create anything is hard work; it’s all about putting in the time. There are some days I can’t find the words to express what I want to say, some sentences I spend hours toying with to get the rhythm just right. But there are other times a piece of writing seems to come to me fully intact, where the ideas flow through me rather than from me. This experience is the one I think all artists work for, where time stands still and hours cease to exist.

My best works have this in common: one day, usually after hours of writing and research and pondering the english language, a sentence or phrase pops into my brain and refuses to leave. I say, “Ah, so this is where we’re going now,” and chase the words down some wild path until I feel the work is finished, usually only a matter of hours later.

It’s the strangest experience, and when I look back on what I’ve written, I find it hard to believe I created that? Where did that come from? Then I sit down and begin to work again.

Inspiration of this kind remains somewhat of a mystery to artists and scientists alike. In an attempt to explain this elusive experience, psychologist Mihaly Chikszentmihalyi coined the term, “flow,” a state characterized primarly by the loss of time, loss of sense of self or personal needs, and the ability to produce work at the highest level. Mihaly went on to research and explain how you can recreate this state in your own life, a “secret to happiness.” His work and descriptions are incredibly accurate, but I prefer a much less scientific explanation of the phenomenon.

In her work, Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert explains how the ancient Greeks and Romans believed inspiration exists as an entity in its own right. They

“both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity – a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labours. The Romans has a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius, your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius” (Gilbert 67).

Inspiration will show up for you, but it has to find you working. Everyone has a different creative process. Ultimately, this process needs to lead to you actually doing something, however scary that make seem. We’re all terrified of failure. But if you never put that pen to paper or paint on your canvas, you’ll never end up making anything at all.

Yes, some days will be harder than others. Most often, the work you do will not end the way you thought it would; I know this post did not for me. But if you feel compelled to create a thing, then you must begin. You never know if you don’t start.

Questions

Authenticity. What does it mean to be authentic? I could look up the Webster Dictionary definition of the word, but I already know it wouldn’t give me the answer I’m looking for. What does it mean to write with an authentic voice, and how does one find it?

I’ve struggled with this for some time now. The minute I start trying too hard, start thinking about the people whom I want to reach and who will read my work, I get stuck. Or worse, I write something that I think sounds fake. And that’s the last thing I want. I want the reader to be able to hear me speak as they read my words, as if we were having a conversation. But how do I find that?

I’m questioning a lot of things these days. Who am I? What am I passionate about? What do I pretend to be passionate about for the sake of other people? Why do I do the things I do? What is most important to me, the things I’m not willing to compromise on? How do I build a life around these things? I’ve become quite good at giving people the answers I know they want, but in the process I’ve lost sight of what I truly want. I’m good at giving advice to those struggling, at making it look like I’ve got it all figured out, but in reality, I don’t. I’m just as lost as the next person.

Things are not going the way I originally planned. In the process of being told no, of ending up on my knees and coming to the end of the person I thought I wanted to be, I’ve figured out that maybe that life is not what I wanted after all. There was a dream somewhere deep inside me, far beneath the surface, one that I was not admitting to myself. Because it’s not the “traditional” path, it’s not the safe path or the one I’d been told I should take. But ultimately I know there are things that are so deeply important to me that my life needs to be built around these things, or I’ll never be truly satisfied – I’ll always be waiting for the next weekend, vacation or travel opportunity.

Curveballs are painful, but in that moment when I’m down on my knees sobbing, I know what’s most important to me, the core of what I want and need going forward.

Relationships, for one thing. I want to spend my precious time on earth doing the things I love with the people I love most. Even two years away from that, for me, is too long. I longed for the freedom to go where my people would go. Now I have that – I’m in a position to build my life in whichever way I choose. Choices are terrifying, but they are also liberating.

I am a writer, a poet, a storyteller. I’ve been asking myself, why do I write? What makes me think I have something valuable to say? I write because stories are powerful. I write to give a voice to the voices we don’t hear and the faces we don’t see, because I identify with what they’re feeling. I’ve been there. I am a subtle human; I’ve never been the most charismatic personality in the room. Countless times, I’ve found myself desperately wanting to contribute to a conversation but never having the chance. We live in a loud world, and quiet voices get lost in the chaos. But I believe every person was put on earth for a reason – every life is important. Why do I write? I write to remind people that they matter. I write to make people feel less alone.

I have so many questions and so few answers. How do I find my authentic voice? I guess I try, but not too hard. I search. I read. I write. I write because it’s the thing I can’t not do, because I am incomplete without it.