Inspiration, Insight, and the Literary Creative Process

The roles of inspiration and insight differ in the literary creative process.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

It is generally assumed that the literary creative process, especially poetic creation, starts with an inspiration. Popular descriptions of the poet creating a poem usually conjure up an image of a brooding and silent figure whose face suddenly becomes transfigured and illuminated by a thought or idea which is quickly converted into scribbled notes, full-blown poetic lines or even entire poems at one sitting. Although sophisticated persons can, on a moment's reflection, easily reject this image as a caricature, it is amazingly persistent as an implicit influence on the most learned analyses of the literary creative process. This is not simply the result of a specific type of romanticism; it has a time-honored basis in the writings of some of the most serious and revered thinkers in western history.

There is good reason to believe, public testimonials to the contrary notwithstanding, that the emphasis on inspiration is fallacious. Inspiration is neither the invariant starting point of the literary creative process nor is it necessarily the most critical aspect. It has become important to assert this, not only for scientific reasons but because erroneous notions about inspiration have contributed to an almost dangerous situation in contemporary American life. Many young people today at all levels of society have resorted to ingestion of mind-expanding drugs, large doses of marijuana, cocaine, opioids as well as heroin and others, partly on the basis of a popular rationalization that such drugs enhance creativity. Published examples of literature and art produced under the influence of these drugs and controlled studies of creative performance do not support this notion. Nevertheless, the belief continues because it is based in part on a widespread tendency to equate inspiration with the entire creative process. Since drug-induced experiences seem to be similar in some ways to inspirations, it is assumed that drug experiences will produce creations.

In correcting the emphasis on inspiration in relation to creativity, I want to make clear that the term inspiration refers to an intrinsically dramatic experience. It indicates more than the simple achievement of a good idea. The term derives from the act of breathing and the implication that what is inspired or taken in sustains or imbues life, is inextricably bound into its meaning. Suddenness, a sense of breakthrough, an impulse to action—usually writing something down but also running out of the bath, like the ancient Greek Archimedes, shouting "Eureka, I found it!" and an associated transient emotional relief –often associated with an actual physical sigh or explication  of  "Aha" – are all, to some degree, invariant components of the experience. The term does not simply refer to the inception of a thought process although it is sometimes loosely used in this way. In other words, the popular image of the behavioral manifestations of an inspiratory experience is actually correct, but the popular conception of the role of inspiration in literary creation is incorrect. My prizewinning literary research subjects (over 75 men and women) have reported that they seldom, if ever, have an inspiratory experience at the inception of a literary work and that very few such experiences occur during the course of the process of creation.  These subjects represent many different styles of poetry and literature including iambic, imagist, confessional, "beat," projectivist, and lyrical. Furthermore, an extensive study of poetic manuscripts and biographical material covering many centuries carried out by Phyllis Bartlett has turned up much evidence indicating that inspiratory experiences in poetry have been an exception rather than a rule.

What is the actual role of inspiration in the literary creative process, especially in the writing of poetry? To answer this, let me briefly summarize what I have learned about the psychological sequence in literary creations. A poem, for instance, generally begins with a mood, visual image, word, or phrase. The poet usually refers to the formulation of a word or phrase as the inception of a poem because moods or images which do not translate into words become diffused or changed. They are forgotten or else they do not remain associated with a specific poem. Occasionally, a poet reports that a poem began with a moral or intellectual statement in mind. Many poets are embarrassed to admit this because of their feeling that poems should not be constructed or contrived primarily to make a particular statement but that they should be spontaneous emotive outpourings.

The experience of beginning a poem differs from inspiration in that it is seldom accompanied by a sense of breakthrough, relief, or discovery. There is some degree of impulse to action in writing a poem, which may operate in a range and variety·of ways: actually interrupting a conversation or task to work on the poem until completed, jotting down some notes, or simply an active resolution in the mind to remember the word or words and work on the poem at some convenient later time. Rather than relief, however, the overriding feeling reported is that of tension. This tension is partly about getting down to work and writing. It is relieved by the process of writing and is only dissipated to a large degree by the actual completion of the poem. It is also, however, tension and an anxiety about finding out what the poem is really about. Over and over again, my literary research subjects tell me that they seldom know what a poem is really "saying" until they are well into the writing process, until they have actually finished it or, in some cases, until months or years later.

