You can't make this stuff up ...
Today we tend to admire the creative powers of the artist rather than to consider the source of what he or she creates. Yet where the creative impulse springs from, the source of inspiration, remains mysterious. To attribute it to such modern generalities as “the unconscious” is only to apply a new term for the muse. My suggestion is that we consider it to come from the same source as messages in Quaker meetings, and to think of it as "creating from the silence." For me, as a part-time writer and poet, this not only serves to improve my understanding of the process but to nurture and cultivate it as well.
Interestingly, the dictionary has a lot more to say about “inspiration” than it does about “creation.” The latter is simply the making, the craft of the art; the former speaks to its source. To inspire is "to have an animating effect upon; to cause, guide, communicate or motivate as by divine or supernatural influence.” [Webster's New World.] Specifically in theology, it means “a divine influence upon human beings, as that resulting in the writing of the Scriptures.” If we believe in continuing revelation, then this process must have been at work in other writings as well -- pehaps even most of them.
People who may have no interest in spiritual works may find a comparable resource in all forms of artistic expression, just as most of us find satisfaction in admiring a beautiful sunset or an astounding mountain range. Before composing his famous Choral Symphony using Schiller's “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven penned an earlier work, the Choral Fantasy, in which the “divine spark of the gods” was substituted by “the gifts of high art.” Clearly for Beethoven inspiration came from the realm of the divine, and art was a bridge leading us back to the source.
There is one other connotation of inspiration: “to arouse or produce a thought or feeling; to affect with a specified feeling or thought.” What's of interest here is that, having been so affected, the artist proceeds to arrange words or paint or musical notes in such a way as to affect others the same way. There is certainly an analogy to be drawn with the giving of a message in meeting. I would suggest the message is more fully received in the act of sharing it with others, just as music is better when performed than if it were only heard in the mind of the composer. A similar creative impulse is at work in both cases, and they both improve with communication.
In using poetry as an illustration of this idea, I like to use a piece by Billy Collins, our former Poet Laureate, titled “Introduction to Poetry,” from his collection The Apple That Astonished Paris. (Go ahead and read it, then please come back.)
Besides being wonderfully funny, this poem manages to give several examples of how poetry works its magic – by drawing comparisons between things that do not normally seem to resemble each other – while contrasting it with the kind of plodding, rational analysis that not only misses the point, but extinguishes the life of the poem.
[There is certainly “art” made in this way, and one of the kinder things said about it is that it is “uninspired.” We only have to consider the torrent of popular novels and soap operas and situation comedies, not to mention the forgettable Broadway musicals, that occupy our time without nourishing our spirits.]
What do a mouse and a light switch have to do with poetry? How is reading a poem like water skiing? These are not the first ideas that would occur to most of us, yet even on a first reading his wonderful analogies stimulate us into a deeper understanding of what poetry is, why we like it, and how to listen to it better. But where did Collins come up with these ideas? How did he decide that this was the best way to say what he wanted to say about poetry? Certainly it was not an entirely rational process done with compass and protractor on a sheet of graph paper. Rather, the images and substance of the poem must have emerged from a place of quiet contemplation, and they may have leapt instantly into being, regardless of how long he later refined them into their final form.
Someone said (I have not been able to locate the source) “When I know what I want to say, I write an essay; when I don't know what I want to say, I write a poem.” In other words, the poetic process is a search for meaning, not a report on one. This process cannot be rushed, and resists direction. Robert Frost said, “Asking a poet to write a poem on a certain subject is like asking a woman, eight months pregnant, to give birth to a red-headed girl.”
Another saying goes, “The problem with being a poet is figuring out what to do with the other 23 hours in the day.” Those hours may be filled with many things, including a search for the quiet place where creation can happen. This may not be the usual hour of sitting in silence in a Friends meeting, just as not all artists are Quakers. Rather, it may be only a momentary sinking into reflection, even in the midst of activity.
Here's another example from my own work:
Star Gazer Looking at the night sky through glasses I begin to be bothered by the rim around my vision so take them off -- there, so much better, my eyes not so bad after all, a bit fuzzy maybe but still there’s a rim around my vision: the sockets of my eyes, the ridge of brow, both sides of my nose displaced to left and right in binocular transparent apparition, so take off my face and it’s better yet, but still that dark behind where I can’t see so remove the back of my skull, and while I’m at it, the eyes. There. Perfect.
I don't know how many times before I had noticed that I could see parts of my own face -- like the sides of my nose and the sockets of my eyes -- as if I were peering out from the mouth of a cave. Probably the first time was when I was a child, dozens of years before the poem happened. But somehow, in the midst of this particular evening, it suddenly meant something, it “spoke” to me. The ideas that the face could be removed, and that vision is somehow enhanced by the lack of eyes, simply occurred to me, and seemed to express a desire to witness and encompass the whole universe with nothing in the way. And, too, that looking out and looking in are much the same. I didn't go to the beach with anything to say. I didn't go there looking for a poem, but I came back with one.
For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings saw dew drops on morning leaves. Countless times, people must have noticed that things looked “funny” under the drops, before someone in the Netherlands realized that things were being magnified, and discovered the microscope.
It must be that all of us are receiving messages and inspirations on a regular basis, though we may be too busy most of the time to notice, or to do anything about it. All we can do is nurture the process, by quieting down and paying attention. Then maybe we can learn to do what feels like taking dictation, and to speak and share those “gifts of high art” as they emerge from the silence.