There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique… it is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. Martha Graham
Usually when I talk about writing and the writing life, I talk about the hard work: how many years it takes, how much practice and determination is required—probably because it took me quite awhile to not be discouraged by how hard it was.
But not all of it has to be hard. There is a part that comes naturally. The part that is your birthright as a human being–your creativity.
Graham talks about a vitality, a life force in us that translates into action. Don’t we all sense that force, that energy inside of us? There seems to be something that wants to express itself through us.
I wrote a chapter book, Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale, about a lizard who wants to be an artist. In there I call this force “the big thing inside.” I was trying to find a way to express the creative drive in terms a child could understand. In the way I understood it as a child. It felt like there was something bigger than me inside. Something that felt important for me to do or to say. I didn’t really know what to do with it—but it wanted expression.
It’s there in every one of us—that yearning to be bigger than ourselves, to do an indefinable “something.”
I believe creativity is your birthright. You were born into a creative universe. And you were born to be creative in it. Look around you. Everywhere is the result of tens of thousands of years of human creativity. Tiny insights, giant leaps, a small refinement here, decades of labor there—and there is a house, a chair, the art on your walls, the paper of your books, a spoon, the phone, your medicine, your glass of water, a button… Even a pencil means over time figuring out wood, glues, metal, synthetic materials, ergonomics, graphic design—not to mention the basic reason it exists at all, language and its symbolic representation.
The source of human inspiration has been called many things: the muse, divine inspiration, being in the zone, getting into the flow, the creative spark, daemon, genius, hunch, revelation, vision.
Socrates said, “I decided it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”
Time after time in descriptions of great scientific discoveries, works of art, works of literature—you’ll hear about the idea that comes in a dream or vision or suddenly is just there.
The scientist Friedrich Kekule discovered the molecular structure of the chemical benzene when he dreamed about a snake coiled and biting its own tail. In an intuitive flash he realized that the molecular structure was a ring of carbon atoms.
Many of Mozart’s compositions would simply play themselves in his head with full orchestration.
Author Michael Ondaatje says plots often come to him as “a glimpse of a small situation.” The English Patient started out as two images: one of a patient lying in bed talking to a nurse, and another of a thief stealing a photograph of himself. Every author I know has had the experience of an idea that seems to come out of nowhere.
The idea of a mouse who showed up and wouldn’t go away just popped into my head one day and became the basis for my book, A Visitor for Bear. I wasn’t thinking about mice or bears or brainstorming story ideas at the time. But there he was. Such moments feel like a gift from that force that Graham talks about.
But in our scientific age, we no longer look to the gods for this gift. We look to the human brain and we call the gift giver the subconscious. The good news is that it’s available to all of us, not just a select few. And there are ways to make its visions and messages more accessible.
I’ll talk more about your subconscious and how to make it more available to you in my next post in a few weeks.
For a lovely version of feeling this ‘inner inspiration’ look to the folk story The Frog Who Wanted to be a Singer (there’s a picture book version).
Good topic, Bonny. Creativity seems so ephemeral but I find if I show up and put in the time, the gift ideas are more likely to grace my work. Julie Paschkis says something like, “If you put in the drudgery, the alchemy will happen.” I live by that hope.
Beth, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out!
Laura, love Julie’s way of putting it! There are some easy ways to help the muse along–like walking. Another way I’ve heard it expressed is “bed, bath and bus.” Doing anything that tends to be rhythmic, soothing and doesn’t really require active thought
Well done, Bonny! We all need to be reminded of that spark within us & honor it with our kind attention
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