When they do find out "what the poem is really saying," they experience a sense of illumination, discovery, and oftentimes, relief. The poet's allusion to "what the poem is really saying," the meaning of this phrase to him, is quite variable. Although most of my subjects are understandably reluctant to spell out a prosaic formulation of "what the poem is really saying," they may cite a particular line, phrase, or stanza in the poem itself as the embodiment of the idea. Often this line, phrase, or stanza is the final one in the poem, the punchline in a sense, but many other sections may also be cited. Psychologically minded subjects may cite a particular line or set of lines and say, "it's talking about cannibalism" and the most psychologically minded subjects will cite the line also but will say, "it's about my own concerns about being cannibalistic." My point here is that the subject’s discovery has always seemed to me to be a personal discovery or insight of some sort and that, even when cited as an aesthetic statement, the statement often seems to be a type of personal discovery. I base this conclusion both on what my most psychologically minded subjects have said and on my own knowledge of the less psychologically minded subjects' personalities and concerns.

Let me, however, make it immediately clear that I do not mean that these later discoveries are true inspirations; quite the contrary. To repeat: True inspirations do occasionally occur before and during the course of writing but they are not discoveries of the meaning or purpose of the literary work. These later discoveries are not particularly associated with an impulse to action but, depending on their strength and certainty, are often associated with a sense of completion, a signal that the work is finished or virtually so. The discoveries function to reduce and resolve a good deal of the tension and anxiety which had been associated with starting and working on the work--even when they occur several months later.

Although it is not immediately obvious, the true inspiration that occurs during the creation of a work, especially a poem, is actually accompanied by a certain amount of anxiety. The sense of later relief is so dramatic that anxiety is not apparent to the writer or to a possible observer. However, the other hallmark of true inspiration – feverish activity and working on the poem or piece of literature – indicates that anxiety requiring discharge is indeed present.

Basically, I think this anxiety also operates to some degree in non-dramatic experiences of starting the poem; both anxieties are later reduced by the discovery of "what the poem or literary work is really saying." The discovery, in other words, provides true relief because it contains elements of true psychological insight whereas both inspiration and the thoughts associated with the inception of a literary work do not.

This paradigm of the psychodynamics of the poetic creative process de-emphasizes inspiration and differentiates inspiration from psychological insights. The distinction is important because inspiration appears, on the surface, to have many qualities in common with insight. The sine qua non of insight is considered to be a sense of illumination and breakthrough accompanied by relief and some impulse to further psychological exploration as action. Because this experience is behaviorally similar to the classical description of inspiration, it has been assumed that insight and inspiration are psychologically similar or equivalent--the bringing of non-conscious material into consciousness. Insight involves such a process, but inspiration  appears to do so, or only does so in part.

The overall schema I am suggesting is as follows: the writer starts by unearthing or formulating problems, problems which are aesthetic and personal together. If the problem is particularly difficult and fraught with anxiety, he or she may experience "inspiration" as he or she is working on it. As the inspiration may come from a deeper level of consciousness, it contains many defensive and anxious aspects and it drives to further writing and an attempt at gaining resolution and insight.

I do not mean to say that the inspiration for a poem or literary piece together with anxiety is a manifestation of illness nor that a literary process is a form of therapy. Writers choose the conflicts they prefer to work on and, more often than not, only touch an aspect of their personal hindrances. They may achieve some insight and finish the work but they seldom allow the full impact of the insight to affect them. This is seen in the fact that writers often return, again and again, to the same theme or image.

Robert Frost, in answer to the perennial question, "why do you write poems?" has been quoted as saying, "To see if I can make them all different". By implication, Frost's whimsical reply is a criticism of the general literary tendency to be hung up on a recurrent theme and points to his own attempts to overcome this tendency. This hang-up, the need to return to the same conflict over and over again, is not an indication that writers are invariably sick: not at all, it simply means that poets and fiction writers, those great expressers and interpreters of our inner and outer world, the purveyors of such joy and understanding, are haunted.