On listening to stories other than our own
Tunes for a Monday Morning

On inspiration, madness, and art

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In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans tread perilously close to insanity; and indeed, in some cases their gifts specifically come from journeying into the wilds of madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods, and back again. The process of creative intuition and inspiration is a profoundly mysterious one, and it can certainly seem like magic or madness to those on the outside looking in.

In Tuesday's post, Lewis Hyde explained the ancient Greek and Roman view that creative "genius" is not a personal attribute, but a guiding spirit, or daemon: the divine spark of inspiration comes from the daemon, and the artist's job is to be a worthy vessel for that spark. On Wednesday, Philip Pullman described the feeling that stories come from somewhere else, and need special protection while they're still new and tender, taking form on the page. I've come across many artists in different fields who view creation in similar ways: as an almost mystical, alchemical process composed not only of skill and intent but also of creative ideas that come through us from some unknown and unknowable place.

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Here, for example, is Haruki Murakami describing his creative process: "A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, 'Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can't forget me, there's still more to write!' Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel."

He's far from the only writer to report that tales and characters sometimes just appear, large as life, demanding to be attended to and rendered into print. On one end of the spectrum are the logical, methodical artists who map their stories and paintings and performances entirely in advance, rarely deviating from the route they've set themselves...and on the other end are the purely intuitive artists who discover the work as they create it, as though it already exists somewhere, waiting to be found and given earthly form. (The majority of us I suspect fall somewhere on the line between the two.)

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"I did not deliberately invent Earthsea," Ursula Le Guin once said of her now-classic fantasy series. "I did not think, Hey wow -- islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let's build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea."

"In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it," notes Samuel R. Delaney. "Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can't be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.”

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The creative process, like any mythic act of world creation (which is what it is, even for writers of Realist fiction), follows different rules than ordinary living. And that's not always a comfortable thing to experience -- for the artists themselves, or for those close by.

"In the middle of a novel," says Zadie Smith, "a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post -- I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses."

While the world goes on wily-nily without us, we're off chasing visions down the hedgerows of the mind, living in a place where lines and landscapes and imaginary voices become more real than the keyboard under our fingers, the paint in the cup, the vibration of the harp string.

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"I discover my images during the process of working on them," says artist Rima Staines. "I'm interested in the spark which happens when the image suddenly comes together in front of you and starts to work. It's almost as if, while I'm drawing the lines, what I'm about to draw next reveals itself to me. Maybe I will start to see a face in some loose lines -- in the same way that you sometimes see a face or figure in the gnarled bark of a tree. I am not completely in control of the process; it's as though the characters in the image make themselves known to me. It’s like being in an altered state of consciousness. And it can take a real presence of mind to stay in that process. It often feels like walking a tightrope whilst you are creating: it is all too easy to come out of the process by looking at your work too critically -- or to tip the other way and go too far with a particular idea."

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My husband Howard, who works in theatre, points out that "artists often live in two worlds at once, which is why we can seem a bit mad to other people. One foot is in the real world, where we have to feed ourselves and pay the bills, and the other foot is in the creative world, which has a different time scale and demands different things of us. One way of living seems sane and sensible, the other is ruled by impulse, intuition, and archetypal forces of dream and creation. Living constantly on the knife-edge between these two different worlds can be both liberating and distressing, I find, in equal measure." 

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"When I was young, it seemed so much easier," painter and filmmaker Brian Froud recalls. "You had a mad idea and you just went with it. Youth has an arrogance. With age and experience, I know enough to question myself more, so the creative impulse can be more of a struggle -- but there’s still that inner voice which, when I draw a line, goes: No. Rub it out, draw another. No! And then, suddenly, Oh, yes! And then I think: 'Where has that come from? Why is this the right line? And why were all the other ones wrong?' To an observer those lines would probably seem all the same -- but those rubbed-out lines were wrong. The drawing knows what it wants to to be."

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“I think the mystery of art lies in this, that the artists’ relationship is essentially with their work," mused Ursula Le Guin, "not with power, not with profit, not with themselves, not even with their audience.” 

This tends to be true for the stories and images that I inevitably find myself most drawn to: art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us. It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped. It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker...and then, in turn, gifted to us.

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"We're not mad," writes author and teacher Sue Moorcroft, defending the peculiar habits of artists, "we're inhabited."

Inhabited by the work. Inhabited by the lines, the colors, the characters, the stories. All clamouring to get out into the world.

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Words: The quotes above are from a variety of essays and interviews. The poem in the picture is from Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland (EP Dutton, 1970). All rights reserved by the authors and translator. Pictures: Our local herd of Dartmoor ponies and their growing foals.

Related reading: Chasing inspiration, Stories in the air around us, When the magic is working, and Following the White Deer.

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