Various metaphors are used for artistic inspiration and expression.
An apocryphal quote attributed to Michaelangelo, sculptor of the statue ‘David,’ is retold like this. When asked how he came up with his masterpiece, Michaelangelo simply replied:
You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.
The artist’s perception is that there is something in the stone that he, the craftsman must simply discover. This renaissance thought had much in common with classical ideas of inspiration.
Ancient poets and playwrights described the source of their inspiration as a divine ‘muse’ or a goddess responsible for arts and knowledge. This muse could be capricious, visiting the artist somewhat whimsically and contributing to great floods of inspiration or terrible creative blocks.
Elizabeth Wilson, author of “Eat, Pray, Love” in her great TED talk discusses the merits of modern artists rediscovering the ancient notion of a muse.
Other artists refer to their work as “children”, conceived in the brain and growing until they cannot but be birthed with great labour pains. Another writer once described his ideas like little puppies, following at his heels and tripping him up until taken out for a run.
Whichever way one considers inspiration, expression remains the same. Artistic expression is “work”. Whether the sculptor discovering the “David” within the marble, or the poet transcribing lyrics delivered by a muse, or an artist gestating ideas and bringing them forth with great labour pains, as birthing a child, the common theme is clear.
Inspiration is often a gift received, while creative expressions is a gift given.
Where do great stories come from and why do some people have the knack to tell consistently amazing stories, and others – hit and miss?
According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan, was composed one night after he experienced an opium-nfluenced dream. He had read a work describing Xanadu the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China. Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by a visitor. The poem could not be completed as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. Out of despair from losing the inspiration, Coleridge left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when, on the prompting by Byron it was published.
Roald Dahl depicts dreams as small cloudlike puffs, to be caught in a net, bundled into a sack and blown through a pipe into sleeping children’s ears. Other writers speak of being visited by a muse or suffering mysterious writer’s block as though an external source had stemmed the flow of a stream. Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of “Eat, Pray, Love” discusses this phenomenon to a contemporary audience, an audience steeped in a scientific-rational context. She manages to package the mystery of poetic inspiration in modern terms.
My take home thought from Gilbert’s speech is that by holding external to self, the artists’ gift of inspiration – as though through a muse or genius – the writer is free to be a humble human. One of the many results of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rational humanism of the 19th century, has been an existential despair in the 20th century as humanity contemplates solitude in the universe. For us all meaning rests within. All success or failure, meaning or purpose, stems from the individual will. The crushing paralysis that comes with such belief, can be eased by artists who can frame themselves in a dance with the universe, the Spirit, a muse. This simple surrender can be the release for an artist to let inspiration and industry flow.