This is part two in a two part series on writing. To visit the first, please click here.
When I listen to struggling writers – writers who never finish the book, never get the article published, give up after 14 pages – they always seem to mention problems with inspiration. “I just don’t have any ideas.” “I’ve run out of inspiration.” “I can’t find my muse.”
Where, then, does inspiration come from? Let’s look first to Ernest Hemingway because he’s famous and liked to get his picture taken.
When Mr. Hemingway was low on inspiration, he responded by killing grizzly bears. No, really. He went out and hunted bears. He also volunteered as an ambulance driver in WW1 where, upon receiving severe shrapnel wounds to both legs, he nonetheless carried a wounded Italian soldier to safety. After the war he moved to France, cavorted with Picasso, and drank psychoactive spirits. He watched the burning of Smyrna in person, ran with the bulls and had a lot of adulterous affairs. Shortly after Hemingway’s father committed suicide, he suffered a compound arm fracture that healed with the use of transplanted kangaroo tendons. He caught dysentery in Africa, covered the Spanish Civil War and wrote a play whilst enduring aerial bombardment. Ernest Hemingway, it seems safe to say, did not lead a boring life and thus, in pursuing all these dangerous and amazing experiences, supplied himself with a nearly bottomless well of inspiration from which to draw his fiction. But surely he is an outlier among successful writers, right?
Let’s look at my favorite living author, Mohsin Hamid. His appearance is certainly more like the “hunched over a keyboard, shut in, all-my-friends-think-golf-is-an-extreme-sport” writerly stereotype.
He’s not as macho as Hemingway – Ivy League education, rich parents, only one marriage and an extended family with which he’s seemingly on good terms.
But here as well, Mr. Hamid has a deep well of experience. He’s hung around with Toni Morrison and bounced from Asia to Europe to America and back to Asia. He’s been to theaters barricaded against terrorist attack and had cause to muse on the efficacy of plate glass windows as improvised anti-personnel weapons. He made a living as a corporate shark in New York and, he has heavily implied, had first hand experience in Pakistan’s drug underworld. He writes about religion and identity in a society where blasphemy is a thing, and a thing that sometimes ends in ritual decapitation. His, as well, has not been a boring life.
And I can extend this list almost indefinitely. Jane Austen spent her entire life browbeating public idiots and ignoring the things women weren’t supposed to do. Dante was a soldier and politician who, in a stroke of luck, officially had his death sentence rescinded in 2008. Melville killed whales with his hands. Marlowe was assassinated by rival spies. Are you noticing a pattern? Wimps and bores are noticeably thin on the ground when it comes to great writers.
As writers we are, on a basic level, taking our (hopefully) well-developed observational abilities and using them on experiences. This takes courage, courage to seek out these frightening, painful and dangerous experiences. Courage to say our minds with the full knowledge others might hate us for our opinions. Courage to, metaphorically, strip naked and expose our shameful/dark/scary sides to public scrutiny.
You can’t do these things by reading brown magazines in your front room. You can’t do these things hidden anonymously in an online critique group. That’s why writers who get out of the house and face a real-life community do better – they aren’t cowards.
- Writers’ Groups (bengarrido.com)
This is fantastic, I whole-heartedly agree. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear fellow writers blabbing about “boo hoo I lost my inspiration.” My first reaction is to say “well get off your ass and go find some!”
Absolutely! Inspiration is a small, irritating rodent that we must daily devote ourselves to catching. It is not, contrary to the stereotype, something that falls from the ceiling onto artistic folks.
It would be nice to lead the life of an adventurous globe-trotter. However, the words of the great John Lennon come to mind, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” We may have an swashbuckling spirit, but a mortgage and a car payment will have a dampening effect.
I’m building a race car out of trash I found on the street. You can get a hunting rifle at Wal-Mart for $99. Gang members are not uncommon and many of them would like to talk with you. It doesn’t take much more than a willingness to say “hell, why not?” when something weird pops into your life, in my opinion.
Brilliant post thanks
Well said, Ben. You’re right, would-be writers tend to cling to the stereotype of the solitary artist, dependent on inspiration from some divine muse. Lame. The only exception that I can think of is Emily Dickinson, who spent the last two decades of her life holed up in her attic, writing poems and maintaining friendships through correspondence.
I thought of her, too, and I’m pretty sure she fits into the “exception to prove the rule” category for two reasons.
1. She was nuts.
2. Not that many people actually read poetry, which means the only ones who do are, almost by necessity, a little different from mainstream readers.
[…] is part one of a two part writing series. Please click here if you’d like to see the second […]