/ 30 March 2024

Is creative inspiration divine?

The Muses Urania And Calliope
Inspirational goddesses: The Muses Urania and Calliope painted by 17th-century French artist Simon Vouet. Photo: Heritage Art/Getty Images
God Edition

Most working writers will tell you there is no such thing as divine inspiration. The magic comes from applying your posterior to your seat and banging out a few hundred words whether you feel like it or not.

They are lying.

Every creative person has had the experience of entering that numinous state where it feels as though they are taking dictation directly from the heavens.

I have heard it described as “channelling”, “conducting” or “receiving” the words they put on the page. As someone who co-hosts a podcast in which we conduct in-depth interviews with writers and poets, my interest in the source of creative inspiration is unending. It is surprising how often writers relate similar experiences.

They often describe a fictional character as speaking directly to them. “She just started talking to me,” they’ll say or, “I tried to kill her but she didn’t want to be dead.” Another common one is for characters to visit their creators in their dreams.

This notion of being visited by an external source of inspiration is even more prevalent among poets than novelists. Poetry is perceived as being less workaday than prose. One cannot write an entire novel in a single uninterrupted gush of inspiration. There is always rewriting and tinkering involved — stitching and unstitching, as Yeats put it.

But poets frequently report writing a poem in a single sitting. They might revise it extensively thereafter, but the initial blurt is often fast. 

Some talk about being struck by an idea for a poem while going about their daily life. They describe pulling their car over to the side of the road and scrabbling for a notepad to get the words down before they disappear.

Poets liken this experience to being visited by a butterfly or a magical bird. The inspiration is externalised. It has come to them from somewhere else and did not originate from within themselves.

In speaking of composers, artists, poets and writers, we often refer to the “creative genius” and to people themselves as “geniuses”. But the word has an interesting origin. 

In the original Latin it referred to an attendant spirit that was present from a person’s birth. If you were good at something creative, you had the spirit that had been hanging around you since you were born to thank for it.

Fiona Snyckers Author Photo By Jeanette Verster (1)

This notion that storytellers owe their ability to the spiritual realm goes back even further.

The ancient Greeks had the muses — inspirational goddesses who were believed to be the source of all science, art and literature practised on earth. The term survives today, with writers talking about being “visited” by their muse.

Other ancient cultures also believed that their oral storytellers were channelling the spiritual realm when they recited their tales. Some storytellers would even take mind-altering substances to strengthen their connection to the metaphysical.

Most writers today are familiar with the experience of writing something in what feels like a fever dream of inspiration, only to look over it in the cold light of day and wonder what the muse could possibly have been smoking to inspire such nonsense. Then we get busy with the delete button.

There is a quote famously mis-attributed to Ernest Hemingway which advises writers to “write drunk and edit sober”. (It is not clear, but this quote may actually have originated in a novel by Peter de Vries.) As one who has tried out every possible permutation of this advice, I would urge writers to write sober and edit sober too. Your delete button will get less of a workout.

I confess to having an uneasy relationship with the metaphysical. In my latest novel The Hidden, religion is very much the bad guy — or at least the cult-like, punitive and patriarchal version of it I depict. It exists to codify men’s control over women’s bodies and to glorify separatism and backwardness. I fully concede that more benign versions exist.

These days, we tend to steer clear of spiritually loaded terms for inspiration and opt for the buzzword “flow” instead. Being in a state of flow means the words come effortlessly and you lose track of time.

Every writer aspires to enter a state of flow when they sit down to write. Unfortunately for most of us, trying to get blood from a stone is more like it. We do everything we can to tap into that “flow”, but more often than not, it eludes us.

Final Cover The Hidden 300dpi With Shout Quote

When it does strike, it feels like a gift, like something has been given to us from an external source. Can you blame us for seeing it in metaphysical terms?

The late, great Eusebius McKaiser — a writer himself and a firm friend of the South African writing community — used to say that he was an agnostic because atheism cannot be justified.

Well, I am an agnostic when it comes to those occasional bursts of creative inspiration. I cannot say for sure that they are not divine in origin.

After all, I wouldn’t want to annoy my muse. She might stop visiting altogether.

The Hidden by Fiona Snyckers is published by Pan Macmillan SA. It is available now in bookstores and electronically. The Hidden Lives of Writers podcast, hosted by Fiona Snyckers and Gail Schimmel, is available on all podcast platforms.