Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 12 January 2009

Inspiration is a good idea

I don't seek, I find – Pablo Picasso

There are far too many words, don't you think, that we use without really being able to define or at the very least without being able to define easily? Love is one. Inspiration is another. It's easy enough to provide dictionary definitions of these words – a kid of five can tell you what 'to be in love' means – but not until they have been in love themselves will that mean anything to them.

In the past I have been very flippant when answering the question 'What is inspiration?' Inspiration is nothing more than a good idea is usually my pat answer; you don't have to wait for a good idea to start writing, any old idea will do and maybe you can turn it into a good idea or at least a workable idea. I'm not the only one to think this. This is what the film director Pawel Pawlikowski had to say on the subject:

One thing you develop with age and experience is an intuition for a good idea: something strikes a chord with you and it resonates. At any given time I'll have four or five ideas, usually half-baked, but I'll juggle them around and write story outlines until one of them stands out. Inspiration is an inchoate process that cannot really be legislated.

You don't see plumbers and doctors sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. I can just see me on the bus as it grinds to a halt: "Oy, mate, what's up then?" "Sorry, son, just ran out of inspiration. Give us five minutes and I'll see what I can do to motivate myself." No, they have a clear idea what they have to do and how it's going to be achieved.

We have glamorised inspiration and made it into something it is not.

I've seen a lot of sites where they list things you can do to help inspire yourself from flicking through the phonebook to having a fag and staring out of the window. I've tried many of them over the years and frankly none of them have really worked for me. I used to believe that 'inspiration' only happened under specific conditions, like perspiration or constipation. I tend to view these things people try like I view a lot of the weird diets that come into fashion every now and then, Mars Bar diets and the like. If you want to lose weight then stop pussyfooting around and stop eating so much … oh, and a bit of exercise wouldn't go amiss either.

I'm curious though where the word 'inspire' came from. Okay, dictionary-time:

[Origin: 1300–50; ME inspiren < L inspīrāre to breathe upon or into, equiv. to in- IN-2 + spīrāre to breathe ]

So, was no one inspired prior to 1300 then? As soon as I read that, I immediately thought about the scripture:

God created man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life. (Gen 2:7)

Now my Hebrew leaves a lot to be desired so if there are any Hebrew scholars reading this and I'm making a fool of myself then just leave me be, eh? Inspiration is often prefixed by the adjective 'divine' but I'm not suggesting that we look heavenward for the source. The word has been secularised for too long for that.

The thing I find about so many words is that few of them have hard and fast definitions. Take a hammer. We all know what a hammer is. Most of us will own a hammer. But what is a hammer – tool for hitting things? That's right but that definition really feels inadequate doesn't it?

But 'breathe' and 'into' really aren't that difficult to define taken separately; combined now that is a different ball game. If I breathe into a toilet roll what good does it do? If it's got one of those machines doctor's use to test how strong your breath is then fine but if it's just a plain ol' toilet roll then you're wasting your breath. So, breathing into must have a greater significance than literally breathing into an object. Secondly, when we use the word 'inspire' generally we end up referring to abstract things or inanimate objects, things that are incapable of breathing at all.

Perhaps if we look at the synonyms one might use in place of 'inspire' it might help us to understand what someone means when they say that they have been inspired by something.

affect, animate, arouse, be responsible for, carry, cause, commove, elate, embolden, endue, enkindle, enliven, exalt, excite, exhilarate, fire up, galvanize, get, give impetus, give one an idea, give rise to, hearten, imbue, impress, infect, inflame, influence, inform, infuse, inspirit, instil, invigorate, motivate, occasion, produce, provoke, quicken, reassure, set up, spark, spur, start off, stir, strike, sway, touch, trigger, urge, work up

To my mind all of these suggest a catalyst. The chemical definition is still the clearest as far as I'm concerned:

A substance that starts or speeds up a chemical reaction while undergoing no permanent change itself.

What has inspired me in the past? Loads of things, sunsets even, but mostly I find it's abstract things, emotional situations and language itself that get me thinking. Hmmm. I had to stop and think there if what I'd written was what I'd meant. And I think it is. What I understand as 'inspiration' is really an emotional reaction to something that provokes an intellectual response. Of course I'm talking here in creative terms and I don't see that any creative endeavour cannot be looked on as intellectual or at least cerebral. Then again since meaning is at the core of my art you'd think I'd come up with a definition like that. Let's consider a specific instance.

