Diary of a Poet

What’s Wrong with Inspiration?

Plenty, it seems. Ask any writer who’s been at the craft for awhile what inspires her and you might get this pithy answer: everything. Or nothing—“I don’t need inspiration,” says the truly advanced writer. “I can write a poem, or a story, or an essay, just by staring at the wall.”

I tell my students a version of this too. “Don’t wait around to be inspired,” I say, as if that were the most absurd and useless activity anyone could engage in. “Just start writing.” I force them to freewrite for fifteen minutes a day. I require them to collect words and sentences and make little word-pools. I give them prompts and exercises like these: write about a vegetable. Write about a bird. Copy a classic poem and change every third word to “steal.” Make a poem from food labels. Write a found poem using a pharmaceutical insert.

Is it the least bit ironic that the subtitle of one of my books is “Ideas and Inspirations for Poets”?

We start out with a wealth of stories just dying to be written. Eventually, however, we run out of this original source, or if we don’t, we might find ourselves writing the same story, over and over and over. I can think of a few writers who’ve repeatedly mined the same territory, whether it’s a dysfunctional childhood, experiences of trauma, addiction and recovery, etc. They start out brilliantly, but return to the topics they wrote about before without adding anything we haven’t already heard. 

The reason that there’s no news there anymore is at least partially due to a lack of depth. It’s perfectly fine to start with an experience from childhood, say, but the experience is just the beginning. To quote May Sarton, “It always comes back to the same necessity: go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.” That truth is the core of writing, and all art: we know it when we read, hear, or see it. 

As I wrote in the introduction to Vibrant Words, “waiting for inspiration is mostly just waiting. Poems can and should be actively sought, captured, and written down.” Inspiration is rare, precious, and best not relied on. It tends to occur when we least expect it. When it does, it’s as if the heavens opened up and it rained golden lollipops. Those lollipops can be deceiving, however, leading us to think we only have to wait for brilliance to occur.

An example from my own practice is the poem “After the Migraine,” which I sent to The Cumberland River Review. The editor responded a few weeks later: “We like your poem,” his email said, “but we think it needs a few more stanzas. It’s just getting started when it ends.” The first four stanzas of that poem wrote themselves, as they say, but now I had to write four more stanzas to stand a chance at getting the poem accepted. I worked hard, doubling the length of the poem, and after two weeks I had a new draft. I sent that one in and hurray! it was accepted. Needless to say, the last four stanzas were much more difficult to write than the first four, and I had to go deeper into the territory I’d begun exploring in the first draft. The effort was worth it, and I’m grateful to Graham Hillard, The Cumberland River Review’s editor, for giving me the chance to write that draft. 

The harder you look, the deeper you go, the more you will rely on your skills as a story-teller. It’s fine to write what you know, of course, but don’t limit what you know to just a few experiences or topics. You will find that the more you write, the more your own writing becomes your inspiration.

If that sounds a bit existential, well, it is. 

4 replies »

  1. I love this post–and I love your blog. So true–our own writing becomes our inspiration even though there are found poems and soup cans and just about anything else. So glad I found your site, which I will add to my blogroll/sites I follow.

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