What is inspiration?

Even though this might not be the most inspired of blog entries itself, I feel as though a few things need to be said about this topic, if just to clarify some of the most common tips on writing we read every day.

We all know the contrast between the common misconception of the artist’s work – ‘you need to be inspired’; ‘it just comes to you’ – and the general advice on how to become a published writer – ‘don’t wait for inspiration’; ‘just do it’.

Of course, the latter is sound advice. We are long beyond the Romantics and the conception of the individual genius to whom inspiration just happens to come. It has never been true in history, no matter how talented the individual might be. Indeed, they, too, had to achieve an education, went through years of learning, writing, re-writing, editing, getting feedback, etc. They didn’t wait for inspiration – they just worked. They just wrote. They got shit done.

This does raise the question of where inspiration comes from. Or even more fundamentally, it raises the question what inspiration even is.

I suppose the type of inspiration which non-artists expect writers to have is synonymous with the ‘Eureka-feeling’, the feeling of enjoying a nice cup of tea or a bath and suddenly having a lightning strike your brain. You suddenly have the perfect idea, and from then on, it’s just about writing it down.

The thing is, this just doesn’t happen. The Eureka-feeling never strikes those who haven’t put in any effort. It’s a by-product of hard work. From my own academic and creative experience, I know that I put a lot of research and thinking into a project, and then, through conscious and subconscious musings about the project, I might be struck with a small Eureka-moment in form of the perfect formulation for a specific sentence, paragraph or argument. I don’t know of anyone who just ‘happened’ to get the same feeling without trying.

Of course, this might just be me, but, as I said, I don’t know any examples of the contrary. It shows us that the work comes first, and the Eureka-moment later. But what is inspiration, then? Possibly not much more than the amount of work and time you put into your creativity.

If you’re writing creatively, rather than academically, the need for work still applies. But it takes on a different form. You read material on how to write (improving your writing concretely), and you read novels, poems, short stories etc. from other writers (inspiring you with their writing and ideas). At the same time, you are musing – consciously and subconsciously – about your own writing, leading you one day to the desired feeling of Eureka. That’s why accomplished writers seem to have a never-ending stream of good ideas: they’re constantly thinking about their writing, consciously and subconsciously; everything they do goes into their writing, and, consequently, the Eureka-moments stack up.

In other words, inspiration is nothing more or less than the work you put in which will lead to the final product of your creative effort. This is probably why we always advise novice writers to read. Not only because, to be a writer, you start out as a reader, and certainly not because we advise them to copy & paste ideas, but just because it’s work which will ‘inspire’ them in some way.

Of course, the precise way it inspires you can take on many different forms. In poetry it’s easy to see: so many discoveries and developments have taken place throughout the course of literary history that to assume a person can become great without a huge amount of effort is about as likely to succeed as placing a child in front of a piano and hoping for it to become the next Lang Lang without training. Poets become good because they work at their craft, not because they have some mystical, otherworldly power.

In fiction, the same applies. You might not read much because of time constraints, but just reading good, published sentences, well-structured plots, well-constructed worlds etc. will necessarily influence you in beneficial ways.

And, as artists, we can take inspiration from elsewhere as well. It’s no secret that we are all inspired by a great deal – music we hear (just google for ‘best inspiration music for artists/ writers/’ – whatever), paintings we see, conversations we overhear (or hopefully lead ourselves), or life events which we deem worthy to be put into a novel. Everything is – or can become – inspiration.

Hell, I discovered recently that I can even find an ugly, run-down and abandoned industrial building inspiring. The blog post itself is creative and might very well ‘inspire’ me to write about it in another form – a poem, a short story – by using the sentiments I came up with in the report. Indeed, this is the reason I started my blog in the first place: not to spread my work, but to inspire myself and to help others be inspired (also part of the reason why there are more guides and tips on here than examples of my own writing).

In summary? The advice, ‘don’t wait for inspiration’ is excellent for anyone serious about wanting to become an artist. But it is only half of the message. It doesn’t just mean that you should get off your butt and start writing, but it also means that you can easily take all aspects of your day to day life and use them as inspiration for your art. In short, the advice ‘inspires’ you to do two things: start writing, and start living consciously.

A Brief Note on Talent

You’re probably wondering by now – and quite rightly so – what I think about talent. It’s true: some people seem to slave away the way I described above, and still don’t manage to achieve anything. Others seem to work a lot less and still come up with great pieces of art. So yes, I do agree that talent has a major part to play in the creation of something beautiful. The problem is: it’s almost impossible to quantify.

Consider this: most people don’t work effectively. They may deceive themselves into thinking that they are working five hours straight on their novel, but in many cases, they are working at around 5% efficiency. Others might put in fewer hours but work at closer to 50% efficiency. Discipline is a separate skill to work at, I’m afraid.

The same can be said of the learning process. Some people just haven’t developed their learning capabilities, resulting in them spending hours doing the same mistakes over and over again, whereas others learn effectively, making it seem as though they develop quicker than others.

In other words, many cases of talent versus no talent might just be down to an inefficient use of the time you invest. Someone with a lot of talent who never works will not become a good writer. Someone with no talent who works a lot might also not become a good writer. But someone who puts in a lot of effective work and has some talent will at least become a decent writer.

Do you disagree? Something to add? Then please leave a comment! Otherwise, please do share it on the social media of your choice by clicking on one of the tender buttons below.