The Insides of Inspiration: An Essay

It was one of those days. I stared at the computer screen, the cursor standing there on the blank page, blinking every second and mocking my ebbing creative flow. Then I saw, right at the bottom of the page, a way out…


                                                         “Looking for Inspiration? Inspire me”


And just for a moment, I found respite in the fact that it was obviously not just me who often felt a lack of this illusive phenomenon, the one which we for lack of a better term call “INSPIRATION”.


And I was inspired to deconstruct the insides of Inspiration.



Painting: A woman looking for Inspiration by William Bouguereau



The Latin origin of the word is inspirare which loosely translates to “to breathe into” and I like to think of it as something that breathes life into a work of art. Some people like to define it (though I feel Inspiration in its essence is indefinable) as “an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical or other artistic endeavor”, but this definition misses out the role of inspiration in areas other than the Arts. A man who amidst all struggles and adversities, pours himself completely into work and outperforms himself so as to provide a better life to his family is also, in my view, Inspired! And that’s what makes me believe Inspiration to be at its core, the “WHY” behind what we do.

While looking for answers in my favorite place, i.e. research data bases, I was surprised to find that modern psychology has a small number of research studies on Inspiration because inspiration being an entirely internal process is rather hard to bring to the laboratory and study. I couldn’t help but smile, what we know not, intrigues us!

When I did not find many answers in research, I began looking in History and what I found was rather interesting.

According to the Greek, Inspiration comes from the Muses and the Gods.

In Greek thought, inspiration meant that the poet or artist would go into ecstasy or furor poeticus, the divine frenzy or poetic madness. He or she would be transported beyond his own mind and given the gods’ or goddesses own thoughts to embody.


Tyard classified four kinds of divine inspiration: the Poetic fury, gift of the Muses, knowledge of religious mysteries through Bacchus, prophecy and divination through Apollo and inspiration by Venus/Eros. The last is evidenced by the absolute excess of poems, old and new, insipid and pure genius, all about that all-consuming and timeless inspirer of art, Love.

In Christianity, inspiration is so elusive yet valued that it is considered to be a gift from the Holy Spirits.  Poets Coleridge and Shelley believed that poets were attuned to divine and mystical winds which made them able to create. In addition, Emerson saw inspiration similar to the Greeks: it was a matter of madness and irrationality.

Later, towards the 20th century, the belief that inspiration comes from the Gods shifted. Edward Young in his ‘Conjectures on Original Compositions’ that was pivotal in formulating the Romantic notions of inspiration agreed with psychologists who were locating inspiration within the personal mind and away from the demonic/divine realm yet still possessing a supernatural quality.

John Locke considered inspiration to be a model of the human mind where ideas resonate with one another. Freud theorized inspiration to be located in the inner psyche of the mind much like psychologists today do.


On the lines of Locke’s concept of Inspiration, Rosamund Harding, a music historian, in her book ‘An Anatomy of Inspiration’ proposes that a writer not only needs adequate knowledge of his chosen subject of writing but also needs extraneous knowledge outside his sphere of activity to produce new and original combinations of ideas. I find this to be a rather geometrical view of an abstract concept, for it says nothing about where the ideas come from which is the true process of inspiration.



I read these lines in George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I write’ which presents four explicit motives of writing and it stuck with me:

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery.


In each of the views, one thread runs common, inspiration, seems to be by its very nature, beyond control. I believe it is always the ‘why’ that inspires and the ‘why’ for each person is different. When I feel at a loss of words, unable to think, unable to create, I remind myself ‘why’ I write:

It’s the stillness of being a writer that draws me. The power of letting the mind go absolutely anywhere and inviting the reader to piggyback along. The possibility of stretching any moment for as long or as short as I like it. To twist the narrative in the direction I fancy. To create dialogue where in real life there might have been impenetrable silence. To tell a crime story from the offender’s perspective, with empathy and a deep awareness of our fickle humanness. And to eventually set straight the unfairness of this world, at least on paper.

And that in itself is for me an inspiration. So ask yourself, WHY do you do, what you do and when you find your answer, write it down, put it up, display it, discuss it, show it off, keep it in your pocket, hide it, curl up in bed with it, keep it wherever you like but just don’t let go of it, so the next time you feel a lack of inspiration, you know just where to look.



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