“[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
— Stephen King
Let’s recap last essay with my esteemed colleague, David Kleinsteuber:
If we describe the phenomenon of writer’s block as “something that blocks an artist off from creating art”, then where could we locate the source of the blockage? And, perhaps more urgently, what can the artist do about it?
In this brand new Writer’s Block series, we join our editor Casper as he tackles a different facet of the phenomenon of writer’s block each article, while in the meantime he makes the argument that writer’s block does not in fact exist. Casper stresses that this statement is not an imposition, but rather a provocation for artists to pose questions about their creative process.
The first question being: why do you write?
Long ago, halfway through my first year at IDEE (International Degree in English and Education), at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, I’m sitting in class and we’re talking about academic essays. The lecturer tells us to stop waiting for inspiration. “You show up,” he says, “and do the work.” These words still echo in my mind, especially now that I’m walking the life-path of the writer.
I show up and do the work.
Even when the genius, the omnipresent spirit of stories, neglects to pay me a visit.
The genius has taken many forms and meanings throughout history. In Roman days the genius was worshipped as a protective supernatural entity. If we regard the Empire as a behemoth with Rome as its heart, then you could say the genius was its spirit.
However, with time the beast’s heart gave out and the spirit departed. One era’s dying breath was the change-wind blowing new life into the next, altering meanings of words and the way the world was perceived.
This brings us to the Renaissance. As Rev. Rushdoony explains: “The Genius, the man with divine powers of insight and guidance, came to be the artist. […] With the Renaissance, the artist was not only regarded as a man of genius, but also called by extravagant names, ‘the divine Aretino’, ‘the divine Michelangelo’, and so on.”
The difference between the Roman genius and its Renaissance counterpart is this: in Roman times the genius, as external supernatural entity, bestowed inspiration upon the artist, much like a muse. In Renaissance times inspiration came from within the artist, if only because they saw themselves as the genius. Along with this notion came a sense of confidence in their own abilities, which, arguably, is one of the most powerful mindsets an artist could have. From macrocosm to microcosm, basically.
But no matter what those long-dead folks thought, what’s important is what you think now. Ask yourself, how does your genius function? Are you, like the Romans, waiting for inspiration to flow from the cosmos, through you, and onto the page? Or do you, like the Renaissance masters, believe that it’s already in you? Perhaps a combination of both? Take a moment to consider this.
In the meantime, I’ll sing you a little song.
Believe me, there is dormant magic inside you. Even if it’s but a single coal, smoldering in the furnace, waiting to start a fire. Or maybe there’s already a luminous thread running through you. You just have to find it, then feel it with your fingertips, and follow it through your soul. Let it make ripples across the pool of your mind.
Watch your dreams. See what the stars foretell as you look up during a night-time stroll. Decide what motivates you every morning to get in the saddle, and ride with a fist held to the sky and a name on your lips. The power is yours.
But wait, don’t rush in. I know you have questions, but you won’t find answers if you let yourself be distracted. First, put away your phone. Switch off the television, the radio. Put aside the newspaper or your book. Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Breathe.
Don’t worry about anything. This is a moment of recollecting, reconnecting, recovering. There’s time for this. I promise.
Don’t over-think. Those thoughts coming in? They’re just passing by like people in the streets. Ignore them, or simply observe them. You wouldn’t talk to every random person outside, either, would you?
Now, make the place your own, as you see fit. What music do you like? Pick any record, anything you’re into. Tap into the sound-waves, let them lock you onto the frequency of creativity. Savor the feeling—doesn’t it feel good?
Right now Reality is a loyal dog that’s been told to stay put. It’s okay to fantasize awhile. Close your eyes and drift into a dream. That’s where untold stories await you.
I believe that each of us has a voice. Just gotta let it ring, you know?
Of course inspiration helps a great deal with that; it amplifies your urge to create. Therefore it’s good to know what inspires you as an artist. In fact, things I wrote that I consider good were all created in a wave of inspiration. For example, a story I wrote for a contest hosted by Writer’s Block Magazine, the year before I joined as editor. It’s called The Elf in the Machine.
Initially, I had a different opening that I cut because it felt like a false start. I was writing this story specifically for that contest and told myself that if I was going to submit something, it had better be a potential winner. I was pushing myself to write to my best ability yet felt like I hadn’t even given half to the original opening. I knew I had to stop and let the story cook in my brainpan a while longer.