The last thing I can remember that inspired me was a blog post by Jasko on Jasmin's Heart. I sat down as soon as I'd finished reading it and wrote a poem there and then. The blog entry was not affected by my decision to write nor has it been altered in any way once the poem had been completed (as in a catalyst); Jasko was affected once I told him but only because I told him. That said I'm not really interested in what inspired me as how I was affected. Here, for the record, are the two lines that hit me:

In the blink of an eye anything we consider for granted could be easily turned into dust. And that’s the scariest thing about our reality.

This is a particularly interesting example because the story was about the effects of war. War doesn't interest me. I don't read books on war. I don't seek out war films or watch documentaries about all of the conflicts and skirmishes that are always on the go somewhere around the globe. I did play 'soldiers' as a kid but I grew out of all that quickly enough. I look at war quite dispassionately probably because I've never been involved in one. I actually had to go back just now and reread the entry because all that remains of it for me is the image of someone disappearing "in the blink of an eye." I couldn't actually remember what the post was about. You see, it was the idea of someone's world changing in an instant … everything. That I could relate to. That I'd been through. For me the war in the poem I wrote is really metaphorical.

Here's the poem I wrote:

The War and After

You vanished in a second.
That was all it took.
I blinked and then
you were gone.

A bird landed where you'd been.
I shooed it away.
A man stopped to
eat his lunch.

I asked him: "Could you move, sir?"
Soon a construction
crew arrived to
erect a

monument but not to you.
A dog came along
and peed on it.

If there was a single event in my life, if one of my parents had walked out on us one day and had never been seen again, then it would be easier to say, "Hey, here's the correlation," but there has been no event like that. There have however been an accumulation of occasions in my life, people who have left and people whom I have left. The artist Cornelia Parker describes it as "a microscopic jigsaw puzzle, tiny points of stimulus accumulated over time come together in an instant, making you think you have had an idea that came from nowhere." Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, says that he gets "a feeling that all the stars are aligned and suddenly reality shifts and embraces something that feels eternal. You look out from a moment like that and everything is as it should be." And for years hasn't Man looked up at the stars and seen shapes where all they really see are specks of light?

Last night in fact I had a dream where an old girlfriend dumped me which is interesting because we actually simply drifted apart. Of course, I'm not alone in that but perhaps I am more sensitive in this area than most. Well, actually there's no perhaps about it, I am. This brings to mind something the singer Martha Wainwright said:

I got my first real burst of inspiration after my father had a child with someone and I found out they weren't going to stay together. Suddenly life had become larger and more complicated, but in a positive way because now there was something to talk about. That was when I wrote my first song.

Or what about this quote from poet Andrew Motion:

When I was 17 my mother had a serious accident and eventually died; the resonances of it still continue with me very powerfully today. It is the most significant thing that has inspired me in my life and work and has undoubtedly shaped the way I think.

There are certain areas in which all of us are sensitive. Why do you think I keep writing so many poems about truth? Why did I turn truth into a character in my novel? (NB: rhetorical questions). Simple answer: I don't understand truth and I hate not understanding something as fundamental as that. But that's me. When I read something like Jasko's post I look for the truth in it. That's what jumped out at me. I guess that's why I couldn’t remember the rest of his post.

If the word "inspiration" is to have any meaning,' T S Eliot wrote, 'it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something that he does not wholly understand – or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him.' When I read those two sentences in Jasko's article it wasn't that I didn't understand them in context. I did. When taken out of context, as so many things that have inspired me have been, they were a problem to solve, "the microscopic jigsaw puzzle" Cornelia Parker was on about. How can these two sentences combine with what I believe to be true about the universe or can they even expand it?

All of this brings me back to the chemical reaction I spoke about earlier. Let's simplify it. There are cat people and there are dog people. I'm a cat person. My mother took in strays but I can't have one where I live. Every cat I see in the street I'm drawn to. I'll go out of my way to talk to them and pet them if given half a chance; the more I get to interact with the creature the more uplifted I am. By extension I like cat figurines and cat art and cartoon cats and so on. I have a house full of Garfields. I like anything that rekindles that feeling. Ah, yes. Good word. Rekindle suggests breathe new life into. And enkindle was one of the synonyms in the list above.

Let me address the idea of rekindling for a moment. How many of us, when we have found inspiration under certain circumstances, has tried to replicate it only to fall flat on our faces? Has the science let us down? Inspiration is like a match. You strike it and it provides you with a few seconds of fire. And then it is gone. That match is gone. You can find another match but it will never be the same match. Or in more aquatic terms: you can't step in the same river twice.

