Feeling Inspired? A Look at How We Begin the Writing Process

I love Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I love modern composition theorist Linda Flower. But Flower sure didn’t love Coleridge; at least not when it came to the theory of inspiration.  Initially, I really liked Coleridge’s inspiration theory. I like how he merged various views, didn’t discount the possibility of an external influence (as the Enlightenment philosophers did), but also didn’t buy the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” theory of the Greeks. I loved the idea of the human mind working in concert with sources of inspiration in the world around us to create writing. And as an inveterate metaphor addict, I loved the picture of the Aeolian harp: the writer as the instrument, a mysterious wind, an undefined locus of inspiration creating the haunting and beautiful music.

However, Linda Flower came up with a compelling metaphor of her own to describe the writing process: the metaphor of discovery. Her metaphor suggests that, unlike the stationary harp that sits and waits for the inspiring wind to blow in its strings, we ought to start the writing process by picking up our tools and digging–both inside our own minds as well as in outside sources. She states, “A writer in the act of discovery is hard at work searching memory, forming concepts, and forging a new structure of ideas, while at the same time trying to juggle all the constraints imposed by his or her purpose, audience, and language itself” (Miller 468). Far from sitting passively by, the writer in Flower’s concept of discovery is using all available resources to construct the text.

Flower certainly doesn’t soft-pedal her disdain for the Romantic view. She states that “the notion of discovery is surrounded by a mythology which, like the popular myth of romantic inspiration, can lead writers to self-defeating writing strategies” (Miller 468). Flower argues that belief in an inspiration that comes unbidden and leaves without warning can discourage writers and make them feel that good writing is something beyond their control. I would also add that there is a potential, under the Romantic theory, to create an intellectual laziness in writers. Belief that good writing is something that comes to us rather than something for which we must work provides a convenient excuse for us to do nothing. It is maddening to think that a poem as brilliant as “Kubla Khan,” which supposedly came to Coleridge in an opium dream, was left unfinished because the inspiration had “vanished,” when he might simply have sat down and hammered his way through the rest of the 250 lines and produce a finished masterpiece.

Flower believed that “discovery” was a cognitive process that could be documented, and she worked to demonstrate how that process was different for expert versus novice writers. Coleridge, on the other hand, would have probably been horrified to think that someone was trying to examine, quantify, and neatly package something he saw as almost mystical.

Is there a happy medium between these two diverse views? I think there is. I can’t deny that there have been moments when great writing comes to me in a flash of inspiration. The source of this inspiration may well have been my own subconscious, but it certainly seemed external. However, the vast majority of my best writing has come into being through blood, sweat, and more than a few tears. Breeze or no breeze, our harps have to play; we have to become our own source of inspiration.


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