Meanwhile, as The Elf sizzled on the metaphorical stove, I happened to read a Miracleman comic. It was a story about ordinary people like us, trying to adjust to a world divinely ruled by Miracleman. The reading experience I can only describe as a transcendental trip, transporting me to a place where world peace is reality. In that moment, all sense of self dissolved. My entire existence consisted of only Neil Gaiman’s poetry and Mark Buckingham’s artwork. By the time I’d finished reading, my creative energy was rejuvenated, and I may have wept as I slowly pieced myself back together. That night I slept soundly, and when I woke I dashed at my computer and started writing. My literary dish was ready to be served.
The story I wrote isn’t remotely similar to Miracleman, but the comic overwhelmed me with love for art, which I then wanted to put into my own work. It’s when I learned what inspiration is to me: falling in love with art and wanting to do my part to uphold it. Not out of a sense of obligation, but simply because I enjoy it.
Yes, inspiration is a gift. But what if you feel like you’re—dare I say it?—blocked off from inspiration?
Can you live without caffeine?
Of course you can, you druggo. Are you seriously telling me your existence hinges on caffeine? It’s merely a drug that kick-starts your sleepy brain, even though your brain can take care that of by itself.
Inspiration both is and isn’t like caffeine.
It is in the sense that no, you don’t need to be high on inspiration to make art—you can take care of that by yourself. Inspiration makes the process faster but it’s no guarantee that your work turns out better than when you create sober. To make good art, inspired or not, you need to practice your skills and look for learning opportunities. Really, it’s okay to not be inspired in the moment—just cook yourself a simple meal instead of a full-course dinner. It doesn’t always have to be extravagant or perfect, and you don’t have to wait for inspiration to come to you, either. You have a skill-set. Use it. And if you think you don’t have one, take a moment to list the things you can do—showing; telling; dialogue; grammar; everything else—and you’ll likely find that you know more than you think. Even if you truly lack a skill-set there’s nothing stopping you from acquiring one. Just start. Practice. Ultimately, quality comes from precision, not passion.
Inspiration is also not like caffeine at all. Despite everything I just said, I do believe that we have an inherent connection to inspiration, whereas we’re not inherently connected to…well…caffeine. I think creativity always starts with an emotion. See, to make art a special kind of motivation is required: a reason to speak your truth and devote yourself to the work. The reason is that emotion: love sparking a poem; rage fueling a rant; excitement manifesting a novel. Emotions are inescapable and, above all, inspiring.
Additionally, here are two practical rules of thumb to bear in mind.
First, good ideas tend to stick. I’ve forgotten countless ideas for stories over the years and that’s okay. There’s no need to develop every single idea that comes to you. Sometimes ideas just aren’t worth it. Sometimes ideas end up merging together. Sometimes old ideas resurface, when you’re able to look at them from another angle. Sometimes ideas need to be adapted before they can be made into an artwork. Think of it like this: your creative mind has a filter, preserving only good ideas. This filtering may take a while. Let it run its course and trust yourself. Remember that patience is a virtue.
Second, don’t fixate on the outcome. Focus on the process and on technique; it’s way more essential. If you have a strong will to push out your story with everything you’ve got, ask yourself why it needs to happen now. Also consider why it needs to be forced out. The Elf had a rough start because it was forced: I built resistance toward achieving the desired result and misfired.
Imagine you need to get from point A (home) to B (workplace), and there are various travel options to choose from, you just have to sort out an itinerary. The creative process is a journey, too. Point A isn’t your house, nor is point B your workplace, but it’s a journey all the same—from empty page to manuscript. Yet, rather than taking your time to work with precision, you decide to will an artwork into the world. It’s like grabbing your smartphone and punching in a cheat-code, expecting a fucking tank to fall from the sky for you to ride in. Why bother looking up an itinerary if you can bust through anything in your path? Yeah, no. Writing ain’t no video game. It’s a craft.
To hammer all this home I invoke Stephen King:
There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life (King 144-145).
Look, don’t be afraid about never being inspired. Just start by picking up something you love—films, books, music, even video games—and enjoy. Or meet someone you like and spend time together. No matter what or who it is that gets you going, all you gotta do is find them and pay attention to what you’re feeling.
I found my answer to the question.
What inspires me?
