Does Intellect + Inspiration = Good Writing?

by Terri Alexander


It’s inherently funny to apply a mathematics equation to any creative process, and particularly to writing. The intellect component is pretty straightforward, but the inspiration piece is often amorphous, unreliable, and deeply individual. Yet, we can tell when our work is inspired, and we can definitely tell when it’s not.

In a 2009 TED Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert shared her experience in a presentation entitled, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” She was coming off the wild success of her book, Eat Pray Love, and felt immense pressure to produce another work of equal or greater measure. She was terrified, so she dove into research, looking for comfort and answers.

Gilbert found that in ancient Greece and Rome, it was believed that inspiration came from a divine spirit called a “daemon” or “genius.” The artist was just the conduit. When the concept of rational humanism became accepted, around the time of the Renaissance, it caused a shift in how genius was seen. It evolved to be understood as a human quality. Now, all of the pressure was on the artist instead of some divine spirit. Gilbert’s solution is to “take the genius out of you and put it back out there where it belongs.” She posits that doing so protects you from the results of your work, whether that is success or failure.

Consider the authors who have struggled with alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide – Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace. The list goes on and on. It’s heartbreaking to think about all of the works that weren’t written by these and other literary greats due to their suffering. Consider the how-to books, the motivational quotes, the general angst that surrounds writers and other creatives. It’s a perilous endeavor.

If we are to subscribe to Gilbert’s solution, it means we must surrender inspiration to something outside of ourselves. That can be terrifying too, but ‘getting out of one’s own way’ can also be very freeing. I like to imagine it this way: I’m dangling from a bridge above a great precipice. The bridge is my ego, my need for success and praise. I loosen my fingers from the bridge and let go into a free fall.

Ironically, Gilbert’s advice reminds me of the wildly successful “12 Step” program started by Alcoholics Anonymous and now used in many areas of addiction and self-help. The first step is admitting we are powerless, which most of us can attest to feeling at times when seated in front of a blank page with a blinking cursor. The second step is to believe in a power greater than ourselves, an echo of Gilbert’s sentiment. For some of us, this is second nature, and for others, it’s a place we’re not willing to go.

Whatever our faith or lack thereof, surrender can be challenging because it’s at loggerheads with what it means to be human, particularly in the self-determination of Western society. We’re hardwired in so many ways to do the opposite of surrender. Gilbert admits that her solution may simply be a protective construct, but she truly believes it has the potential to improve the mental and physical health of writers and enable them to create inspired work.

Consider how you feel when you write one really great sentence. Or, are suddenly hit with an amazing idea for a story. Where did the words or idea really come from? Wherever we think inspiration comes from, most of us can agree that writing is hard and brave. No mathematical equation will clarify that. I take comfort in Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea that there is a genius living in the walls of my writing studio, feeding me words and quelling my fears.