Inspiration Knocks

“Creativity is a scavenger hunt. It’s your obligation to pay attention to clues, to the thing that gives you that little tweak. The muses or fairies – they’re trying to get your attention.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

When I read Liz Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, I was going through a similar life transition and deeply resonated with the book, as did millions of others. Since then, I have been intrigued to see her interest in creativity become a passion, and I have learned a lot from her. (See her amazing TED talk.)

The quote above, from the October Oprah magazine article about Gilbert and her new novel, The Signature of All Things, is a great reminder to be aware as writers.

Prompts from the universe, your muse, fairies – whatever you want to call them – are real. But hearing them requires slowing down and listening, being receptive to the creative gifts that come to us. Several times I’ve had powerful experiences like this.

More than 20 years ago I wrote a scene in a creative writing class. I really liked it, but didn’t have a clue where to take it. So I put it away and only very occasionally looked at it. I just didn’t know how it would fit into a larger story.

Then, about three years ago, I was in a dream state in the early morning, barely awake, and the story came to me. I watched the entire novel unfold in my mind’s eye. The scene I had written was clearly a prologue, and I knew the entire narrative from that beginning. I woke up and went to my desk and wrote a brief synopsis and a chapter outline. I’ve been working on the novel ever since.

More recently, I needed to work out a problem with a new nonfiction book idea. Once again, the solution – vivid and detailed – came to me in an early morning dream state.
These moments of revelation, bursts of creative genius, happen all the time, perhaps in small ways we might not necessarily recognize as divinely inspired. But I know they are.

From the perfect word suddenly popping into one’s head, to the discovery of a title for that article or book that had remained elusive.

The muse exists. It works. But you have to let it in, be receptive, invite it to inhabit your creative space. Meditation works, so does journaling. I do both. Listening to music, walking on the beach or through the woods also is effective. Any immersion in Nature will invite your muse to visit. Thoreau went to Walden Pond. Wordsworth walked the English Lake District and gazed upon fields of daffodils.

Muses don’t like to be rushed and they don’t come on command. But with a little openness and invitation, they will come.

Marilynne Robinson at AROHO: Access your Deep Mind

Marilynne Robinson is the author of three exquisite novels: Homecoming, Gilead and Home, all of which have won major literary prizes. Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and Home was the recipient of the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom. She has also written several nonfiction books, and taught in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop for more than 20 years.

Robinson was a featured guest at A Room of Her Own Foundation’s biannual women writers’ retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico earlier this month, and I felt privileged to have the chance several times to chat with her over lunch or dinner. She gave a lively and very funny reading from Gilead one evening, but it was her lecture at a midweek gathering that really resonated.

Here’s what she said: Put more of yourself into your writing; make sure your words are beautiful; know the difference between solitude (your writing) and public persona (promotion); follow your mind wherever it wants to take you; and in every instance, go deeper. 

That last is most important: Access your deep mind, she said. It’s the only thing you have to do to be original. The difference between the extraordinary and the ordinary in any experience is the filter through which you see it. 

And, she warned, do not do what is being done now. Honor your own mind and stories. When you write you are doing something profoundly human, she said, and everything depends on how you use your amazing mind.

One of the essays I recently read for my master’s program in creative writing (at Antioch University in Los Angeles) is Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca’s essay “Theory and Play of the Duende,” (Poetry in Translation, translated by A.S. Kline, 2007).

So often writers speak of the Muse, the soft and gentle visitation that inspires one to write lofty and moving prose. The duende, as I understand García Lorca’s explanation, is darker, deeper, more malevolent, baser and more powerful. It is an avenue into our darkest psyches, which allows the release of art that is at once transcendent, sorrowful, grief-stricken and resplendent. I have felt brief glimpses of this in my own writing, and I agree with García Lorca that it engages on a level that is almost animalistic in nature, which is perhaps why when it descends upon an artist, be it writer, dancer, painter or singer, it is instantly recognizable as genius flowing from a place distant and dark.

I think that is the deep place Robinson is talking about. That place from which something emerges that you don’t recognize; you wonder, did that really come out of me? Yes. And there’s more where it came from. You have only to listen and let it emerge.