The truth about the secret inspiration of a skeptic

Gordon Bonnet Guests at GonzoInk:

Wednesdays is for Writers and at times, GonzoInk celebrates it with an exercise, an essay on writing, or a guest post by a writer. Today we have the latter two all wrapped up in one nice post by Gordon Bonnet. (@talesofwhoa) on twitter. Please do follow him. he’s incredibly supportive. I really enjoy his blog posts especially those he writes with skepticism in mind. Plus, he has a wicked sense of humor.

Here’s Gordon:

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The following is really a question without an answer, but an intriguing question nonetheless.

I belong to a fiction-writing group that meets weekly on Tuesday evenings.  The range of different styles, plots, and approaches to writing in this group is staggering.  We have (just to mention three examples) a woman writing stories of Mennonite family in Oklahoma during World War II, and the cost (both personal and public) of being a pacifist in a time of war; a tale, humorous and heart-wrenching by turns, of a girl who is foisted off upon her aunt’s extended family, and has to adjust to living in a rural village after spending her whole life in the city; and the story of an 18-year-old farm boy who has been drafted to fight in the French and Indian War.

We have had extended conversations in this group about where inspiration comes from.  To be sure, each of these (and my own writing as well) reflects our lives’ experiences; the settings, and often the characters, are those we know, even if vaguely fictionalized.  But where, really, does that spark come from that sets us off (or that sets an artist or a composer off) on the path to creating something?  I can say from my own experience that I seldom have any real clue where my own ideas come from.  I tend to write fiction with a supernatural twist (an amusing pastime for a hard-headed rationalist, perhaps, but I have to indulge the mystical side of my personality somehow, don’t I?).  And with few exceptions, I can’t really point to anything that was the source of the basic ideas for the pieces I’ve written.

The word “inspiration” comes from the Latin words “in-” (which, indeed, means the same thing as in English) and the verb “spirare” meaning “to breathe.”  So “inspiration” literally means “an inward breath.”  You can still find the word used in its original, literal context in the medical use of “inspire” (meaning “to breathe in”), but the figurative sense is more common.  An inspiration is something that breathes life into a work; and there’s this sense in the term, isn’t there, that it comes from outside us — that it’s something we are the recipients of, not the creators of.

I know that I have frequently had the experience of feeling like some character I was writing about has leapt off the page, and has taken the plot into his or her own hands.  One particularly striking example occurred in my novel Convection, about ten people trapped in an apartment complex during a hurricane.  I had initially intended the character of Jennie, a 19 year old convenience store clerk, to be simply the sullen and bitchy counterpoint to the nine other people in the building; just a foil against which the others’ efforts to remain steadfast, to help each other cope, would stand out in higher relief.  But Jennie wasn’t content to be a backdrop, and an obnoxious one at that, and the only way I can state it (because this is how it felt to me) is that she took over and wrote herself a bigger part.  Her bitchiness became a defense mechanism for her own insecurity, instead of a raison d’etre of her character; and she ended up being the quick one, the only person who was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and figure out why one by one, the survivors of the storm were being killed.  The throw-away character became second only to the point-of-view character in importance to the plot, and when (in the second to last chapter) Jennie gets killed by one of the three remaining people who have survived to that point, the members of my writers’ group were unanimous in their dismay.

“She was my favorite character,” one of them said.  “I know why you killed her, but I hate you for it.”

All of this is just by way of describing how out of control of the writing process itself I often feel.  Now, I’m as certain as I can be that this is just an illusion; I do not believe that there is some kind of Jungian Collective Unconscious from which I am drawing inspiration.  But if this belief (or lack thereof) is correct, then where do these ideas come from?  I suppose that the conventional answer is “the subconscious,” but this to me doesn’t seem to do anything more than to put a name on something we have no explanation for.

So, in the end, I have no explanation for the “otherness” I feel when I am struck with an idea for a story, or the odd feeling that a character has taken control of my hands and is making me write him or her into the story in a different way than I intended.  I am completely convinced that there is a perfectly rational explanation for both of these phenomena, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is.


If you’re a writer and need some networking love, please do visit the squirrelarmy page.

Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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Posted in guest blogging, writerwednesday exercises

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