On Inspiration and Inspired Writers vs. Methodical Writers

You can separate writers into several categories, often capriciously.  What I want to delineate now is the difference between those authors whose main superstition is the muse, and those whose main superstition is hard work.

In Nabokov’s biography of Gogol, he quotes a letter Gogol once wrote, advising a friend against the lies of inspiration; Gogol said that one should be very careful of the things one writes under the influence of a sudden inspiration. Pages that are written under the frenzy of the night will seem mediocre in the morning and indeed, sometimes you write something that you think is good, but what happens is that you don’t really like the text itself, but the memory of writing it, or even worse, how the text relates to you–this last point has no consequences when writing, say, a journal, but in fiction, in literature, this inward gazing will solipsize the reader.

The feelings aroused by a text must be autonomous, and one should not have to know that this or that author had just been cuckolded by his wife the previous night he wrote this or that poem. One falls in love with a wild and beautiful brunette and writes a poem to her; the boy or girl who writes this poem runs the risk of confusing the ardent passion they pour into the page with actual quality. Gogol then suggests a certain sobriety when writing, a sobriety from the very beginning, as opposed to Hemingway’s halfway “Write drunk, edit sober” or Stephen King’s “I’m not saying coke will help you write better, but yeah, it kind of does” (I’m paraphrasing). According to the author of Taras Bulba, writers should limit themselves and write at least 10 pages a day; this was a big number to him, and to me as well. I can fit all of my Tumblr blog’s writings in ten pages.

But one cannot deny the charm of inspiration, the whirlwind, as Virginia Woolf said to describe Dostoyevsky. “I love everything that flows,” wrote Henry Miller, “rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences […] I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul.”

He was obviously talking about himself. Henry Miller is the prime example of a writer by inspiration. Reading his most famous novels, from the Tropics to the Rosy Crucifixion, you find these great bursting bubbles of language that explode in your face and all you can do is blink in shock and lick it all up. But these paroxysms of words are usually accompanied by a sort of loosening, like coming down after taking speed. You can almost feel Miller’s following paragraphs becoming worn and empty, like an office clerk returning to work after the weekend. Reading a novel, you often have to wade through swamps in order to reach a beautiful city; in Miller’s case, this is accentuated to such an extent that it becomes almost unbearable.

His novel Nexus begins by the narrator looking at a stack of books and talking about Dostoyevsky; a perfect nod.

“Like the discovery of love, like the discovery of the sea, the discovery of Dostoyevsky is always a memorable time in our lives. It usually happens during adolescence; maturity seeks out and finds more serene writers.”
–Jorge Luis Borges

Writers whose sentences tumble out. Writers whose paragraphs are like great tangles that can swallow up more and more, a self-contained apparatus.

But also writers whose books have splendid architectures.

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It’s a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times. When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology). Even the architect’s claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.
–Zadie Smith

The pleasure of being swept by the whirlwinds of inspiration; but also, the pleasure of roaming an intricate building, opening a small door that leads to a dark and stately bedroom, returning to the hallway and feeling the scent of honeysuckle from the window, seeing a picture on a frame of an old man that reminds us of another picture in another room, of a younger man.

Literature is nothing more than a guided dream. Dreams often seem chaotic, but analyze them long enough and you will find a secret architecture that your brain crafted and then veiled from you. The surprise, and perhaps even the horror, of discovering that architecture is one of the many pleasures of literature.

And from time to time you will find those precious few writers who have a little bit of both things, burning orbs of inspiration contained within methodical madhouses. Faulkner and his dilapidated mansions.

Writers who are deliberately and carefully chaotic:

  • James Joyce
  • Roberto Bolaño
  • José Saramago
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • Julio Cortázar
  • Cervantes

Writers who are just chaotic:

  • Boris Vian
  • Roberto Arlt
  • Rabelais
  • Jack Kerouac
  • Julio Cortázar
  • Cervantes

8 thoughts on “On Inspiration and Inspired Writers vs. Methodical Writers

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