Wednesday, July 13, 2011

WARNING: long and serious blog post alert!

What is the relationship between inspiration and research? Does inspiration move us to learn? Or does our learning inform our inspiration? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the two concepts quite a bit lately. In fact, I’m writing this sitting in Gracie O’Malley’s Pub in Toronto, Canada, just a block behind the Princess of Wales Theatre where, in another hour, I’m going to go see Hugh Jackman’s one-man concert. I’m sipping a Guinness, eating teriyaki chicken wings and debating the heavier questions of creativity.

Asking the questions may be moot – in the long run, does it really matter? As long as creation takes place, who cares about the details? And yet I can’t help chasing down some stray thoughts as I look down the street to the stage door and know inspiration awaits on just the other side.

Toni Morrison once said, “I don’t wait to be struck by lightning and I don’t need certain slants of light to write.” That, more than any other philosophy, has guided my own beliefs about creating a novel. If I waited for the flash of inspiration all the time, I’d never get anything written.

In that way, being an author isn’t that much different from being an electrician. We each learn our trade and how to use the tools, then we go on to use our knowledge and skills to create light (or enlightenment). Sometimes we even create art.

But what about the Muses? The ancient Greeks definitely saw inspiration—that sudden flash of insight or brilliant idea—as coming from the outside. It wasn’t controllable. Either the Muses visited you—or they didn’t. It wasn’t YOU who held brilliance, it was the gods who gave it to you when and if they saw fit.

So where does that leave me?

(Imagine a long pause to sip stout and eat a wing or two as I gaze out the window and down to the stage door. Is he already inside warming up? What might those preparations look like? Will he be as  an incredible performer as I want him to be? I finish the wings, clean my fingers and take up my pen again.)

I tend to think of inspiration as internal. The talent to do something with the inspiration is a gift from God (I can be inspired to paint, but I haven’t the talent. As a result the best, most wonderful painting I can ever paint is a blank canvas because I look at that whiteness and see the painting in my head. Every detail, every line, every color. But the moment I put brush to canvas and make the very first stroke, it’s wrong and the painting is ruined. It’s okay. I’m not a painter. Or at least, not one with canvas. I paint with words. That’s my gift.).

But talent isn’t inspiration. I can also have all the talent in the world and never do anything with it. I can be a great singer who decides to keep my mouth shut, to hide my light, as it were.

To me, inspiration is a way of looking. It’s a way of seeing the world, of being open to possibilities that lead to those insights or ideas. If you aren’t looking, how will you see it when it does occur?

Thomas Edison considered it a wasted day if he didn’t invent at least one new thing while at work. He didn’t wait around for a bolt from the blue to point him in the right direction. He looked at the research he’d done, thought about where it could go next—and invented.

And that brings me back to my original question: What is the relationship between inspiration and research? If I’m researching bondage positions on the web and see a picture of a position I find intriguing, then use that position in a scene I’m writing, can I honestly say I’ve been inspired? My methods are methodical, precise and analytical in both the research and in writing the description. There was no flash, no gestalt moment of understanding. There was cold research and hot writing. Moving from one to the other is the talent, the art.

When I watch Mr. Jackman’s concert tonight and decide my next hero will fit the character sketch of him that I will draw, is that inspiration? Or is going to this concert research? Can I convince the IRS I should be able to deduct the price of the ticket because I’m here in a professional capacity? I suspect my attendance is a little of both.

In the end, the area between inspiration and hard research is several shades of gray. It exists both inside me and outside in the pictures I see, in the people I watch. For me, there are very few flashes of lightning because I’m inspired by so much.

It’s a great way to make a living.

Play safe!

PS. I’m including a pic I took after the show. Yes, I stood outside at the stage door. Yes, I got an autograph. Yes, I gave into indulgence and let myself be a stage-struck dork. After the pic is the character sketch I wrote. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see him soon in a yet-to-be-written novel!

Short character sketch of Hugh Jackman; entitled “Public Perceptions”
(some of the following is also based on the episode of “Punk’d” where he was set up)

Eyes wide, the corners crinkle almost closed in laughter and
            cheeks ripple into dimples

A new soul
wants to learn
hungry to do more

Slow to anger; it shows in his hands first.
Hands that hold a child, comfort a friend, make a fist.

A dichotomy, a puzzle
            A man’s man – won’t throw the first punch but will follow with a wicked left
            A woman’s man—the alpha male with a caring heart

Breaks classification. Defies tradition and stays out of the box.
Pushes his limits, tries new ideas.
Mr. Jackman


Lynn LaFleur said...

I agree that inspiration comes from all around us. But sometimes I do get that little flash of brilliance when working on a book. They don't come often, but I'm always thankful to my muse when they do!

Glad you had a good time, Diana.


Lori said...

I like your thoughts on creativity... there is a fine line between research and a brilliant idea. There is definitely a little of both. Research gets you close, but then you put your own spin on it. Same as when I find a photograph I like... I find a way to use the idea, while still in maintaining my own style.

Diana said...

Lynn, mostly I've come to think that my Muse is life itself, although I suspect she dresses like a tramp sometimes and goes out for a fling, leaving me high and dry!

Lori, you bring up another good point, one my husband and I have been talking about a lot lately with his painting. At what point does a work cross the line from "derivative" to "copy?"