What an evening with Yaa Gyasi taught me about inspiration

I first came across the incredible stillness and power of Yaa Gyasi’s writing some years ago when reading a short story penned by the Ghanaian-born author in Guernica Magazine.

Inscape, narrated from a daughter’s perspective, told the tale of a woman and her Ghanaian mother, weaving between themes of religion, culture and mental illness with an unerring lullaby-like quietude that somehow made the story all the more arresting, not to mention, well… disturbing. The reading experience was like being electrocuted with a feather.

And so, offered the opportunity to be in the audience at Manchester’s Waterstones bookstore as Gyasi discussed her debut novel, Homegoing, I was excited to hear, from the woman herself, where that savage stillness to her writing originated.

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However, although Gyasi shared plenty of interesting insights about her creative process and the seven year journey that led to the completion of her book, the thing that most stood out was a comment she made whilst describing a trip to a slave dungeon on the coast of Ghana — a trip she’d taken as part of a fellowship grant she’d received to research her novel.

It’s the one time I’ve truly felt inspired to write something.

And by inspired she meant a sense of conviction — compulsion even — that she would give form to the emotions she felt as she stood in that dank, dim space where centuries before countless men, women and children had been manacled and imprisoned, waiting to be shipped to an even worse fate on the other side of the Atlantic.

It got me thinking…

Here is an incredibly talented writer, an author who’s debut novel was reportedly secured via a seven-figure advance, and yet she is able to name only one moment in her recent past — and a pretty emotionally loaded one at that — where she can claim with certainty she’d felt inspired to write.

The implication?

She works whether she feels inspired to do so or not.

Which reminds me of the words of one Pyotr Tchaikovsky…

Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.

Tchaikovksy believed inspiration to be overrated. And that work, even creative work, should not hang on its breath.

There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest (inspiration) does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Eloquently put isn’t it. And the kind of truth you could apply to all sorts of things — relationships, career, whatever. But the reason I find myself thinking about it now is something I’m beginning to observe in my own relationship with writing.

The inspiration fallacy

With most walks in life we take Tchaikovsky’s advice as given. We get the whole there-are-just-some-things-you’ve-gotta-do rhetoric. It’s just part of being an adult. The paying of bills or keeping of appointments are not the kinds of thing we can leave to whim or claim to be subject to inspiration. Obligations aren’t like that. That’s why they’re obligations.

But when thinking about things involving creativity — writing a song, or a story, or coming up with an invention, or innovation — we can’t help picturing those Archimedean ‘Eureka!’ moments, like Newton’s apple or Einstein’s clock tower.

And so the idea of just demanding for those things to happen, can on some level seem akin to the king’s demand for the jester to make him laugh — a pressure that can’t help but undermine the desired result (not unlike trying to improve learning by asking seven year olds to sit tests, by the by. But I digress).

And yet despite all this, the funny thing I’ve begun to notice is that I’m becoming increasingly grateful for the gift of deadlines, of being obliged to be inspired.

You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last minute panic.

Bill Watterson, author and artist

I’m beginning to feel that Watterson in his irony may have been right. The squeeze of a deadline brings about a certain focus, makes you surprise yourself, and, as Stephen King once observed, separates ‘amateurs’ from those who might aspire to something more.

The bloody-mindedness of creating on cue, simply because I have to, and without enough time, seems to be drawing out my best work.

A conclusion, of sorts

Inspiration then is an illusion, a pocket of time and feeling in which we feel especially able to trust ourselves, believing that our work will be imbued with some added quotient of life or dynamicism, merely through the momentum of how it feels, in those moments, to work.

But this belief isn’t true. What makes your work is you. Not a feeling. You are the common denominator in every artefact of quality you have produced.

It is learning to trust this reality that makes you a professional, able to create and work whether you feel inspired to or not. Cognisant of the skill, sensibility and accrued experience inherent in how you approach your craft.

And that is the difference when it comes to doing great work. Not inspiration. Trust. And the willingness to take risks because of it. Learning to simply do — when you feel uncertain, unsure, vulnerable etc., and perhaps even because you feel these things — is a core essence of all art.

We do not need to feel inspired to do good work. We need to trust ourselves to do good work. It is perhaps this truth author and essayist John Updike was hinting towards when he famously said:

We write by faith

So, this year, have a little faith. Heed the sentiments of Tchaikovsky, Gyasi and others. Eschew the need to be inspired.

Decide. Do. Trust. Create.

You have all that you need, because you are all that you need.

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