Where does writing come from? (part 1)

Angelica Kauffman painting

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry. The painter is at left.

I’ve been mulling over some journal entries by Flannery O’Connor, written in 1946–47, when she was twenty-one and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The entries show her struggling with the tension between her ambition to be a successful writer and her desire, as a devout Catholic, to think about God “all the time.”

You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by this shadow that is nothing. …

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous… at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. (New Yorker, 9/15/2013)

She wants success but she’s also afraid it will give her a swelled head, which will get in the way of being able “to love God all the way.” So she keeps reminding herself of things that will keep the shadow from growing.

When she produces a story after a dry period, O’Connor notes that it wasn’t really she who wrote it. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” Then she begs him to make the story a “sound,” good one because she doesn’t know how to do that herself.

Some time later, she cycles back into discouragement. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”

I am not a mystic, much less a Catholic or even a Christian, but this strikes a chord for me. If you disregard the specifics of her terminology, she is simply talking about where the inspiration to write something comes from. In my experience, that’s a mystery: the ultimate source isn’t one’s self and isn’t under one’s control. (I felt this most purely with my own two books, which I wrote from the greatest depths I was capable of. But even in collaborations, when I’m setting out other people’s ideas, I often find solutions to problems of structure or expression arising in intuitive leaps out of “nowhere”—not quite the same, but close enough.)

In the early stages of conceptualizing my first book, The Women Outside, I remember sitting on my knees on the floor and suddenly having a sense of a column of energy—or something—streaming upward from my head and mingling with some larger entity “out there.” Or maybe the energy from out there was coming down into me. It’s been so long I don’t recall. But the feeling that I was connecting to something larger than myself was clear. It never happened again, but as I worked on this and my other book, Slaying the Mermaid, I felt quite distinctly that they were coming through me from somewhere else, entering in the region of my solar plexus, then traveling upward to where my brain could operate on them.

I wouldn’t call that larger something God, but there are other options: the collective unconscious, universal mind, nondual awareness, the unconditioned,  Buddha-mind, rigpa, consciousness with a capital C… and those are just from traditions I know something about.

Poussin_Inspiration_of_the_poet_Louvre

Nicolas Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630). A poet writes under the inspiration of Apollo, who is accompanied by a muse and two cherubs.

It’s quite literally inspiration, which comes from a Greek word meaning God-breathed and a Latin word meaning blow into. That is, a divine being is breathing something into you. The ancients spoke of the muses, O’Connor speaks of God. I don’t know what to speak of, but I know what it feels like.

And I agree with O’Connor that it’s good not to get a swelled head, but rather to remember the mystery.

EGGxercise: movement and inspiration

You might think a choreographer wouldn’t have much to say to writers, but you’d be wrong. Twyla Tharp has been creating dances for a long time, and from what I can tell has fought and won all the battles involved in making something out of nothing. Her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life absolutely nails the issues any creative person faces.

For example: “Writer’s block means your engine has shut down and the tank is empty. Being blocked is most often a failure of nerve, with only one solution: Do something—anything.”

Then she gives a bunch of exercises to “do.” What’s key for me is that most involve moving your body. One more quote: “I can’t say enough about the connection between body and mind; when you stimulate your body, your brain comes alive in ways you can’t simulate in a sedentary position.”

This is true. Being a dancer was never even on my radar. Even those group exercises where you act out a name or word or idea always made me feel awkward and dull. But I decided to try a couple of Tharp’s ideas. That is, I had to force myself. The level of resistance was astonishing. But I got on the floor and assumed the postion for Egg: knees bent up to my chin, arms hugging them. Nowhere to go from here but out—somewhere. Tharp lists Exploded Egg, Scrambled Egg, and Egg-Cited as some “eggs” that her students have come up with. I managed Rolling Egg and something I’m calling Flailing Egg.

I noticed that the movement was fueled by the tension in my body. That is, initiating the movement gave the tension a place to go. Then it took over and shaped the movement. I didn’t need to figure out where to move next; I just went along for the ride. The movement broke open the shell of tension (or resistance), and the idea for this post popped right out of the crack.

Doing these exercises went beyond the old “go for a walk when you’re stuck” idea. It was more formal, more structured, focused directly at making something. More powerful.

Have you had an experience of this kind of movement sparking an idea, plan, other inspiration? I’d love to hear about it.

Social media & inspiration: Google+ or minus?

In a race to beat the other Stephanie Goldens out there, I got myself an invite to Google+, and secured possession of—my name.  A real coup, right? I haven’t learned yet how to use Google+, but once I do, it’ll be a big boost to my career… right?

Not according to computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who says social media just reduce everyone to little more than the database fields they fill in to create their profile. In his manifesto You Are Not a Gadget, he attacks two notions popular among his community of techies:

  • the “wisdom of the crowd,” which Lanier calls the “hive mind”;
  • the seductiveness of the idea that “bits can be alive on their own”—that is, machines can attain consciousness.
http://images.cdn.fotopedia.com/flickerslair-o9s-NhBoTlA-hd.jpg

The “hive mind”: Heidi Welch, “Bees on Honeycomb”

Together, he says, these ideas degrade the concept of personhood, which loses its individuality and (more important, to my mind) the mystery of its being and its spiritual quality. In his book Of a Fire on the Moon, about the NASA space program, Norman Mailer developed a rather mystical notion that machines contained a soul. For him this was a metaphor for what he saw as the heroic man/machine enterprise that climaxed in the moon landing. The contemporary idea that machines can be conscious is just flat—the opposite of heroic, the antithesis of human.

Devaluing individuality wipes out true creativity, which requires the singular vision that arises only from ineffable, individual personhood. That, says Lanier, is why online culture so often just rehashes cultural material from the pre-internet era (really original stuff being in short supply.)

Wikipedia is Lanier’s main example of the way “crowd-sourcing” eliminates the individual voice. It’s always at the top of search results, so people click the Wikipedia link, missing more original, ambitious material.

The flattening of individuals into a “hive” also undermines the concept of authorship. To me—an author—this is the true horror. There’s a notion that all books should become “one book” once they’re digitized and put online. Then anyone can take any fragment out of context and “mash” it with any other fragment. Lanier makes the very good point that online mashups destroy the original context in which a work is made, which then destroys their meaning.

In terms of my Venn diagram, the inspiration circle simply falls out of the picture. A whole piece of my personhood is gone. Once I figure out how to use Google+, will I just be buzzing around the global hive, as my mind melds into a single worker-bee brain?