March 31, 2009

Inspiration Strikes

I'm currently dealing with a leak in the water heater upstairs, so I'm not in the best of possible moods. That said, I've been thinking about this for a while, so I thought I'd get it out there.

My question is this: Is it bad form to want to do a research project about the rhetoric of one's own discipline? Specifically, I'm interested in working with the rhetoric of creative writing. Creative writers and literary critics often have a peculiar relationship (parasitic isn't the right word, but it's close), and they often occupy the same department (or, in the case of my M.A. program, the same students).

As someone who is almost certainly going into composition and rhetoric, I consider myself blessedly outside this loop of production and critique. Still, literary critics and compositionists trade in a certain type of language, a certain way of writing, a certain mode of production, that values completely different things than creative writing does. And yet, literary critics rely upon (to borrow another biological metaphor, prey upon) the literature produced by creative writers.

So, the point of this is: creative writers are given a lot of leeway in their writing processes. Hemmingway is allowed to write naked at a podium. Robert Frost is allowed to throw coffee mugs at undergraduates who ask him what "Two Roads..." "means" (true story!) and just generally be curmudgeonly. In fact, we might go so far as to say that creative writers are encouraged in their eccentricities. They are encouraged to have a very specific place to write (even if that place is anywhere). They are encouraged to drink a butt-ton of coffee (LSD for a new generation of artists).

Most of all, though, they are encouraged to be fickle. I have several creative writers in the courses I'm taking, and the topic of "inspiration" has come up several times. As a compositionist (and former literary critic; damn it feels good to say that), I find the concept of inspiration equal parts baffling and infuriating. Either I have never been inspired to write in my life or I am always inspired to write. Because I know I never have any flashes of ideas. I either produce writing (usually when I have to), or I don't. Perhaps other academic writers have a "muse" and go on long streaks of productivity. Not I.

I am interested, though, in the concept of "inspiration" and how it works in creative writers. There appears to be a dichotomy in the field: some writers say that you must sit down and produce something every single day, not waiting around for inspiration to strike (it's like lightning, see). Others embrace the fickle nature of inspiration and only write when they are "inspired."

Of course, both of these camps recognize the existence of "inspiration." I wonder, and perhaps this is heresy, but I wonder if "inspiration" is not merely a rhetorical device (I will not step over the line and say "an excuse") used by creative writers. This is why I want to do a rhetorical analysis of creative writing, particularly its relationship as a field to the larger context of English studies. I simply do not know. And so I return to my original question: is that bad form?

I doubt very much that I will ever figure any of this out. In the meantime, I'm going to put a bucket under the leak and hope that some inspiration drips out of the hole in my ceiling.


  1. Wow. That hole is impressive.

    I like the way you think, E. When the word "inspiration" came up in class, it was all I could do to stay still and let other, smarter, more tactful people take care of the conversation.

    The idea of a writer's "space" has always seemed like a quirk that we allow, assume, or (as you say perfectly) encourage from creative writers. If a mechanic were to wax eloquent about his favorite bay in the shop and how that was the only bay in which he could be inspired to mount a gorgeous dual exhaust system, people would think him crazy and at best call him 'particular'. But why is it so different? Everyone - writer or not - has situations or places in their lives when they can actually concentrate on something. That something might be skateboarding and the situation might be in an abandoned school parking lot at 2pm with a buddy videotaping. Again... the skateboarder is just having fun but the writer is (dun dun dunnnnn) writing!

    I think the idea of a writer's space and the inspiration visited on successful writers is something we've come to expect. Perhaps it's all tied up in the idea that they are artists and therefore sacralized to a position far beyond us. But I think we all need to step back and realize that though writers should enjoy their spaces and heck even demand those spaces to be perfect to their specs, anyone who wants a "space" for whatever purpose should be able to have that too. Or, in the likely event that said person lives with a roommate in a tiny apartment, that person should at least be able to talk about that "space" in public without being laughed out of the building.

    (See why it's best that I didn't speak up in class? I have a tendency to get sassy when I think I'm right. Especially if I can use mechanics as examples.)

  2. Oh, right, you asked a question.

    Is it in good form?

