Ah, the Greeks. More than any other culture, we credit them with igniting our love affair with storytelling and its unique ability to immerse us into a land of make believe. It's here that we suspend reality for just a moment as we are transported to a unique time and place. The myths, where gods and goddesses sat on Mount Olympus eating ambrosia and sipping nectar, while they blatantly meddled in the lives of the mere mortals on earth, became the fodder for later tales penned by the greats. And indeed, Pyramus and Thisbe became Romeo and Juliet, which became West Side Story. (Ask Mr. Google: he will give you a mountain of lesser known examples with the same tried and true tragic plot line.) But perhaps the Greek’s most well-known aesthetic legacy to us has come in the form of the muse, that ethereal being from which creative stimulation comes. It is an idea that has endured through the centuries. And it is the nine sisters who most fascinate me as I sit down to write and wonder if I can tap into that same bit of motivation as I search for the elusive quality, that abstract notion we call inspiration.
For the ancients, the artistic stimulus came in the form of an incantation, an appeal for the proper muse to show up and wave some bejewled magic wand to get the imaginative ball rolling. Of course, there was great fanfare and overflowing gratitude when she did appear bearing gifts, and the writer, sculptor, architect or musician was able to make something beautiful as a result. And yes, when she was off being the benefactor to someone else, leaving the poor artist high and dry, it was disappointing. But it also placed the credit (or blame) on an outside source as through the whole idea of inspiration is some inexplicable, supernatural encounter that either happens or doesn’t, something that exists beyond our somewhat limited reach. It is a lovely, romantic notion, but it is misguided. My apologies to Homer.
As human beings, we are uniquely created with the ability to think and reason and problem solve. Yes, that’s logical, pragmatic even. But we can also feel, and this, my friends, is the source of what inspires us. Our emotional compass may take us on a wild ride on any given day as we register love, anger, jealousy, sorrow, empathy, fear. We mark the moments, both big and small, in our lives by how it ranks on the joy meter, and the happy times are those we remember as we fondly recall them with each passing year. And conversely, we think of the tragic times, when our hearts were ripped from our chests, the physical pain often mirroring the emotional. Yeah, ask people to truly tell you about their lives, and they will describe these moments, bookended, fitting together like the yin and yang of existence.
So inspiration involves being subjected to emotion, feeling in its purest form, allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to sense it in all of its rawness, and then figuring out a way to translate that to somebody else. It is that indefinable sensation of being one with the fictional tale. a passionate response. In other words, if a writer wants the reader to experience sadness in a story, then he must do so as well. He must dig deep into his own soul to flesh out the sensation of grief and despair, conjuring up the awareness of how that feels. Some will use mood-enhancing music to evoke a sensation or focus on a memory. (Wine sometimes works, too.) For me, I must literally be transported to the time and place about which I write. I have to jump into Sheldon’ Cooper's time machine (which originally belonged to Jules Verne, by the way) and “go there” to experience the story, and the accompanying emotion, right along with my characters. As an invested observer, if I am not crying and laughing with them, as they navigate the conflicts or celebrate the triumphs, then I am missing the mark. And it shows.
Inspiration is not a pretty muse perched on my shoulder, whispering the right words in my ear; no, it is the real, down and dirty feeling of what is truly happening as each chapter unfolds. Sometimes, it is really hard, downright agonizing, but it is always authentic. And I hope that translates into what I write.
When I taught high school English, I used to ask my students if they liked to read. Some were enthusiastic while others made a sour teenage face and declared that they hated it. My simple questions to the nay sayers went something like this: “When you read a book, do you see the movie in your mind? Do you feel like you are there?” The nonreaders were surprised that this was even a possibility, that there was more to the process than simply correctly identifying the words on a page. And I am pleased to say, that I was able to convert a few of them by showing them how to let their imagination take over as they explored a work of fiction. (That was a big victory as an educator. Huge.)
And so, it is incumbent upon the writer to set up this world and the characters who inhabit it, to tap into that intangible source of inspiration to show what a book might reveal without telling. If done right, the storyline should allow the reader to use their own perception and experiences to fill in the blanks and ultimately be moved in some way. Sigh. And yes, that is pathos, which means to stir up the emotions. It’s a Greek term. Those folks really were literary geniuses, weren’t they?