Inspiration. Where does it come from? I am often asked. Like many other authors, I don’t really have an answer. I am sure this is the case with most artists in whatever field they create. Sometimes, it is just a moment of clarity, when some understanding or insight gels.
Or it may just be something that I feel impelled to share, like a great story or an insistent intuition. At other times, inspiration parades as something someone else has said or written, an idea I agree with – or one I vehemently do not.
Usually for me, though, inspiration is an idea that has been brewing for a long time, and only comes to me in pieces, an image here or an overheard conversation there, usually at the oddest time or in the strangest place, like the Oxford canal, or a cabdriver hashing it out with his dispatcher, or my son composing late into the night, when everyone else has gone to bed. Sometimes the more I let words spill out onto the page, the more “inspiration” takes shape, the more the “pieces” fit; like a jigsaw puzzle, they fall into place.
The truth is that once I did dream an entire three-act dramatic structure. That project went on to become the TV film Under the Influence. I’ve also run the gamut of creative writing classes, and from these I learned that craft brings forth the muse. “Just sit down and write,” they said, and I sometimes now say it, too.
With longer pieces, often, over time, an outline will present itself (think Excel spreadsheet), and I then just connect the dots, so to speak. But often that outline is just a false lifeline, a knotted rope, leading me out of some dark cave, something that takes me somewhere else, unexpected, especially after an editor gets in and works her magic.
And when do you start to write? That’s another question. When the idea is pressing? When I can’t not write? It is my understanding that Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist best known for his 1988 novel The Alchemist, apparently knows it is time to write when a white feather floats down. He actually looks for it and won’t start writing until it seemingly drifts down out of nowhere. This idea has always intrigued me, soothed me and given me a mystical sense of the writing life.
I don’t have a white feather or any particular totem that inspires me as to when, how or what to write, but I do have, for some reason, an image that surfaces from time to time that seems to say “right place, right time, right person, right now.” It may or may not have anything to do with the act of writing, but that sign is a white egret. Over the years, this image has turned up as a flock of birds flying low over my car as I sped along a highway, unsure if the job I’d just left was the right thing to do.
The snowy egret has shown up on the back of a bread wrapper at a moment of indecision about a lover, made with a cup of coffee still warm in my hands. It has appeared by surprise wading on a riverbank dense with foliage, when I dithered over a decision to sell a property or not. It once came up in a conversation with a woman who described “my style” as like that of an egret: precise. She demonstrated, holding very still until perfectly ready, and then and only then, she thrust a sharp hand downward like a beak, piercing its imaginary prey. “No mistakes,” she said.
No mistakes? Hardly, I thought, collecting my bag and my coat, thinking of the framed Great Egret (Ardea alba) hanging over my mantelpiece. Even if I try to imagine another totem that might be mine, I stutter; my mind flips right back to that egret, to a favourite Japanese woodblock print, to a bird that has symbolised many things, but mostly longevity, divinity, prosperity, and perhaps the resurrection of a mortal prince. Yes, it has always symbolised, “This is the way, walk thou therein.”
So, inspiration? Who knows? But I wish you a May full of discovering your own totem, in whatever shape it may take, especially in this time of almost post-lockdown, when every ounce of inspiration and creativity must be surging, bursting, ready to be released.