Shortbreader Inspiration: Only Connect
The ineluctable process of life has to be the basic, primary resource and inspiration for any creative person. No matter how abstruse the work, it will emerge through the constantly-shifting prism of the author’s life and experiences as an organic being; the author who is living and growing and developing as a unique spirit among other organic beings, all doing exactly the same thing.
Is any thought or idea original, therefore? Of course. There may be many common experiences and many things that resonate because of our shared humanity but we also experience the world as individuals and respond to it accordingly. The way that we express ourselves is unique, because we are all unique beings. Isn’t it such a joy when you find something written that does resonate, and makes you feel less alone on the planet – and maybe a bit less weird? Conversely as a writer, it is marvellous when a reader responds to something you have written, and you get a sense of the power and strength, and the potential for good, of that shared humanity. “Only connect”, as E.M. Forster famously said.
Then there is the matter of the interaction between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We are deluded if think we can manage our minds; we can’t. And thank goodness for it, because otherwise no decent creative work would ever be made. The unconscious is a powerful force that will irrupt through the membrane of the organised, conscious mind, and there is nothing that we can do to prevent this. It recharges us, stimulates us, disturbs us – sometimes frightens us – and keeps us spiritually alive. This is the part of us that responds to bodily memory; a dream-world of shadow and chaos behind the world of language. The sharp pang in your heart produced by the expression glimpsed momentarily in some stranger’s eyes as they stand on a railway platform as your train gathers speed and disappears forever; the poignant yellow of a woman’s dress as she moves through a crowded square on a summer’s day, that reminds you of something that feels oddly significant but that will forever elude you; a glimpse of a certain type of stubble in the damp, rotting fields of late autumn that makes your flesh creep disproportionately, but you have no idea why. This is the site of phobias, repression, and pain; and also of pleasure and wonder. It responds to the sensory, non-verbal world, and makes us feel. What is that discomfort, that strange pain? Where has that come from? Why do I feel this way? What does it remind me of? Why now? And when you sit with that for a while, it might come to you why, and you might be able to write about it.
And even if you never find out why, you might end up writing about it anyway, despite your best intentions not to.
Two of my favourite writers are Colette, and George Orwell. Both were staggeringly productive, and both wrote very openly from primary experience. Among several other subjects, Colette drew upon her work on the stage to write vivid, fictionalised accounts of theatrical life, and also wrote a beautiful book about her mother, Sido. Her inspirations were people, relationships, love, cats, food, nature. Orwell wrote famously about politics and society, and drew on his own experiences living rough, for example, for essays, magazine articles and books such as Down and Out in Paris and London. His Diaries are a joy to read in themselves, and you can see how his work evolved from those daily notes.
I have been trying to narrow down my own sources of inspiration; there are many. Everything really, which is the point I was making at the start. Everything is an inspiration. Just being alive in a world of people, most of whom are very strange indeed, I’m pleased to say. We’re bombarded by conversations, language, relationships, and the general ghastliness and wonder of life. My work as a mental health counsellor some years ago, talking to people with a huge range of human anxieties and dilemmas provided me with a particularly fascinating insight into a certain dynamic. Another rich source nowadays is the internet; there is no longer such a need for a writer to listen at keyholes or eavesdrop in cafes; reading other people’s “time-lines” and online “convos” is a very similar activity, which you can do from the comfort of your own fireside.
There are different layers, aren’t there, to inspiration. There is the surface layer of the here and now, and then there are background layers of past experience that colour one’s perception of the present. And then there are the marvels of books, films and music.
I have always been a music fan, and my long-standing preference for Led Zeppelin definitely colours my writing. I went through a phase of listening to Gregorian chant and Hildegard of Bingen in an effort to improve my mind, but it didn’t last.
And like most people, my inner world contains a range of favourite childhood books, TV, films, and so forth. I was lucky to grow up among the beautiful scenery of highland Perthshire and part of me will forever be in a half-imaginary, half-real world of endless summers, dusty schoolrooms, laburnum bushes, lush wooded hills, lochs and rivers; inhaling the mysterious smell of greasepaint at free dress rehearsals at Pitlochry theatre, then “stalking” the best-looking actors with my friends and scaring them half to death in that feral, anarchic way that groups of twelve year old girls sometimes have. Sounds idyllic, but of course life is rarely just as it appears. Which is just as well, for writers.
Sometimes the bumpy parts are the most interesting and rewarding, in the end. But that is not always the case. Overcoming adversity – or not – now there’s another source of inspiration for many. Do you write about reality? Do you change it, to make things turn out the way you wish they had? Or do you bury the lot in a denial-fuelled fantasy world? Whatever the case, it’s all come from you.