Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What Do We Need for Inspiration?

I typically dislike metanarratives on writing. Stories about creating stories usually smack of self-indulgence or an author's unwillingness to research. However, when Patrick Rothfuss snuck just such a passage into The Wise Man's Fear, I found myself nodding in agreement with its primary point. In that section, the protagonist Kvothe has been tasked by a noble with writing a song to help him woo a comely lady:
[Alveron] shrugged. "I'll arrange something to bring the two of you together early on. Is there anything you require for the practice of your art?"

"A goodly amount of paper should suffice, your grace. Ink and pens."

"Nothing more than that? I've heard tell of poets who need certain extravagancies to aid them in their composition." He made an inarticulate gesture. "A specific type of drink or scenery? I've heard of a poet, quite famous in Renere, who has a trunk of rotting apples he keeps close at hand. Whenever his inspiration fails him, he opens it and breathes the fumes they emit."

I laughed. "I am a musician, your grace. Leave the poets to their superstitious bone rattling. All I need is my instrument, two good hands, and a knowledge of my subject."

The idea seemed to trouble Alveron. "Nothing to aid your inspiration?"

"I would have your leave to freely wander the estates and and Severen-Low according to my will, your grace."

"Of course."

I gave an easy shrug. "In that case, I have everything I need for inspiration."
Years ago, a roommate learned that I liked to write and advised me to take a toke every now and again "to help with your art." I laughed off the suggestion, and today I'm half convinced his pharmacological council was more a dig at my straight-laced nature than a serious suggestion. Still, plenty have taken that idea to heart, from alcoholic Beat Poets to laudanum-consuming Romantics convinced that their substances of choice would transport them to a compositional Xanadu. Others have attempt a more mystical approach, seeking out idyllic vistas and pastoral glades in hope that the muse will torch their minds with creative fire.

Kvothe would call hogwash on both approaches, and so do I. Creativity both comes from and addresses universal human experiences, the stuff that suffuses our everyday lives. Who needs the bizarre machinations? Keep your bottles and beaches. Give me a fresh pad, a new pen, a little quiet -- and let me write.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Matthieu Aubry.)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Honestly, I would fall under the category of someone who needs certain aids to write.

So would Kvothe, though. (For him, the inspiration just wasn't chemical so much as romantic.)

My best writing comes under the influence of two different things--sermons and caffeine. Sermons probably just fall under the category of "research," since my stories tend to have at their heart some question at least vaguely related to theology/ethics/political philosophy. But the situation itself is important; the emotional state of engaging my mind with a sermon after and before engaging my heart with song, the aesthetic beauty of a good preacher's voice and speech-rythms, the memory of a lifetime of being convicted, angered, frustrated, uplifted, &c. by sermons. All these things seem to stir the cauldron of story, if you will, so that I end up often inspired to write where I otherwise wasn't.

The effects of caffeine are simpler, but no less important. Caffeine makes me a bit more energetic, a bit "overclocked," and (most importantly) a bit less inhibited. This is important, as one of the prime difficulties of writing for me is my compulsive desire to edit and self-critique rather than just *creating.* If I'm less inhibited, I am able to save this editing for the later stages. The result is some horrible moments in rough drafts, but also actual stories rather than single perfect sentences or paragraphs.

I also tried alcohol, and determined that all it does is dull my mind. That's probably a good thing, all considered.

After all, we all know the results of Neil Gaiman's "Being an Experiment Upon Strictly Scientific Lines."

Loren Eaton said...

Well, I don't know if I'd consider theological, philosophical or scientific works to be "aids." They're just grist for the mill, the good stuff of life, topics worthy of being incarnated into stories.

The caffeine, well, at least it's not meth.

But as far as Kvothe goes, we can probably both agree that his romantic fixation is bad for his art. And his health. And his life in general. Poor guy.

Scattercat said...

I do find that if I spend too long without some kind of new input, whether it be travel or reading outside of my usual habits or whatnot, then I have a harder time writing in general. Inspiration needs input, needs grist for the mill and bones to make bread. Some people find that in chemical alterations of the brain, and frankly, given that *everything* is functionally just chemical alterations in the brain, I can't really gainsay them. I refrain more because I don't enjoy the effects and because I have concerns about health impact than because of some specific issue with outside stimulation. It doesn't matter to me whether you boosted your dopamine by riding a wild stallion or snorting two grams of coke so long as you can harness it and turn it into art.

I do find I tend to prefer the less chemically dependent authors in broad terms, however, if only because they tend to be a bit more coherent. :-P

Loren Eaton said...

Absolutely, at least as far as the whole "inspiration needs input" axiom goes. We gain inspiration by exposure, not by sequestering ourselves in some tower and waiting for it to fall from heaven.

I'm not particularly sympathetic, though, to those who use chemical substances to achieve altered creative states, mainly because the brain/mind dichotomy seems strong to me. I'm not convinced the mind is solely the result of matter in motion. The Dalai Lama's research on neuroplasticity -- very roughly the idea on how the non-corporeal mind changes the physical brain -- gels with my experience of a family member who had a brain injury.

But, yeah, no matter what one thinks on that topic, straight-edge writers tend to be more coherent and flame out less than pill poppers or hop heads. Just look at what happened to poor Robert Sheckley!