Do you have a demon for writing inspiration?

Word count: 623 words

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Do you ever struggle to find writing inspiration? Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert has some unusual thoughts about the origins of inspiration. Keep reading to find out more.

When I read the memoir Eat, Pray, Love several years ago I was like a 14-year-old facing a package of salt & vinegar potato chips. I couldn’t put it down. Even though I knew the book wasn’t exactly Pride & Prejudice and I found the author’s self-fascination relentless (maybe even appalling) I also found the book riveting.

Thus, a few weeks ago, when a good friend told me that author Elizabeth Gilbert had delivered a TED lecture, I felt the same frisson of interest. What would Gilbert have to say? In fact, what did she look and sound like?

Turns out, she’s an engaging public speaker. And her topic — the origins of creativity — is even more interesting to me than the story of her life.

Gilbert started her speech by focusing on her current conundrum — what she calls “the best-seller thing.” You see, many of her friends and acquaintances believe her writing life is now stuck on one remaining trajectory — downhill. By that they mean, how does she stand to look herself in the mirror or exercise her fingers at the keyboard knowing that she’s already written her best book.

My own book, 8½ steps to writing faster, better is more modestly successful so I can’t pretend to share her misery — but I know what she means. In her lecture she describes her central question as “how to continue to do the work I love?” Believe it or not, her answer rests in ancient history.

Turns out that both the Ancient Greeks and Romans did not allow writers to accept full praise or blame for their work. Instead they relied on the concept of what the Greeks called “demons” and the Romans termed “genius.” These were not as we understand the words today. Instead, they were divine and magical third parties that “descended” upon authors, imbuing them with great ideas to write about.

The big advantage of this system, as Gilbert points out, is that while authors didn’t get as much praise if they did well, they also didn’t get as much blame if they did badly. “People would just think you had a lame genius,” she says with a laugh. In a similar vein, she also tells of story she learned from an interview with contemporary musician Tom Waits.

One day he was driving down a freeway in LA when the most gorgeous fragment of melody flitted through his mind. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a pen, a tape recorder or any way to capture his inspiration. In the past, he said, this would have angered him tremendously. This time, however, he simply looked upward and said to the sky, “Can you not see that I’m driving? If you want to exist, come back another time. Or go bother Leonard Cohen!”

In my last two columns, I’ve written about mindmapping. This, I think, is a concrete way to channel that inspiration, to fully engage the demon/genius and to get that ineffable something that we all need to be able to write. I’m not sure I agree with Elizabeth Gilbert that it’s an outside force that dwells beyond us. I suspect it may be the reverse — an interior force that’s so deeply buried we need to “dig down” for it.

Regardless of where inspiration comes from, however, I’m absolutely convinced that mindmapping is the way to lure it or uncover it.

PS: If you have 20 minutes to spare, see Elizabeth Gilbert’s full speech.

PPS: Last week I told you about my Twitter account but neglected to give you my name (what a newbie I am!) It’s @pubcoach and I post at least once a day. Sign up here. It’s easy and there’s no charge to create accounts.