One medium-sized word, but, utter it in a room full of writers, and it will chill the audience. Neil Gaiman hates it too. And most authors struggle to answer this question (like Stephen King, John Irving, and Alan Hollinghurst), and yet it resurfaces from one interview to the next. Would-be writers beg for the proverbial ‘Prometheus’ flame.’ As if it is good advice that could give them that spark of creativity.
What inspires you? They ask.
I, too, have sinned and asked the forbidden question to none other than George A. Romero, the father of the modern zombie genre.
My context is simple; I am a restless person who often finds exciting ways to occupy herself. One of the many ‘side-hustles’ I do during summer is volunteering and now working at my local Comic-Con. One year, while doing my rounds, I noticed that Mr. Romero’s booth was dead (a tragedy), so I had a brief, polite chat with him.
To his credit, Mr. Romero didn’t even flinch. He adjusted his thick-black-framed glasses and began to explain how he didn’t know. But the news was often on at his home, droning on in the background. Like some ominous background noise ramping up a sense of impending doom and panic.
Remarkable people have spent a significant time devoted to understanding what makes creative people get ‘inspired.’ What is ‘inspiration’ in the first place?
Let’s discuss what creates the neural equivalent of ‘alchemist’s fire.’
The developed and mature human brain has 1,000 trillion synapses. Synapses are connections between neurons. Those connections establish throughout an individual’s lifetime, and they can adapt as needed. For example, though we know which areas of the brain are responsible for language (Broca’s for speaking and Wernicke’s for understanding), they must be mapped before surgery in those sensitive areas. If a neurosurgeon were to perform surgery on the left hemisphere where both sensitive areas are, they risk damaging the patient’s ability to speak or understand language.
A single mapping is also not conclusive, should a patient need a repeat surgery along the left hemisphere, the brain needs remapping again to confirm those areas to haven’t changed.
Did you catch that?
A few years of your life is enough time for your language centers to change. Neurons move and adapt, making your language centers adjust and shifting physical location. Your brain is constantly shifting and changing.
Now, isn’t that something?
It infers that the massive neural network inside your skull is in a constant state of flux, adapting and shifting to the happenings of the day. Be they events, injuries, or even heartbreak. This is what neuroscience refers to as neuroplasticity.
The importance of dreams.
If the brain’s shifting and adjusting, does that not make inspiration an ever more fleeting butterfly?
Dreams are not enigmatic prophecies of your future. Science shows they’re closer to reinterpretations of your past. Dreams are how your mind digests the events and emotions of the day. It triages what to keep in your long-term memory and what to discard. Dreams are how your subconscious makes sense of your experiences and chooses how to interpret them.
With these concepts at hand, let’s break down inspiration.
Know that all great writers, regardless of subject, write in an aggregate.
The adage that every good idea has already got dozens of versions in books, movies, or music is true.
Yet we still find more to write about. Either by becoming more concise on the topic or discovering new information. When you add information on an existing topic, say write in a genre, and decide to play with the conventions of it, you are conversing with the previous generations.
But to have a meaningful exchange, be it on philosophy, in science, or fiction; you must first know the context.
You need to know what’s current before you can add more. It seems basic and easy, but it requires learning on your part to get your situational awareness updated. The more developed a subject, the more work a new voice must do to add to the existing body of discussion.
Zeitgeist, are you in it?
So, if you look back at your personal history, would you be able to cite some influences that shaped aspects of you? Was there a book you read that marked you in your youth? Or perhaps while you were in high school? Were you invested in a fandom? A band you loved or a sport that you played and followed with fervent passion?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to accept that those things influenced you. You are a product of the times you grew up in, and the younger you were, the stronger the influence will be. It’s not only language, culture, geography, and wealth that shapes our environment. It is also the media we consume. Look around online and see the wave of nostalgia and remakes in Hollywood!
Being connected to the Zeitgeist is poignant for creative individuals. The ideas that impressed in youth tend to return, evolve, and transform over time.
As the Zeitgeist is the ‘nurture’ of your upbringing, nature has its role. Without being deterministic, you know there are some things you like and some things you don’t. It feels hard-coded. Like with gender, sexuality, or mental acuity, it’s not a binary system; instead, it is a spectrum. Where your relative starting point is, it does not determine your growth rate. The wonderful thing that is neural plasticity gives us all that freedom.
All together now!
Ideas are always changing as they bounce between neural connections, much like roots in a plant. And those roots grow and connect to other ideas. These connections are random or connected, like associating Greek mythologies to Harry Potter. Teasing out those connections between the great ideas you have had with the influences on your life is a quest every creative has to do themselves.
Sometimes it’s as simple as you watching this show you like and wanting to put your spin on it. Other times reading about Quantum physics has left you wanting to know more, and that leads you to curious questions.
Whatever your influences, neuroscientists agree that the place to experience these connections of random ideas is in dream states, like when sleeping or daydreaming.
So, next time someone asks you where you got your idea for that thing you worked on, tell them it came from a dream.
It is accurate to say that our ideas come from our dreams. I say this because I will often get my story ideas as I am drifting off to sleep. Then, if I wake up during the night, the idea manifests into a full-blown storyline. I swear to you, that is how I get my ideas–I’m usually in bed drifting off to sleep.
This is a great article and gives food for thought. Perhaps “you” are the inspiration for someone else’s story or article. We never know how our words influence the thoughts and ideas of others. Thanks writing this article.
Thank you so much! I am glad you found value in this article! 😀
So my stock answer (that it came from 12 ounces of coffee) isn’t correct? Love the article, looking forward to more.
I mean, it’s probably not wrong! I’m providing the science-y answer.
Excellent article, Roark! The concept of inspiration is such a salient one for me and so much of what you wrote rings true to me. I have eclectic interests and thus cull inspiration from myriad sources.
Consequently, the most difficult aspect of writing for me is answering the question, “What is your book about?” succinctly and accurately. Sure, there’s a narrative through-line…but to adhere solely to that in describing my work means sacrificing so many tangents and details that serve to breathe life into the story. One scene might comprise a Final Fantasy anecdote coupled with an event from an episode of LOST alongside a personal experience and something from Shelley or Joyce. The inspirations are diverse but that’s what colors in the lines of my work, I feel.
I love the notion that we write in aggregate because it’s such a crucial point that far too many writers (and hopefuls) overlook. My cross country road trips provided me with so much material—oftentimes manifesting in unexpected ways. So did growing up in New York City and experiencing all of the diversity inherent in inhabiting a metropolis as enormous and variegated as the Big Apple!
Too many writers attempt to emulate their heroes without ever considering how important their own experiences (or lack thereof!) are to the formation of their own unique voices. I think that tapping into the zeitgeist can undoubtedly help to shape those voices, as well, but I think it’s really more about finding things that we can connect with personally and individually. I was in high school in the late ‘90s, so my tastes in music are firmly rooted in that era. My literary interests, though, really expanded more in graduate school in the late-‘00s; in the interim, I absorbed everything from movies and television shows to actual experiences, each of which served to influence my imagination and thus my writing.
Anyway—great piece! Looking forward to checking out more of your work in the future!
Thank you so much Matthew! I’m glad you found this helped clarify or lend a voice to ideas you share with me! It was a great experience to write this and more to come soon! Though not all of it will be non-fiction. 😀