The ‘creatives’ in ancient Greece and Rome, be they artistic, cultural or scientific (since there was no division made until the late seventeenth century) had a superfluity of inspiring influences. Nine separate muses were available to call on; should they lack the vital afflatus to start the creative impulse. Personally, I’d settle for just one, if I didn’t have a suspicion that this divine presence wouldn’t end up being yet another demanding member of my household, and no doubt complaining that I should have bought a different brand of Ambrosia.
Yet, a moment of true inspiration does feel like a divine gift — for want of a more secular expression — often arriving from out of the blue, unbidden, unannounced and totally unexpected. Inspiration can mean motivation and incentive, or it can be a creative urge: one is triggered by something external, colliding violently with rational thought so that every previous intention is bulldozed to oblivion; the other bubbles up from within on a head of superheated steam, that overflows with such intensity that all other thoughts risk being subsumed and drowned in its wake.
Don’t make the mistake of confusing inspiration with genius. Although genius never exists without inspiration, inspiration can, and hopefully does, visit at any stage of ability. Likewise, inspiration is not an idea. We all know that a sustainable idea is critical for good writing, but you can work up an idea without being inspired. At best it looks fine and we send it off knowing we’ve done a good job, but too often it feels like a duty, perhaps just about managing to scrape another chapter together, or slide something past the editor without being rumbled. That’s why an artistic career can feel such a precarious business; essentially we're relying on an elusive and sometimes capricious state to find our best work. In essence, inspiration is an emotion, something that's felt and has a physical presence deep within the body. Ideas are merely thoughts in the right place. Sometimes inspiration comes in tandem with an idea, other times with no inkling of anything concrete, but always with the expectation that the tension and elation of ‘being in the zone’ is just around the corner. And rumbling beneath the tingle of what's to come, like a bass line that has been there all along without us even being aware of it, is a profound relief that the last time was not the last after all, as we so often fear. It has happened again, and the journey ahead can be all consuming, trance-like and ultimately thrilling.
I know I've been struck by the awe of inspiration when I recognise a similar yearning ache to the emptiness that lingers for the best part of a week after one of my girls leaves following a lengthy sojourn in the family home. They're living their own lives now, and there's nothing to be done other than wait until the longing eases, and normal life resumes.
But literary longing, albeit for the wordy embrace of the perfect sentence, and not the casual hug of youth as they skip the nest, demands attention; not necessarily immediate attention (the back burner can be useful, but it's not essential). However, like empty-nest syndrome, this spark if not attended to within a certain period, is also subject to easing, cooling, dimming. The desire to be creative dissipates and the once-compelling idea to which it gave birth, has to be composted like all the rest that never made it.
The flare of inspiration, that craving to create, is subjective and unique, but universally seductive. We don’t always know from where inspiration arises, but some are lucky enough to know a shortcut to the fertile ground that nurtures the seeds of ideas. We discover there are go-to places that have worked for us in the past. In times of the Grand Tour it was almost a right of passage to go searching for inspiration (amongst other things) through Renaissance art, Italian architecture, the music of Viennese salons. In the absence of divine help, the modern muse can appear in human form — as in Robert Graves’s muse-poet — or the traditional relationship of Rossetti and his muse, Elizabeth Siddal. But more often it is something abstract that pushes our buttons: a particular piece of music, or the perfect silence you only get very early in the morning when everyone else is asleep. It can be another writer’s work: poetry, a libretto, a passage that makes you see something as though for the first time. Unusual weather can release an artistic energy, as can a view that takes your breath away, or a life-changing event. My own short cut is a mixture of meditation and the natural world, sometimes both at once. Running through the watery landscape in which I live, here by the Norfolk Broads, mist, time and light blur at the edges, and that's what invariably does it for me.
All the above could be described as virtuous or classical alternatives for the ancient world muses. But of course, there are less noble routes that have been used and abused over the centuries and, for a time when I led another life working in the music industry, I met more than a few travelling the paths of extreme living aided by booze and drugs. These are the artists who feel they simply cannot work without the inspiration that leads to genius and become addicted to the routes that they've found will shoot them straight past ‘Go’ and on into the heaven that is their inspiration. In reality, they frequently hurtle past ‘Go’ as predicted, but wind up for the rest of the game in Jail, or picking Chance cards off the pile for the rest of their, possibly very short, lives. That these routes work for some, there is no denying. Occasionally they work frighteningly well. To pick just a few at random: Coleridge, Hemmingway, Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski, Dorothy Parker, Joyce, arguably geniuses all, but all ultimately consumed by their addictions.
However, there are simpler, smaller and far less grandiose methods that can rouse the craving to write, or help us find those elements that are missing in a piece of work that feels uninspired, and lacks life or focus.
For the last year I've been looking for characters by collecting discarded shopping lists. It’s the juxtaposition of everyday items that I find so inspiring. Last week I found three left in supermarket trolleys. Who is the man (I feel it is a man) who wants cheese, toms, bacon and a Tubigrip? The Tubigrip is circled as if he fears he might forget this most vital of items; is it for himself or someone who shares his life? What are Togs x 2? And who needs KOFFEY (all in upper case)? Then I found a corner torn off a sheet of lined paper listing three brands of cat food carefully printed in pencil, followed by the single word, wine. That started me thinking.
Then there are books. I don't believe you can be a serious writer if you don’t read. And with reading comes research, both being a critical resource for many writers to access inspiration. And, no, this is definitely not the same as plagiarising. Researching the text of Julian of Norwich introduced me to portmanteau words and a syntax that I had never before come across. The revelation was so inspiring that I continue to access her speech patterns and word formation when current usage seems too obvious, especially in poetry.
But what about those moments when inspiration couldn’t be further from our thoughts? Magic happens in the gaps when our minds are restful and our hands are occupied doing something repetitive and unchallenging. The right-side, left-side brain (logical v creative) theory has recently been debunked, but I still experience a liberation of thinking when engaged in something mundane. It seems to allow time for a scoot into the dusty corners of my head with space to turn over old stones, which sometimes releases a real gem. I like periodically to return to those notes I made in the throes of inspiration, but which never quite made it, and my favourite area for revisiting is my cuttings file. By far the most rewarding stimuli come from local newspapers or even parish magazines.
“She said: ‘At about 4.30am I was woken by a noise. Something made me get out of bed and go to the window. I was only wearing a hat. I saw a man.’.” I was only wearing a hat! That is fantastic! Why? Who goes to bed in just their hat? Typing that short statement has made me feel inspired all over again. You can forget your breath-taking views, nodding daffodils, Clio the history Muse. I think my muse is all but naked, bar a large, slightly worse-for-wear, cream coloured, black ribboned Panama hat!