Theory of writing inspiration
What’s this episode about?
Welcome to the third season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full first episode and/or scan the show notes below for the main takeaways.
Today’s episode focuses on the theory and science of inspiration – what it was perceived to be, what it is viewed as now and how can you fit this knowledge in your writing practice to empower your creativity. But before I get into that, I want to say that this week is special, because United States celebrates ‘National Friends of Library Week’. For people in the UK, that was two weeks ago. For everyone else, I’m sure you have one in your countries too – it’s a great way to celebrate one of the greatest social inventions as far as I’m concerned. Libraries are allowing many people access to books and that’s amazing. Go and show your local library some love. If there are any librarians listening, thanks you for your work you’re awesome. Now, let’s talk creative inspiration.
Vessel to the will of the divine
Inspiration has long been something mysterious for people, including the creative people themselves. Back in the olden days, when the divine was interwoven in many aspects of everyday life, for lack of other understanding, how creation took place in the mind of the artist was seen as a divine intervention.
An interesting work where this train of thought is recorded is in Plato’s Ion, a poetic dialogue from Ancient Greece where Plato and Socrates discuss how the poet does not have art, but merely inspiration. This is an important distinction because it’s argued the Muse (or God) is the one who gives power to the poet, who then inspires the actor who will perform. So the creativity does not come from within but from above, and the creative person is believed to be a vessel of some divine will.
This idea, I think, is easy to understand – if you try to think when you were inspired last, maybe you would say something inspired you; that something triggered another idea in your head and now you have this thing that wasn’t there before. Creative people are not great at explaining exactly what happens when inspiration strikes and many describe it as elusive. This is exactly why it has been linked for so long with supernatural intentions.
The Inspirational Triad
But that’s not good enough for the state of present day artists. We love owning our work, and it takes a lot of hard work to create and get it out – there’s no way we can let some deity take the credit for our efforts. A study examined how creative professionals feel about inspiration and found ‘The Inspirational Triad’ – ‘a threefold structure consisting of Altered Awareness, Energy, and Enabling Conditions’.
These three things are, briefly, what creative professionals feel they have to have in place for inspiration to strike. Altered awareness is when there is a change to consciousness associated with creativity – for example shifts in attention, sudden insights into an otherwise ordinary experience or even letting the mind wander free, unconstrained to explore new notions. This is the light bulb moment of creation.
Then inspiration is perceived to have energy, or I would call it strength of impact. This is the speed and intensity with which creatives go through feelings and charged emotions that go with their new ideas, the heightened motivation to create, and the increase in creative stamina and activity. This is the buzz of creation.
Finally, for all this to take place properly, there have to be enabling conditions. These could be for example social factors, like surrounding yourself with people who are an inspirational influence, or environments which allow the mind to wander freely without judgment. This is the actual moment of creation, when all comes together and pours out of you because there’s nothing to stop it.
Before I continue with why inspiration matters for writing and why knowing all this is beneficial, I want to name drop myself and say that I’ve said countless times I’m a writer but I haven’t so far shared what I’ve been working on.
Surprise – it’s a book.
I’m working on a romantic thriller and very soon it will be available for pre-order. Here’s a link to the blurb. It’s dark and atmospheric like Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and packed with action like Alex Callister’s Winter Dark.
That’s it for now, I will let you know when it’s available to pre-order. In the meantime, share with me what you’re working on – I would love to support you and I always geek out when it comes to writing.
Inspiration vs. Effort
Many writers value their moments of inspiration but many, including myself, believe that inspiration is only a tiny part of the overall creative process. Thomas Edison, when talking about his work, said that “what it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration”.
But after doing the research for this episode, and thinking back about my own experience, effort only does not produce great work – that creative spark which we call inspiration is as vital as the work after.
Researchers say “effort is important to the creative process, but its role is different than that of inspiration. Whereas writers’ inspiration predicts the creativity of the product, writers’ effort predicts the technical merit of the product. Thus inspiration and effort are unique predictors of different aspects of product quality.
Moreover, screen capture data indicates that inspiration is involved in the automatic/generative aspects of the writing process (e.g., inspired writers produce more words and retain more of their original typing), whereas effort is related to controlled self-regulation (e.g., writers who exert effort delete more words and pause more to think.)”
Now that we know inspiration is important, I want to leave you with a simple three-step action plan on how to ensure it doesn’t escape you. Inspiration can’t be forced but it can be fostered.
So, first step is to keep your mind open, exercise your imagination. One thing I really like to do when I’m somewhere waiting for example, I imagine myself or the building from above or from inside, I imagine what the person in front of me might be thinking about. Anything could be inspiring if you’re open to see it.
Second step is to make sure you have the time and place to capture your inspiration and work on it. You shouldn’t let that buzz fizzle away into oblivion. So have a notebook with you, or reach often for the notes app on your phone. If nothing else is to hand, tell a friend, two people remember things better than one.
Finally, the third step is to surround yourself with things that can inspire you. This means other writers, groups, places, items, media – anything that exercises your mind in a positive way. This step is well captured by the words of Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison. She said: “Your life is already artful—waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.” So all we need to do is to open up ourselves to the experience of finding the art that awaits all around us.
sO, TO SUMMARIZE…
I want to leave you with some further reading and listening which will maybe help you be more inspired more regularly. For me, being able to foster inspiration is very important for my mental health because when I’m inspired, my focus shifts to creating, I’m buzzing with positive energy and tend to forget about the other problems of my daily existence for a bit. It’s a great feeling and of course if I can help more writers feel better for longer, I will do my best.
There’s a great article about all I talked about, together with more examples on the Harvard Business Review website, called Why Inspiration Matters. Go check it out.
Next week, I’ve picked a topic which all writers dread to think about – procrastination. It’s the enemy of productivity and inspiration and can leave pretty much anyone feeling like they can’t write. But it’s not all doom and gloom – I will teach you how to trick your brain into doing things that fuel your creativity while still indulging that need to procrastinate for a bit. Join me in the Pen Garden next Tuesday 27th October.
If you want to be up to date on Pen Garden news, subscribe to the show and sign up to my newsletter. I promise no spam, only cups of writing joy.
If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.
- Plato’s Take on Inspiration: The Ion (website article)
- The Experience of Creative Inspiration Among Creative Professionals: A Grounded Theory Approach (journal article)
- The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities (journal article)
- Why Inspiration Matters (website article)
Listen and subscribe
Listen to all Available episodes of season 3:
Or the episodes from seasonS 1&2: