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.