And yet the poet Randall Jarrell once said, "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great." So what do you do during 'thunderstorms'? Yes, there is a randomness to inspiration and oftentimes it hits when you least expect it – like a Freudian slip – but it can be encouraged even if it can't necessarily be predicted. How many of you have had a good idea while in the process of writing? I wasn't looking for inspiration but I was doing something conducive to being inspired. The problem with a lot of people is that they stand in the wrong places during 'thunderstorms'. A comedian who spends his life working with jokes is more likely to see the joke in something that that bus driver or that plumber we were on about earlier even if they both have good senses of humour.

The composer Steve Reich had this to say:

The more hours I put in sitting in front of the piano or the computer actually trying to compose, the more inspiration occurs. It rarely happens unless I'm actually hearing the sounds I am working on. It's the sounds themselves, the chords, the harmonic progressions that inspire me. And when I come up with a great one, then the inspiration leaps out at me.

We talk rather glibly, at least I do, about poets as being sensitive souls. I don't think poets or even artists are unique to this kind of sensitivity; what they do when affected is. Everyone gets inspired from time to time. Creative people, because of their nature, get inspired to do. I've said before that I believe a writer is a person whose natural repose to life is to write about it. So, when an individual of that ilk is inspired by something then the natural reaction to that would be to write about it.

I have ideas running though my head all the time. To suggest that I'm in a constant state of inspiration sounds preposterous but I don't think that it is. I dislike the term 'sensitive' because of the connotations that go with it but the fact is that I am constantly aware of my emotio-intellectual responses to the world around me. (Christ, what a pompous-sounding word, Jim). If anything I've become desensitised to what's going on and it's not until I get a big jolt that I wake up and smell the coffee.

So, what am I aware of? Ideas. There are ideas all around me all the time. Some I respond to strongly, because of who I am. Sunken ships don't really get my juices going but they seem to work for Sorlil and that is how is should be. That way we writers and artists cover all the ground. There will be someone out there hankering for a good sunken ship poem – I can just see it now – and what do you know? The real problem is to get him in touch with the poems. And when that happens, all that inspiration is released. It's like when I read 'Mr. Bleaney', which I know I go on about but just bear with me. 'Mr. Bleaney' was, for me, the right poem at the right time. It was like it had been written for me. And then years later I wrote 'The Art of Breathing' which another guy took and pinned on the cork board beside his desk. Inspiration gets passed around. Nothing dies. Everything gets transformed.

This, of course, is me just thinking out loud. I just hate people talking about inspiration as if it were some mystical force. It's easy to do especially when we really don't understand a word and there are so many words we use every day that we think we understand but once we start talking about them we realise that maybe we don't.

Anyway, I hope this blog has been an inspiration to all of you. Whatever I mean by that.

All the quotes in this article are from The Guardian, March 12th, 2006


Anonymous said...

Jim, now I must confess what inspired me to write those lines. It was a Terry Eagleton’s note saying that we all are living under the constant threat of nuclear disaster. He wrote this maybe 20 years ago but for me, this observation is not losing any of its actuality – considering the state of our world today – where we have the rise of ultra-religious and fundamentalist streams, and where many of unstable and undemocratic states are in the possession of nuclear weapons. Eagleton also said, referring to some Freudian premises, that this threat is going everywhere with us, and that, even unconsciously, we are always aware of it somehow. This all brings to the point that there is no person who is excluded from this. Great post.

Marion McCready said...

What a great post, Jim. I like your method of investigation - you approach ideas in a different way from how I think about them and I enjoy trying to jump into your mindset.

One way I think about inspiration is as a bit of a mixture between the physical heightening of the senses and the unconscious breaking through to the conscious.
It's this, I think, that gives rise to the mystical side of the muse etc.

Every writer is different, without the initial spark of inspiration I'm unable to just sit down and write.

Marion McCready said...

I also meant to say I really like your poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

And you never know, Jasko, someone may well read my poem and be inspired to write thir own piece. Inspiration does seem to breed inspiration. It's something my wife says, that whenever she reads anything by Jeanette Winterson she feels the need to write herself welling up in her.

Sorlil, it would never do if we all went about things the same way. I read some quite diverse blogs purely to look at other people's thought processes. It's not that I want to change how I think but it's nice to be able to broaden ones thinking. That's partly why I write about things I'm not too au fait with, to get other people's slants. That's why I'm glad Art hangs around my site (and I his) because we clearly come at life from very different angles and yet we also have so much common ground.

I understand your perspective on inspiration too. It's like my dad's hat. It sits on top of a bookcase in my office and has done since his death. I must have looked at it hundreds of times since then and yet one day I looked at it and I got a poem out of it.

I think what we do in our heads is assemble bits and bobs, a nut here, a screw there but only when we have gathered enough can be assemble a simple 'machine' out of those ideas, which is how you will remember William Carlos Williams talked about a poem.

