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Inspiration and Influence

March 2, 2011

The first half of this post, on inspiration, is adapted from a post I wrote on my blog Knocking From Inside some years ago. The second half is all new.


Merriam-Webster says inspiration is:
1 a : a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation b : the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions c : the act of influencing or suggesting opinions
2 : the act of drawing in; specifically : the drawing of air into the lungs
3 a : the quality or state of being inspired b : something that is inspired “a scheme that was pure inspiration”
4 : an inspiring agent or influence

It’s a little odd to me that the last meaning listed here is the one that gets used most in ordinary conversation. Usually when people ask about inspiration, it’s a tactful way of posing the dreaded question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” (Barry Longyear still has the best answer to that. If you haven’t read “It Came From Schenectady”, go get it.)

Beginning writers are commonly told: “Write what you know.” “Draw on your own experience.” That’s where you’re supposed to get your ideas. It’s a good place to start; but is that where you should stop?

I grew up reading almost entirely fiction, mostly SF and fantasy. Fiction, by definition, concerns things that have never happened. However, much fiction deals with “realistic” events, i.e. events similar to real ones. SF and fantasy, by definition, deal with events that are unlike any that have ever actually happened. These genres call on the author to use imagination more than experience.

What’s it like to walk on Mars? Nobody knows, although these days you can make a fairly well-informed guess. You can read the accounts of the astronauts who landed on the Moon. You can study Martian geology and weather data; there are maps and pictures you can look at. But what would it feel like? You can’t know. You can only imagine.

Not to say you should throw out experience as if it were just another soap flake in the dirty bathwater. Kim Stanley Robinson’s very fine Red Mars is a human story at heart; it’s as much about the interactions of a set of strong personalities and their respective political and social baggage as it is about Life On Another Planet. The love affairs, squabbles, and ideological disagreements among the First Hundred humans on Mars draw deeply on Robinson’s own experience of life and people, and without them, Red Mars would be only half the book it is. But without Mars, without Robinson’s imagined Mars, there would be no book at all.

Experience is the ground under a writer’s feet; imagination is the writer’s wings. Experience is the station and imagination is the train. Experience is rock and imagination is the boundless ever-changing ocean. Start with experience and go someplace you haven’t been. Go there now. Go there tomorrow. Go there and stay for a while. Send the rest of us a postcard; we’ll call it a story or a poem or a novel or a painting or a song or whatever form it happens to take. The sky’s the limit.

Here’s the best part. The more you live, the more you can imagine–and you can always imagine things you haven’t seen or done. Your experience feeds your imagination, so your imagination expands constantly, like a balloon around your solid, lived, life. Life is a good source for inspiration, but why limit yourself to looking there when you could be searching that whole vast airy space, the cathedral of the mind, the land of your imagination?


Occasionally I hear writers say, “Oh, I don’t like to read other writers; I don’t want to be influenced.”

What does it mean, really, to say you’ve been “influenced?” There’s a world of difference between slavishly imitating the writing style of someone you admire, and studying and copying the techniques of good writing. Would you want to write like Dickens? Not unless you’re being paid by the word (ain’t happening in 2011, friend). But would you like to be able to capture mood, atmosphere, and character as well as he does? Who wouldn’t?

It’s good exercise to sit down with a writer or a piece that you like and analyze it carefully. What has the author done that works for you? Why does it work? Do you think it’ll work for your readers? And how might you accomplish the same thing in your own writing?

As for negative influences? Don’t worry about it. If you’re reading something you don’t like, the odds that it’ll stick with you are low. (These days, I have no time to read anything I don’t like: if I’m not into it after a chapter or so, out it goes.) If you’re reading something you do like, chances are good there’s something you can learn from it. Tricks of description, character development, narrative hooks. In my case, I’m always looking for poets who can write formal poetry without making it sound stiff and clunky. The late John M. Ford was a master at it. You can find some of his poetry in the collection Heat of Fusion.

Other writers who have influenced me: Gerard Manley Hopkins. Patricia Smith. Heather McHugh. Federico Garcia Lorca (in translation only, alas). In some cases, I think the influence is apparent: “Cat’s Cradles” is definitely a Hopkins-like poem, and “She Sees White Horses” is a conscious Lorca imitation. In others, it’s more subtle. In spite of its title, “Lorca” was actually strongly influenced by a McHugh poem about Giordano Bruno, called “What He Thought.” It’s in her collection Upgraded to Serious: give it a read.

  1. March 5, 2011 9:57 am

    Just as a matter of interest, the French actually use ‘inspirer’ for breathing in and ‘expirer’ for breathing out. Both are also used in a figurative sense. I love the idea of ‘inspirer’ because it’s so physical. It’s like saying all that goes in, will one day come out. In that sense we should probably ask ourselves, what is not inspiring?

  2. March 5, 2011 10:35 am

    I have a fond memory of a dark poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, but D*** if I can remember the name. I’m going into my book room to find it…

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