Artists and artworks. Alan Moore, fearlessly taking risks. Stephen King, pushing boundaries with nightmarish imagery. Grant Morrison, owning his purple prose, not giving a fuck. Charles Bukowski, relentlessly confronting me with the truth. Christian Ward’s gorgeous art gracing comic book pages. Thrice, reinventing themselves with each new album. Lacey Sturm, singing from her soul. Kimbra, mesmerizing me with otherworldly melodies. R.E.M., staying true to their path, never faltering.
Luc, my literary soul-mate and partner-in-crime; Elise, whose unique fictional non-fiction inspires sections of this very essay; our fellow Writer’s Blockers: David, Roos, Rachel, Paulina, Cat, Sona; all of us working together to provide a platform for beginning and experienced writers alike.
Tom, composing eloquent essays resonating with musicality.
Dorus, bravely determined to push literature into a new direction.
Rajesh, master of slam poetry, who taught me that language is the greatest gift.
Ana, whose paintings are rich with psychedelic watercolors.
Morgan, conquering hearts with her vibrant voice.
Niels, writing pages of computer code that appear hieroglyphic to me.
Frank, molding digital systems like a technomancer.
The bros, Joel & Remi, and our family; we have one another’s back, no matter what.
My band-mates: Hessel, Thomas, Mathijs; each rocking so hard they cause soundquakes that topple buildings.
Thierry, who shone on stage during his time with the band, a true showman.
Trevorius Maximus, audifying any space as he grooves along on guitar and bass.
Sharon & Maureen, taking us on photographic journeys through the domain of live music.
Mom and dad, their eternal support inspiring me to be honest, kind and driven.
My sister, Seline, a rising star in the realm of social entrepreneurship; I foresee a bright future for her.
And it’s not only these amazing people (there are many more!), but in fact the world. I can stroll into a park, breathe in prana to nourish my creative spirit. There’s beauty in the fractal nature of trees, their self-repeating patterns, their branches, their leaves. When I look up, the clouds take on shapes of faces, and enormous eyes returning my gaze, and visions of fantastical realms harboring untold stories.
I could walk through Amsterdam, arrive at an intersection, watching cars driving by, strangers crossing the road. I wonder where they come from, who they are, and my imagination fills in the blanks. Could they be lovers meeting in the street? Could that man be on the run? Could that woman be on her way to meet her destiny? How will the story unfold?
And conversations in bars that could be written out and analyzed.
Or wars raging round the globe, sickening but a source for art.
Or lively parties in houses; concerts in venues; raves lasting into the night, music energizing the dancing.
Even lucid dreams and deep meditations: every inward voyage a new discovery.
And love, with all my heart, love!
There’s always something happening somewhere. Good and bad things, mundane and poetic things—inspiring things. It’s swirling around us, everywhere on Earth and across the galaxy. You can write about anything.
There’s always an artist out there who emboldens you to create. There’s always someone who takes your work seriously, encouraging you to go on, if only you’ll let them see it.
To inspire someone else is magical: a sign that you’re developing your own voice, that you’re on the right track and progressing.
To be inspired by someone mustn’t be taken for granted, but cherished and praised.
Everything inspires me: the spirit in me and in all the world, the cosmic muse, the genius.
Even when inspiration doesn’t grant me spell-power, I still come to the page with a mission on my mind and a tale to spin. I show up and do the work, knowing that I’m writing the stories that I would want to read, that I’m the only one who could put these on the page.
Please don’t let a lack of inspiration block you off from creating art. Don’t think of inspiration as the all-powerful wand required to weave magic. Just write, and keep writing. A lack of inspiration isn’t what’s stopping you because we’re never truly without it. Instead, closed eyes are preventing you from finding what you seek, let alone seeing where you left your pen. Truly, I beseech you, open your eyes and look!
When you do, you’ll learn to perceive. Once you perceive, you can answer my question.
What inspires you?
Besides inspiration, I’ve heard numerous people say they’re not talented enough to be creative, and this worries me. That’s why we’ll talk about talent as well as practice and discipline next month. Till then, I hope you’ll take time to discover what inspires you. Besides, you could compare your findings to my other question—why do you write?—and see what’s there to see.
For more information
See Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk about the genius, inspiration and creative writing.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2010. Print.
Rushdoony, Rev. R.J.. “The Idea of Genius” Chalcedon, https://chalcedon.edu/resources/articles/the-idea-of-genius. Accessed 15 October 2017.
 We still see a version of the genius in today’s society. Think about fans comparing their favorite artist to God. For example, fans of DC Comics movies likening director Zack Snyder to Jesus Christ.