    I don't know. But do writers care about good form?

  3. Well said, A. I didn't have a snappy example like that, but yours works perfectly. I completely agree with your thought that "it's all tied up in the idea that they are artists and therefore sacralized to a position far beyond us." Even within your example, we can see a clear difference between artist and artisan. Why shouldn't the cupcake baker enjoy the status of artist, rather than an artisan? Why shouldn't we do away with the distinction outright? Perhaps then we could have cupcake criticsm on the same level as music criticsm and literary criticism.

    I'm still trying to wrap my head around this. I'm not sure I even know what I object to. The notion of a writer's "space" bothers me, but so too do all superstitions, especially in creative writing. I'm sure, on some level, it's about equitable treatment and not giving the cultural elite more room to work than the rest of us drones.

  4. I have to say, I like the idea of cupcake criticism! Would that involve lots of taste-testing, in order to more effectively lend one's critical opinion? On a more serious note, I do believe that there are many more forms of art than we as a society tend to allow. Baking can certainly be an art form, I think- if you ever browse baking blogs, you already know that there's no way some of what those people do could be anything other than art.

    Speaking from the perspective of a creative writer, I'm inclined to say that as far as waiting for inspiration vs. pushing through writer's block and writing anyway goes, I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. It's definitely true that as a poet, I experience random lightning bolts of inspiration; I'll be falling asleep or eating breakfast, and all of a sudden, a phrase will come into my head, and I'll think, "Okay, I need to fit that into a poem somewhere." And then I'll sit down at my computer, and I'll work with that line first and build a poem around it. Usually, by the time I'm finished with the poem, the line/phrase is unrecognizable from where it began; I do so much fiddling with words while I'm writing that where I start tends to be a very, very different picture than where I end. Does that make sense? But I also fall into the "write every day" camp. If someone is really serious about writing, I think they need to work at that craft (just as they would with any other craft) to get better at it and produce work of which they can be proud.
    As far as a writer's "space" goes, I don't really have one. Most of my writing happens on my living room couch, but that's really only because it's the quietest place to work in my house, and also because I spend a lot of time at home. Trying to write at school- well, it's possible, but it's often too distracting. I guess I'm just a writer who needs a very quiet environment, and that's really only because I'm so very, very distractible.
    I do think that a rhetorical analysis of creative writing could be fascinating, as it's something I spend a lot of time thinking about already. It would also be interesting to read the perspective of a non-creative writer. However, I think it might be incredibly difficult to analyze the process if you're not a creative writer yourself-- but you could certainly do a research study of creative writers.
    Anyway, in case it's not already glaringly obvious, I have a blog now! I caught the blogging bug, apparently. I haven't put very much on there quite yet, but I plan to soon.

  5. Hey, an actual creative writer! Thanks for your comments, Rachel. This issue will be plaguing me forever; even the most comprehensive study of creative writers would likely be a crapshoot. It seems like there's so little consensus about the "right" way to do things. Of course, that makes it all the more difficult for someone like me who wants to be a writer but is terrible at it.

    Oh, and I'll definitely check out the new blog. Look's like A.'s brought a good thing to the nether regions of Maine.

  6. This is a really interesting conversation. Thanks for posing the question, Evan.

  7. I’m most bothered by the concept of a muse.

    The muse concept is one of many betrayals by the educational system. My first introduction to the muse was grammar school (third grade?), and we had a small unit on muses: mythical muses, Christian ones, famous artists who claimed to have muses, and our own muses. My teacher assigned a writing assignment where we had to describe our muse. I took this very literally and was distressed because I didn’t have a muse. While my classmates scribbled away about the muse they’ve somehow always had, but only then knew about after the start of this unit, or wrote a fantastical tale of what their muse would be, if they had any say in it, I sat puzzled because the prompt assumed I had a muse. The prompt did not say, “Imagine you have a muse,” I could do that. Instead, the prompt presupposed that I, of course, did have a muse. I brought my concern to my teacher. She insisted that when I wrote or created something that I must have been inspired by something – someone I know? a playful panda? Clearly, from what she told me, there had to be an external factor that caused me to be able to create something.