I'm glad that you liked the poem by the way. I've just completed another post where I deconstruct the piece a bit. Not sure when I'll post it but I hope you like it.

Frances said...

I know you said you hate inspiration=mystical force idea but all the synonyms that you posed were about increases in energy. A thunderstorm is a massive increase in natural energy - maybe we all need to tap into the force - man!

Jena Isle said...

Jim, very thoroughly discussed and informative. For me as long as it gives me a positive feeling, then it inspires me.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think many people in the world fancy themselves as writers. In much the same way as they fancy themselves to be skillful lovers or adept footballers. In order to maintain this illusion, they develop quite sophisticated excuses, "I can't do keepie-up today 'cos I hurt my back while being a super-lover last night" (or vice versa).

Perhaps we few who actually *do* write a little are the ones who are worst at making up excuses or just at making them sound convincing.

Bobby Revell said...

I've never understood the word "inspiration" referencing not having it, what it is, how to get it and so forth. I'm a musician and throughout my life I've heard other musicians say they hit a dry spell, dead end or mind block--incapable of creating thought or ideas at a particular time. I've always thought, how can that be? With the endless possibilities and variations at hand, it should be impossible to not be inspired.

I've read things etc. and felt a need to write something because of it, but is that really inspiration or simply being naturally coaxed? Is there a difference? I often start writing without thinking (so to speak) and it seems to write itself. Much like jazz improvisation. While moments of pure improvisation can occur for an advanced musician, most "improvisation" is not pure--it's rearrangement of things already known while moments of pure improvisation occur naturally. To me, improvising or striving for that supreme state (subconsciously) becomes natural--inspiration becomes impossible to turn off. Writing to me is more about sculpting away unessentials than creation--to focus endless ideas into art (though many writers wouldn't consider my horrific vision to be artistic).

The lack of inspiration is to me a myth, much like the highly popular "law of attraction" or "karma". If karma were valid, the world would be a harmonious utopia--but I digress.

Great post Jim:)

Jim Murdoch said...

Belief can be a powerful thing, Frances, but beliefs don't need to be true to have force. Some authors believe that they can only work when a specific set of criteria has been met. I'm not the slightest bit superstitious but I accept that some people are. I believe that the notion of inspiration as being something external to an author is silly. I only have my own experiences to base that judgement on so I could say that is true in my case but it might not be; I might be tapping into some external force and be unaware of it but I'd need some convincing.

I'm not sure, Jena, that inspiration is always a positive thing for me. I draw more from, if we're going with Frances's analogy, my dark side. The best work I've done has come from time when I was in some kind of emotional turmoil. There are very few happy poems in my canon and the few that are there are not my best work. I have an uncanny ability to see the sad side of anything and when that facilty comes in contact with the right external stimulus then that'll spark off a good idea.

Yes, Ken, procrastination, the curse of the writer, far more pernicious than any writer's block. I'm not exempt from that one I'm afraid. As for delusions, I'm pretty well out of them. The few I did have got all used up by my twenties.

And, Bobby, I have suffered from blocks in the past but I would suggest that they're mislabelled as writer's block because I can always write just not always about what I want to write about. I'm a great believer in not forcing myself to work on a piece if I can avoid it. That is to say work on paper - I never stop writing in my head, testing out lines and ideas. Even the best of writers get stuck. I read an interview with the prolific Joyce Carol Oates and even she gets stuck but all she does it puts the piece that's not working aside and work on something else. And I'm the same. I hardly did any meaningful work on my current novel last year because I kept writing poetry. Who cares? As long as I'm writing I'm not bothered. It's not as if I've an agent calling me up every week looking for a progress report.

Bobby Revell said...

If I had to guess I'd say you are a perfectionist who has gotten over his own desire to write perfectly--but I could be wrong (I often am).

I get stuck too, but it's because I'm a perfectionist or have become so aware of the way I write, I demand freshness. I just work on another project if one is stalled for whatever self-imposed block. You are someone I believe has probably thought about all this so much, it would be difficult for me to incite an original response LOL!

I didn't mean to imply that I had magical powers who never suffered a block--if I did--but like you said, I'm always writing in my head. I wish you luck in getting published by a major publisher. I'm just a novice trying to finish his first book. I've been writing it for well over 3 years:)


You have my thoughts going in a thousand directions, but I will rein in only two here. First, your little story about the uninspired bus driver is priceless! And quite inspiring. Just yesterday I began writing a minimum of 500 words each morning in an attempt to get the juices flowing. Hopefully this will last longer than my other great plans have. Speaking of which, I have been attentive to my blog and my subscription feeds all year (ok...13 days). I am quite proud of myself and I have you to thank for it. It's one thing to know that you care about other people's thoughts and quite another to tell them so.

