I have been working on the idea of where we gain our inspiration from for quite some time, and come to no clear answer because, I suspect, there is no clear answer. If I were to go out and seek inspiration, follow a specific path or go to a museum exclusively to allow myself to gain something which would turn into a creation in some way, the day or visit would probably be a failure. Inspiration tends to sneak up on people, which is why so many claim that their best ideas come to them in the shower, the most elusive answers at three in the morning. That’s not to say someone cannot go into a museum and be inspired to create a new work of art, or to write a long and detailed review on what they have seen, but I suspect many of these creations are more ‘work’ than inspired. People who create for a living can attune themselves to certain things which allow them to further their art, whereas we, humble mortals that we are, need something special to start the creative juices flowing.
Which makes me wonder, in a way, about my letter writing – or the writing of short stories – because this is, in effect, what I do. I need to be able to create a new letter, to string words out in an interesting manner, to be inspired to put pen to paper every day. Since I have set myself the target of writing a letter (almost) every day of the week, it is more ‘work’ than pure inspiration, the motivation is different. And the inspiration which is needed for letter writing is completely different to that required for a good short story. For my letters I have a small notebook in which I jot down interesting things which have happened through the days or weeks since a last letter was written which I believe, and hope, will be of interest to someone specific. Then I have the letters which I receive, which always seem to provide a very high level of inspiration – and motivation, of course, since I am honouring the efforts of someone else by replying to them as much as keeping a friendship alive – even, surprisingly enough, the shortest of letters. A few weeks ago I received a two-line ‘letter’ from a young woman, more a reminder that letter writing is not the be-all and end-all of existence for some people, and that there are more technologically advanced methods too, those which I do not like, and managed to write a four page letter by way of reply. Not that it was all about new technology and my dislike of it, my thoughts ramble into other areas occasionally, and part of the inspiration comes from the follow-on thoughts to what has just been written.
Short stories, poems and similar are completely different. You’re no longer writing for one person alone, but for an invisible audience. You need to be able to market your works to someone who then sells it on to others, and the competition is very high in a marketplace which, despite what many believe, is relatively small. This is a massive change to the ways of the past, which I could well have mentioned in an earlier letter, where letters were written specifically to pass on news to more than one person, where it was expected that these missives would be shared, read aloud, even sent on to other friends and acquaintances far afield. I have come across many people who are surprised at the purple prose writing style of some Victorian letter writers, especially those who also wrote books at the time, and have had to explain the difference in writing styles as much as in perceived audience. Even a university lecturer I came across was surprised at the literary style of letter writing employed by one bestselling author of the 1860s, who seemed almost to be writing another one of his novels in shorter form, until he realised the difference in our times and social customs. The writer was Hermann Melville, and he simply wrote his letters in the style and fashion he was accustomed to write other works, as if there was little difference but for the audience he was directing his words at. The content would, naturally, have been different to, say, that of Moby Dick, but the writing style much the same.
The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or lover. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.
You don’t necessarily need to agree with Robert Pirsig completely in this case, as inspiration and motivation certainly do play a very big part in what we do as letter writers, as poets or authors, but when we do begin, when that inspiration is there, we indeed often write straight from the heart, and then edit with the mind. Or, in my case, we write from the heart and then don’t edit our letters at all, leaving all those personal, often amusing, mistakes just where they are like real humans!
There are some who improve with time, who learn from their mistakes or enhance their learning as much as is possible at every opportunity, and there are those who merely make their failings hard and fast as if set in concrete. I don’t know how many times – admittedly not in the creative Arts as such – I’ve come across someone who has a mistake pointed out to them, who is shown a better method of achieving the same or improved results, and sticks to their guns with the justification that they have always done whatever it is this way, so there is no need to change. I fully agree with the maxim there is no need to fix something which isn’t broken, but fixing and improving are two different things entirely. The path to perfection is littered with the useful as much as with the useless, we merely need to be able to decide what is of use to us and then take it in hand, turn it over, learn from it, move on. That goes as much for someone in a manufacturing industry as it does for a writer, an artist or anyone else working with their mind as much as with their hands.
In the end there is no such thing as perfection: we work our way towards something which we cannot achieve, and are more than happy to do so, but there is always someone who could add a single word, move a bolt, change a colour, and improve what we had thought was finished. We are, effectively, on a journey which will see no end: the pursuit of knowledge towards the ultimate nirvana of complete wisdom. It’s not going to happen, but that is certainly no reason to give up the search: every step can be a step in the right direction, and there are who will follow us and be grateful that the path has fewer useless things strewn across it for them to check and discard, as we have already taken them by the hand – metaphorically – and led them to a higher plane from which they may begin their own unique journey.
