image courtesy of http://www.123rf.com
“Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” Nietzsche.
One of the more troubling questions I get asked when people know I’m a writer is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ In India, the UK, Korea, the US; at festivals, in taxis, at workshops, even ‘talkbacks’ after a performance of a script I’ve written, this question has appeared, usually from a tense-looking individual who, when pressed, reveals personal artistic ambitions but a lack of belief in their own creativity and imagination. Why else would they ask such a question, unless they distrusted their own inspiration, or felt there was a secret to be let in on, a better, faster, more guaranteed way of accessing that seed that grows into artistic projects?
I love the fact that the word ‘inspiration’ has its roots in breath – ‘being breathed upon’ in one online etymological source – as though artists were blessed or touched by some form of supernatural or divine grace. A thirteenth century source is even clearer: ‘immediate influence of God or a god’ (www.etymonline.com).
However, this lovely but romantic notion promotes the myth that we create through an external inspiration – a fickle force, sometimes favouring us, sometimes not – as though it is something other than the potential within each of us. Such persistent but old fashioned ideas suggests some people are creative and others not, and we must wait until the muse or inspiration strikes. It promotes being passive rather than active and making our own luck, our own inspiration, our own work.
I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the difference between writers and would-be writers is the former gets on with it, whilst the latter sits around waiting, talking about doing ‘it’ when the time is right, once inspiration strikes and an idea comes.
My belief that we need to be proactive in our creativity – inspiration is often worked for, not given – has been affirmed in a new book by Jonah Lehrer: Imagine: How Creativity Works. I’ve given some links to reviews and interviews with Lehrer at the end of this post.
So where, exactly, do we begin and where do ideas come from?
From the ether, from life, from over-heards on the bus, from anecdotes we’re told, from newspaper headlines glimpsed on the train, from memories, from idle thought, from documentaries or articles, from received stories and pre-existing sources, from visual art, from going for a walk, from dreams, from anything and everywhere. The trick is in recognising the tug of interest and gathering up the stimulus or noting the idea before it goes, for it will. We will never remember those fleeting thoughts – they need to be notated before they evaporate.
We have to be like magpies – open eyed and curious, ready to dive down and snap up any bright, shiny thing that catches our attention. We often let the seed of an idea or inspiration pass, as it is simply a stirring, not a fully-formed plot, or an immediate understanding of what to write. In my experience that is inevitably a later phase, requiring considerable thought and effort, like heating and beating metal into pliancy and shape. The important task is to recognise the initial call and to understand it will take effort to make the oak from the acorn.
I don’t give too much thought to my selection of cuttings, images, essays, art gallery postcards and other miscellany which could be labelled roughly under ‘research’. It’s often completely instinctive – a tug in the gut and I’m buying that postcard, photographing that abandoned house or strange gully, surreptitiously tearing that article out of the decade old magazine in the dentist’s waiting room. I usually will not understand why I’m attracted to an image or a cutting or a phrase – I just know that it has spoken to my imagination in some way and so must be gathered, acknowledged. What this initial stirring turns into, if anything, is a different story….
(c) Kaite O’Reilly 10/4/12.