    And here is the crux of my problem with muses. I do not believe that a creative influence comes from an external factor. Writing/Drawing/Sculpting/What have you is something an individual does. While the product is clearly influence by that person’s life/genetics/etc, those factors do not change the fact that the creator is the one doing the creating. I have the agency.

    I can certainly see the appeal of a muse. When I sit in front of a computer with a blank Microsoft Word, or when a clay bowl becomes asymmetrical and collapses, it would certainly be appealing to be able to say, “My muse has left me,” and be absolved of culpability in my failed attempts. I can also understand why religion has created/made use of the muse concept to limit the hubris and power of artisans by limiting the artist’s agency. Sure god chose this individual to grant the divine inspiration so the individual must be worthy, but god could take it away, and god, ultimately, is the one who is responsible for the wonder of the works.

    The muse is a crutch though. Writing and other art forms are a skill that needs practice to improve. The belief that a muse is responsible for both good and bad writing, means that someone might not practice his/her art. While something could certainly prompt (avoiding the word inspired here) someone into writing a story that does not indicate it is a muse. Writing is easier at time, but still there is no muse involved. The concept of a muse means that there is an outside influence to both blame and praise for any works produced. That’s not healthy. If I’m not happy with my drawing, then I need to practice to improve. If I created a beautiful poem, I should be happy with my own efforts. Putting the blame and praise on an external factor means that if something goes wrong or right then I have no way to change it (unless of course, I’m incredible pious and believe in divine intervention and decide to use prayer as the method to paint better, but clearly, I do not prescribe to that life philosophy and don’t believe it would work). Claiming that my muse, Anastasia, the 3-inch high flying panda, isn’t able to gift me with her favors because she’s away in Tibet meditating isn’t a productive response to a struggle in creating. What can I do to change that? Nor is it healthy for another living individual to be a muse. Putting the entire responsibility for what I create/write/draw/why I live on another individual is a terrible position and not healthy at all.

    In the classroom unit, I felt that I was bereft of a muse – that something was lacking within me. The unit would have been improved greatly had it included a story with a story of Ben, a painter who always painted when his dog was with him. One day, Ben and his beloved dog, Russ, were separated by a vacation. At first, Ben struggled with painting, painting over all his creations with pure black paint as he felt they were failures. But eventually, Ben discovered that he could still paint, and just as well without Russ there. Ben learned that he was the painter. While he still loved to paint with Russ sleeping by his feet, he learned he didn’t need Russ to paint well. Perhaps the classroom unit did include such a text, but I certainly don’t remember it from my childhood. I’m pretty sure a lot of youths are exposed to muses in a similar nonproductive manner.

    I’ve been reading online amateur writing for over a decade. I began when I was 12 or 13. Frequently, at that age, all I knew how to find was works written by others my age. Often, it wasn’t very good, but there was a lot of it. One of the ways I began to use to weed out works I wouldn’t read was by the author’s note. I found that author notes that only thanked beta readers and cheerleaders were the best kind. Some notes gave elaborate details about the writing process, the writer’s unsatisfactory response to the product, and frequently – references to an externalized muse. Stories with those notes, I learned to steer clear of. In my experience, as an author improves, even one who just writes for fun, s/he learns to move away from an externalized muse. While self-reflection is good, the places for that is not the author note; authors can make a separate post.

    Too frequently our society promotes muses. Doing away with or limiting the muse myth is a struggle for teachers in the upper grades. While my third grade teacher would have loved an elaborate story about how Anastasia appeared in my life from an egg I discovered in my garden, I know my seventh grade teacher would never have accepted Anastasia’s absence as a good reason why my paper was two pages too short. If a child is truly gifted though, somehow the muse excuse becomes acceptable. Some teachers, parents, community members will give leeway to students who excel at times in their creative writing, but flounder on a few writing assignments. They can refer back to famous artists who had muses, or song writers who claimed divine inspiration as role models for the child’s behavior. In reality the student needs to practice his/her art, even when it’s hard. Otherwise the student will not meet his/her potential. The muse is a crutch that needs to be done away with.