Inspiration, breath and patience

Writing poems is like waiting for lightning to strike. But it’s hard to order your life around that.
– Stephen Dobyns
from As the Poet Said …

I was thinking about the business of inspiration. What a strange variation of it we seem to have as poets, and all the ways we complicate it.

When I was a kid, I used to get what my family called my “writing fits”, when the need to write, to physically take a pen or pencil or crayon or stick or whatever and write something, would come over me and make it impossible for me to concentrate on anything else until I’d written it out of my system. It genuinely felt as physical and irresistible an urge as the need to take the next breath. It hurt not to, and fortunately I learned quite early on the virtue of always having something with me that I could write with. “On” was less of an issue – covering my arms with scribble was not uncommon, if I couldn’t find paper. On one occasion I even raided the canteen rubbish bin for the paper bags our school lunches came in – you can get quite a lot on one of those, especially if you incorporate the lunch items into whatever it is you happen to be writing. (Which is presumably why my earliest stories had characters with names like “Vegemite, the Strong Man” and his trusty sidekick “Tomato sauce”.)

Poetry builds up in your mind like a charge. … At the right moment, the poem doesn’t have words. It’s a pressure.
– Les Murray.
from As the Poet Said …

Growing up did suppress things, as it inevitably does, but I still remember how inevitable writing felt when I first started writing poetry seriously. The idea of writer’s block was as abstractly terrifying as the notion of cancer – you knew it could happen, and that it could, in theory, happen to you some day. But “some day” and “in theory” meant it wasn’t something worth worrying about in the here-and-joyously-proliffic-now.

Irish poet Sinead Morrissey wrote in Magma 28 about suddenly finding herself unable to write. How she had, in essence, had to re-invent her writing-self, and learn how to write as though for the first time. And how her process had needed to change, from essentially acting as a vessel for inspiration, to accepting that she now needed to put in quite a lot of work before anything could be expected to take off. Like going from being a hunter-gather to being a farmer.

I believe in inspiration but observe, sadly, that it often presents between the third and the fourth draft …
– David Howard

Usually winter is my best season for writing. There isn’t too much going on  in the garden, and I get to curl up in front of the fire surrounded by books and pens and blankets, and just wallow in the pleasures of writing. Housework can be postponed, because the lower light manages to do a lovely job of disguising all the spiderwebs and coverings of dust and fluff and so on, and our dinners tend to be one-pot, hearty meals with hardy any washing up after. But this year didn’t go so well – in part because of being in weekly expectation of the EQC guys turning up (possibly with a bulldozer, given how many things on our claim they’ve still got wrong), and also because the effort required to write the three big funding proposals left me feeling rather grumpy and drained. Even my week with the flu didn’t help – attempts to write tended to trail off into squiggles, and one time I nearly poked my own eye out when I nodded off over a pen.

But here we are, in glorious spring, and I’ve gone around telling people that I hope to have a second collection assembled by the end of next year, despite only having completed five or six poems this year. (It seemed like heaps of time when I was writing the funding application.) So now I have only to battle the distracting powers of my personal demons, EQC, the garden, the chooks, cooking, teaching, books, Angry Birds and did I mention the garden? So many poems to write, and so little won’t-power …

Who am I trying to kid? Poems will come, or not, and as Gillian Clarke repeatedly told me, “even when you can’t write, you can work”. Loads to do. Breathing in, breathing out, being incredibly grateful that this is my life and that sometimes the spark catches easily. When it doesn’t, wheel out the bellows and fill your lungs!

A final quote that gives me a great deal of both comfort and amusement.

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
– Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Just between the two of us – do you believe in being visited by the muse? Or that inspiration is the product of practice and effort? Neither? Both? Or something in between?

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6 thoughts on “Inspiration, breath and patience

  1. I do not hold to any kind of romantic notion regarding inspiration. Inspiration is a good idea, nothing more, and if you don’t have any good ideas then any old idea will do. I have a book of short stories coming out next year and one of the things I talk about in the introduction is the moment I got the idea for the book. I had been sitting on the top deck of a bus opposite an opticians that I had passed dozens upon dozens of times an yet that particular day I looked at it and got the idea to write a collection of short stories about the senses. Why then? Why not the day before or the week after? There will be an answer but it’ll always be out of ours and science’s reach.

    I’ve just watched an interesting video of John Cleese talking about creativity and if you can free up a half hour I’d recommend you have a week look at it. Also contains a few light bulb jokes I had not heard before.

  2. If I share the chemical formula that produces my own current creative urges with you, would you be willing to share your present ability to do other, more mundane things than writing?

    (Note 1. I’m sure that the formula would enable you to write in *your way*, not mine.
    Note 2. If I knew what the formula *was*, this might be a fair swap.)

    • Not sure what you mean, Claire. Not least because I am the Queen of Procrastination, and don’t currently seem to be able to do many of the mundane things that I’m meant to do … housework, weeding, updating the blogs … there’s no beginning to the list of mundane things I’m failing to do!

      • Sorry, that was a rather stupid thing I said. From what you say and in my experience, though, having the time to do something (and perhaps A Room of One’s Own) is not the Great Enabler that we all dreamed it might be. We set ourselves a task, only to do anything we can to avoid it. I wonder how the cavemen and women dealt with this?

        • Not stupid at all – and you’re absolutely right. I’m incredibly lucky to have time and space to write. As much as I want. But it’s a bit like when I was a student – no matter how good my intentions, virtually all my essays were written at the last minute. I suspect there is a certain pressure threshold that I have to reach to overcome my natural laziness. I’m part of a writing group that meets every other Thursday, and it’s noticable how many of my poems (and I mean the good ones, not just the ‘yeah, it’s a poem’ ones) are written on Wednesday afternoons.

          Having said that, it doesn’t take much to tip that balance completely out. This year I have written only a handful of poems, largely because I’ve spent a really big chunk of my time working on other people’s poems – editing, teaching, mentoring, reviewing – and doing readings. They all pay money, which is great. And they keep me involved in poetry at a pretty deep level, which I think is also beneficial. But … to be a writer, you have to actually write. And this year I’ve let the balance swing too far away from my own creativity. Next year has to be different, and I’m in the process of fixing that in place (she said, mysteriously). But that’s another post.

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