You must remember, for many incarceration is an end, not a beginning. For some the very idea of being in a prison, even for a short period of time, is as low as they can get and, as they have been taught, there is no way back up again. Once you are in the pits of whichever personal hell has been prophesied for you, that is where you will stay, with the brand mark on your forehead for all to see, and no chance of salvation. Surrounded by those who feel themselves to be in the same position, it is not hard to understand why there is a generally acceptance of ignorance: anyone who has managed to get him or herself caught must have been so stupid in the first place, or so arrogant, and no amount of education will bring them back up to a socially acceptable level to be readmitted into the ranks of those without a criminal record. This thought is, as we know, the height of idiocy: there are many thousands of people who have been incarcerated for real or imagined crimes, and have come back to the forefront of their profession, or to lead their country, or to just be a good, quiet, useful member of society after release. Just the same as it only takes a few people to bring the whole joy of something to nothing, so it also only takes one person to convince one other – and then form a chain of successive convincing – that there is a better way, that this is not the end of the road, that each can better him or herself if they just don’t give up, if they take the challenge, leave the naysayers outside of their immediate circle, and get down to the business of doing something positive for themselves.
Every single person in our form of society has had a basic education, has been shown the foundation of society and of knowledge; there is no one who cannot build up upon that foundation, if they wish, and improve themselves. It may not be much, but it will be something. Those who forget this, who assume that they have been written off by society because that is what the teachers told them in school – go to prison, you’re not a man any more, not a part of the good things in this country – will only lose because they do not take a chance and do not believe in themselves.
And you caught it exactly in your letter: many of those who have reformed themselves and would make a good contribution to society if they were released are still held, while those who are bound to return time and time again are let out, only to be captured in some wrongdoing and brought back in again. The difference? Those who keep on coming back have learned how to lie through their teeth, to convince a parole board of their good intentions. Those who are reformed often tell the truth, and that can work against them. A strange slap in the face of a society which requires truth, which lauds it over all else, that those who have followed this path have the greatest obstacles placed before them. We can let ourselves be inspired by those around us in two different directions, which is a problem for some, unless the motivation is there, which it should be for all, to seek out those with their eyes and minds directed in the same upward direction as we have.
Collections of essays and letters always seem to interest people, even when those essays have been published before and are merely a collection of older works, almost like a résumé of the past. I sometimes come across very interesting collections, not being able to read every single periodical available within the areas of my interests, and then follow the growth of a particular person from their earliest beginnings through to the point where they believe themselves good enough, or famous enough, to make a collection. But even those who have not made a name for themselves as journalists or as opinion writers in the normal press sometimes gain a certain degree of success with collections of essays and reminiscences, a mixture of journals, diaries, letters and miscellaneous writings being the best one can hope for. Earlier in this year one of my other correspondents asked about collections, and even suggested a collection of letters on my side, which is not really something I am considering, during my lifetime at least, but is an interesting idea.
The main obstacle is that collections of essays usually have more success when written by someone who already has a name or a certain position in literary society – or one of the Arts, be it creative or teaching – and not by someone, who may well be far more interesting, unknown. In many ways it is the same as with a collection of poetry or short stories: novels sell well, thrillers and crime especially, but shorter stories, even with a thriller or crime theme, are harder to market. That is, of course, unless you happen to have a sponsor who can do a good deal of advertising, or placement with a major concern to guarantee a certain number of copies will be sold. Poetry sells well to those who really know their way around the theme, through small presses and not the mainstream publishers, although there are still a few – such as Faber & Faber, Oxford and Chicago University presses – who have a poetry division. The days of a wonder such as Alfred Tennyson having people banging on his doors because they bewonder his craft have long since gone, and many people do not even know who the current Poet Laureate in their home country is, let alone what the title means.
I see a big difference between calling letter writing a lost art and a dead one: being lost has more connotations which fit in with the facts whereas dead means gone, and that it most certainly is not. I tend to think of letter writing as being a lost art simply because no one writes letters for more than business or as a quick aside. The thank-you note after receiving presents, for example, is prevalent, but the long letter with news of events, even when people are separated by a great distance is missing. There is little thought put into writing letters, some of the ones I used to see – before I became a little more choosy than I had been – could have been written on a postcard, despite taking up two or three sides. It is almost as if a formula is being followed by those who do still write, whereby they have a beginning, a middle and an end – which is good in many ways – but nothing fits seamlessly together. You can tell that the writer has struggled because they are not used to putting their thoughts down on paper for others to read, or have learned the stiff form required for college papers. The words do not come from the heart, they are edited and improved and lose all their spontaneity as a result.
When I read some of the letters written by ordinary people just one hundred years ago, I feel the difference immediately, and it is this, the tug at the heart-strings, the knowledge that this is a real person simply writing, which has gone. We have become automatons trying to fit to an image which is not within our own heads, which does not exist, because what was is unknown to us. That I find very sad indeed.
On the plus side: people I have written to have replied, having felt themselves challenged, and, after a few initial false starts, discovered that they, too, have the ability to sit down and let their heart as much as their mind write. This small, select group makes the whole thing worthwhile, and shows that while the art may be lost to many, there are still a few of us left who keep it alive, at the very least, and gain immense pleasure from doing so.