Asking an author where (s)he got the idea for a certain story can open up a whole creativity can of worms. Today, Donn Taylor gives us a peek into how inspiration can work. -- Sandy
Donn: Creation remains one of human experience’s unsolved mysteries. Does the thing that has not been before come from outside (inspiration, whose root meaning is a “breathing in”)? Or does it come from within the person (creativity, the ability to make new ideas or things)? Or can it be a combination of both? We will reach no ultimate conclusions on this question today, but we can speculate on several examples.
Among these, some of the most fascinating occur when someone takes a fresh look at something others have observed for years. One afternoon in Culver City, California, in 1921, the silent film producer Hal Roach was gazing out his office window, watching children at play. Many of us have delighted in sights such as that. But to Hal Roach came the stroke of creativity: If children at play entertained him for a full quarter of an hour, why not film them to entertain moviegoers? The result was the popular series of “Our Gang” comedies that amused audiences until about 1944.
Something similar happened in 1941 to the Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral when he and his dog returned from a hunting trip. Burrs had stuck to his clothing and the dog’s hair. This had been happening to people ever since clothing, dogs, and burrs existed, but de Mestral asked what made the burrs stick. He found that burrs had tiny hooks that latched on to any kind of loop. From that discovery he developed the product we now know as Velcro.
In each of these cases the stimulus came from outside, but the creative act came from inside the observer. These and other instances lead me to believe that some external stimulus is usually required to spark the inner creative impulse.
Similar things happen to writers, one example being my poem “Married Love.” From graduate school days I had admired Renaissance art, particularly those paintings and schematics that tried to capture all possible meanings of a selected concept within one work of art. And Edmund Spenser had attempted the same kind of structure in The Fairie Queene with extended passages about the House of Pride and the House of Holiness. So I decided to try something similar with the House of Married Love, using images to suggest all the wonders of that love. But the idea would not have been complete without imaging the barrenness of counterfeits of love that lie “outside the house.” Again, the stimulus came from outside, but the creative act to develop something new came from inside.
Things like that also happen in writing novels. In my thriller The Lazarus File, I had the hero/pilot hijacked to arrange his meeting with the totally dissimilar heroine. The only use I had for the hijacker was to make that happen. He held the hero at gunpoint on the airport ramp in Medellin, demanding that he make a flight to move the heroine out of guerrilla territory. As I wrote the scene the hero naturally asked what would happen if he didn’t make the flight. Then this speech happened, totally unplanned: The hijacker looked sad and said, “"Ah, Señor…Before the Sabbath I must attend confession, and some patient Father must hear the tedious catalog of my sins. Why would you add your murder to that sordid list? You should be more considerate of the priesthood."
After that chop-logic I knew I had to get more mileage out of the hijacker. The creative act had come unbidden, but planning would be required to capitalize on it. So I had the hijacker tackle straightforward problems with outlandish Rube Goldberg schemes that somehow always worked. I had him speak in clichés that he never got quite right: “You will find the grass is greener when you are not straddling the fence.” And readers liked the character so much that I brought him back in Deadly Additive, with a son who boasted, “I am a sheep off the old black.”
In the end one doesn’t know where these ideas come from. But it seems to me that something outside provides the stimulus, and the creative impulse and craftsmanship take over from that point.
What are your ideas on the subject? Have you ever been happily writing along and discovered you've created something new you never intended (like Donn's hijacker)? Have you witnessed something that sparks an idea?
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he earned a PhD in English literature (Renaissance) and for eighteen years taught literature at two liberal arts colleges. He was chosen by faculty as "Scholar of the Year" at one and by students as "Professor of the Year" at the other. His poetry is collected in his book Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. In addition to his historical novel Lightning on a Quiet Night, he has published two suspense novels and a light-hearted mystery. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences and groups. He lives near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction and poetry, as well as essays on writing, ethical issues, and U.S. foreign policy.