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On Artistic Inspiration


Today's post on artistic inspiration was inspired by the conversation with Brian & Wendy Froud over on the John Barleycorn blog -- which turns, at one point, to the delicate line between Inspiration and Madness. For those of us who work intuitively, as though the Muse is literally whispering into our ears (as I swear sometimes she does), that line can grow rather thin...and I'm always interested in hearing how other writers and artists view this odd aspect of our craft.

In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans walk perilously close to the realm of madness; indeed, in some cases, their gifts specifically come from journeying into madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods and then back again. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her acclaimed TED Talk on nurturing creativity, describes how, to the early Romans, an artist's "genius" was a spirit or daemon believed to be attached to that particular artist, and not a personal attribute. The divine spark of inspiration came from the daemon; the artist's job was to be a worthy vessel for that spark. Today, there are still a surprising number of us who view creation much as the Romans did: as a mysterious, magical, alchemical process composed not only of skill and intent but also of ideas and impulses that come through us from some unknown and unknowable place.

Here, for example, is the Japanese author 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."

Death Visits the Emperor by Edmund Dulac

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.)

"I did not deliberately invent Earthsea," writes Ursula Le Guin 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," says 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.” 

Arthur Rackham's ilustration for the British ballad ''May Colven''

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.” 

Casting a Spell by Charles Robinson

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.

A Girl Mad as Birds by Rima Staines"I discover [my images] in the process of the work," says painter Rima Staines. "I may decide where a figure will go in the frame, but it is rather loose. I am 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 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'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 and look at your work as critic, or to go the other way and go too far with a particular idea."

Sketchbook page by Brian Froud "Artists often do live in two worlds," Howard comments in the John Barleycorn talk with Brian & Wendy Froud, "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 take on practical jobs to make money, and the other foot is in the creative world, which has a different time scale and demands different things of us: that when you sit down and draw, this is what you are going to draw, and how you are going to draw. Living this way can be both liberating and distressing I find, in equal measure." 

"When I was young, it seemed so much easier," Brian responds. "You just went for it. Youth has an arrogance. Now it’s 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? While all these others, which to an observer would probably seem to be the same, were wrong?' "

An illustration by Henry J. Ford for the Colored Fairy Book series by Andew Lang

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

That 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.

"We're not mad," says  Sue Moorcroft, defending the peculiar habits of authors, "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.

'The stuff that dreams are made of' by John Anster Fitzgerald

Images above: "Ferdinand lured by Ariel" by John Everett Millais (1929-1896); illustration from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); illustration from the Child ballad "May Colven" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939); "Casting a Spell" by Charles Robinson (1870-1937); "A Girl as Mad as Birds" by Rima Staines; a sketchbook page by Brian Froud;  illustration for Andrew Lang's "Colored Fairy Book" series by Henry J. Ford (1860-1941),  and "The stuff that dreams are made of" by John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906).