On Inspiration

On December 15, 2010, in Musings, On Writing, by lisa

Girl writing a letter

Young Girl Writing a Love Letter, by Pierre Rotari

This quotation from artist Chuck Close is my all-time favorite quotation about creative inspiration.  It pretty much says it all:

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

Chuck Close was a painter, but his words nevertheless apply to writers and, I suspect, to just about any person doing creative work.

People ask me if I only write when I feel inspired.  I would like to have Chuck Close’s quote memorized so I could recite it back as an answer, but perhaps I’ll get by with a partial:  “Inspiration is for amateurs.”  If I make myself work, then inspiration comes.

Usually.

Mistress and Maid

Mistress and Maid, by Vermeer

The only exception is if I’ve already been working for several hours or several days.  Some writers can write every day.  I can’t.  After a certain amount of creative thought, my brain is squeezed dry and I have to take a break of at least a few days, before I can produce anything more.  If I try to push myself to write anyway, I end up repeating myself or creating meandering, pointless scenes that will have to be deleted anyway.

I also often get asked where I get my ideas.  The answer is:  from is anything and everything I’ve learned about the world at large.  Everything I’ve seen in person or on TV or in a movie; everything I’ve read in a novel, in a text book, in a magazine, and online; every person I’ve met or seen at a distance or heard stories about; everyplace I’ve been or wanted to go:  I draw my inspiration from all of it.

If you’re a writer, you already have a process for creating a story and can probably stop reading right here.  If you’re not a writer, though, or if  you’re curious about my process, then read on.

For me, it starts with one single element.  The original seed of Wake Unto Me was a detail from a story I read in my 11th grade French class.  To that seed (which I won’t explain to you, because it would spoil part of the mystery of Wake Unto Me) I added a painting I saw in 1996, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, of Lucretia Panciatichi.

Lucrezia Panciatichi, by Bronzino

Lucrezia Panciatichi, by Bronzino

It doesn’t quite come across in this small version, but in real life this painting is kind of freaky.  She’s a scary-looking woman…. which I later found out is more because of Agnolo Bronzino’s style of painting (all his women look like this) than it is about Lucretia.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is, this painting stuck in my mind and inspired me to think up the fictional character, Bianca de’ Medici, burned at the stake as a witch in the 16th Century.

I knew I wanted this to be a Young Adult book, which meant the main character had to be a teenager, which meant that if the book was a contemporary, it had to either be set at a school or had to take place while school was out of session.  As I wanted to build a fictional world that could be the setting for more than one book, I decided on a boarding school (this in undoubtedly the reason so many YA books are set at boarding schools:  it’s the natural answer to a story problem.  It’s also why a lot of books lately are set in the future:  you have a lot more freedom to put your teens in interesting situations).  I wanted it to be in Europe for story reasons, and went looking for a castle in a country where the winters weren’t too severe.

(Why the caveat about winters?  Because I didn’t want my students stuck indoors for six months out of the year!)

I found the Chateau de Beynac, in southwest France.  It’s along the Dordogne River, which was once the border between English Aquitaine and France.  Lots of castles there, lots of history, and the winters aren’t too bad.

Chateau de Beynac

Chateau de Beynac, photo by Luc Viatour

Once I knew where the story was going to be set, I took a trip there to see it in person.  During my travels through the region — the Perigord Noir — I learned about Knights Templar, limestone caves, fois gras, a type of bird called a swift, the flora of the region, ancient pilgrimage routes, and even more ancient cave paintings. I learned about local legends, and history, too.  A fair share of this ended up in the book.  A trip north to the chateaux of the Loire Valley taught me about queen Catherine de’ Medici, and gave me 101 ideas for the interior of my boarding school, as well as seeds of ideas for future books.

All this information is like pieces to a puzzle.  I sit down and begin to piece it together into a cohesive plot.  I have a general idea what the completed picture will look like, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there.  That’s where getting to work comes in:  as I write the story, I discover what I still don’t know, and what I need to figure out.  I always discover that I’m still missing several pieces of the puzzle, and that’s when I go to books and the internet, and try to fill in the blanks.

The thing is, I can’t figure it all out beforehand.  It’s like trying to predict the weather three months in advance:  yes, we can get a general picture of what it will be like (colder than now, hotter than now, wetter or drier than now), but it is too complex a system, with too many variables, to be able to say exactly what’s going to happen until we get there.

On the other hand, I almost never make dramatic changes to the plot of a story once I have it figured out.  Developing the structure of a story is an exercise in complex problem solving, and when I finally get to an answer, that answer is supported by weeks thought.  Naturally, while I’m writing the book I forget what my original reasoning for doing X or Y was, and start to try to change it, and then have to reinvent the wheel and I find myself back where I started.  What a waste of time.  I should trust myself.

I’ve heard that other writers go ‘by the seat of their pants’ and don’t know where they’re headed when they create characters and set them loose on the page.  I’ve also heard writers talk about a book seeming to write itself, and flowing out of them.  Or their characters say and do things they didn’t expect.  I confess to envying those writers.  For me, writing is a far more conscious exercise, and I very rarely enjoy the process of writing fresh material.  It’s hard mental work.

But I love having written.

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