Secondly, if I didn't already like you, I would have fallen head over heels for you after reading about your affection for cats. I'm telling you...there's more to them than meets the eye.

Now back to real life. The blankety-blank job hunt. #%#^*^%$&^!

Conda Douglas said...

Non-creative-types often approach me and say, "I've got a great idea for you to write. Or maybe it's not great, but it's an idea." They seem to think writers are in danger of running out. Quite the opposite is of course true, I know would-be-writers who say, "I'd write more, but I have so many ideas and I have more all the time and I have trouble choosing."

Another great post, Jim, and I too enjoyed the poem.

Rachel Fox said...

That's a good point Conda. It's not lack of ideas that stalls me - it's all the ideas falling over themselves, tripping each other up on their way out!

j said...

When dropping cards recently, I came across a writer's blog entry on the same subject. Totally different take -- kind of "when I can be my true self, in the quiet spaces between moments, I find inspiration." (or something like that). I found it very annoying, like being inspired is some sort of precious state requiring spiritual oneness with the world.

I prefer your version.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, that's about me, Bobby. I used to spend months on poems adding in the proverbial comma and taking it back out again. I mean is there any real difference between 'wait a second' and 'wait a moment'? Not in the grand scheme of things.

I think it's important to distinguish between an inability to write and an inability to write something specific. There is a difference.

Susan, glad to see you've set an attainable goal for yourself. I've never been able to write a set amount like that. I work in spurts but I edit in between. And it's also good you're keeping up with your blogging duties too.

As for cats, my mother took in strays and no sooner did one die then another found its way to her door. And they were all very different. Tom was an old battler with one ear that bent down and a tongue that stuck out most of the time. He used to vanish for days on end. I once followed him and he went for miles till we got to a pond at which point he lost me – he swam right through the middle of it! Tigger, on the other hand, never left the garden all his life. One day the bin men came and all I saw was this blur heading for the tool shed and there he was, bum up in the air, shivering in the corner. Seriously, the scarediest cat in the world. Tom, on the other hand, would chase dogs out of our garden. In my old age I'm afraid I've become allergic to them but it never stops me petting one any time I can get near one.

I can't say I've ever had anyone offer me an idea, Conda, but at the same time I've never been overrun with them either. I think I'm probably just a bit selective about what I write especially when it comes to a big project like a novel which I know is going to take me years. Glad you liked the poem. That was one of those times when everything worked perfectly there and then. I read Jasko's article, opened Word, wrote the poem, tidied up the line structure, changed a couple of words and that was me done – a half hour, tops.

And, Jennifer, yes, that would have annoyed me too. And yet when I was a teenager I used to believe that inspiration was something that descended upon me and that I had the use of it for only a certain time and so I'd write as fast as I could and never edit once I was no longer 'possessed' which is one reason why all my early poems are crap. Of course there are times when all your ducks are in a row – the poem in the post is one of those instances – but let's not make more of it than we should; it was a fortunate happenstance. Sometimes you trip over a good idea, other times you have to manoeuvre yourself into the right place (and I mean 'place' in the broadest sense). I think of it as the difference between natural pearls and cultured.

Anne McCrady said...

Great post and comments! I am coming to the discussion months later, but what a great post with interesting comments.

First, let me say that your way of writing is inherently creative--beginning with a notion and chasing it through your own experiences then to the words of other thinkers on through soul searching and and finally to the point of uncertainty (negative capability). You take readers on that journey with you--what all great writing should do, I think.

I am especially interested in this post because, as a poet, writer and speaker, I umbrella my efforts under the moniker InSpiritry, a self-coined trademark that sprung from the linguistic history and inference you talked about. For me, it was also informed by having overcome a history of severe asthma ("breathe") and my desire to "rekindle" and "inspire" a creative approach to life: curiosity, courage, inventiveness, open mindedness, spiritual sensibility, etc.

Rumi said (Coleman Barks translator): "There are 100 ways to kneel and kiss the ground." I live by that sentiment!

See my website,, where I work to Put Words to Work for the Greater Good and a Greater God.

I'll add you to my links!Thanks for rekindling my spirit!

Jim Murdoch said...

Don't worry about being late, Anne, it's always good when someone gets something out of my posts. I wish all my posts were as effective as this one but this was a subject that really caught my interest and I put quite a bit of effort into it. It was very important for me to demystify the whole subject of inspiration.

I had a look at your site. Very polished. Very professional. And thanks for adding me to your links. All new readers gratefully received.

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