Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The House of Words (no. 31): poet Hannah Stephenson on inspiration

Evidently there are many rooms
in The House of Words.
Today we wander out of the publishing wing
and into the room of the practical muse.
Poet Hannah Stephenson gives advice on
dailiness and inspiration.
Hannah blogs at The Storialist,
where you may find the results
of her advice and much more,
including many links to Hannah-on-the-web.

The Earned Eureka: Locating and Generating Inspiration

Any of us who write or create know that inspiration does not usually occur in one great flood. No angelic choir frantically signals the arrival of brilliance. No solar flare or lightning bolt shakes us by the shoulders, declaring, “WRITE!” And yet, at one point, we have all longed for that magical, triumphant moment in which we are channeling and discovering the world’s truest truths (à la Frankenstein or Einstein or Doc Brown).

Inspiration, fortunately or unfortunately, does not usually visit us in an instantaneous flash. Docs Brown and Frankenstein and Einstein are funny representations of this idea for me. They all came to mind when I thought about lightning-bolt-brand inspiration; intriguingly, none of these doctors are just sitting around, eating Thin Mints by the sleeve when their “Eureka!” moment strikes. If anything, those doctors have been working (and yes, eating Thin Mints) and thinking and researching--it’s just that we (the audience) can’t see this. Indeed, they have earned their Eurekas. The creative process doesn’t just zap and take charge of selected humans, leaving them to exclaim, “Great Scott!”

I would characterize the voice of inspiration as a whisper, a low murmur. Sometimes it is wordless. We barely feel its tug on our sleeve, its tap on our heart.

In order to create in any sustained fashion, we have to learn to listen. Four years ago, to write a poem, I would wait until I felt like I had an interesting idea. Hence, I would write about six poems a year, only two of them surviving my editor’s eye.

This is an example of not listening to myself. I had other ideas throughout that time, certainly--but I quickly dismissed those which did not seem meaningful. What a disservice this was to my writing! These days, I write at least four or five times a week (I post every weekday at my poetry blog, The Storialist, and have since July of 2008). One of the questions I’m asked most often is, “How do you keep yourself inspired almost every day?”

Because I have made the decision to write this often, and to share it this often, I keep writing. I never wait to feel inspired. I focus on generating this inspiration myself (because that’s where it comes from, I think---a conversation between your subconscious and the adventure of life and encounters).

So how do we locate and create inspiration? Delightfully, this is a skill that we can develop (it is not an innate talent we are born with or without). Mostly, it is about noticing our own responses, and realizing that they are already meaningful. What you notice, as opposed to what I notice, is meaningful because we do not observe the world through the same brain or eyeballs or ears.

It’s the same question I ask my students (in first-year composition courses) when they are looking a text, and don’t know what to write. “What do you notice?” I ask. And the next question is, “What is interesting about what you have noticed?”

As artists, those questions are powerful tools for us. I write down ideas in a little notebook (you have one, too, I think), but these ideas are not “ideas for poems.” They are bits of language that are trapped in the drain of my ear, pieces of my day that speak to me. Here’s what one page in my book says: “Your heart, a freeway.” “The LA freeway, the veins of a god.” “What you are desperate for creates a rattle in your core.”  “Whitewater.” “Do something every day that scares you.” “Black cows on a green hill.”

These are scrawled (in my rather hideous handwriting) without editing or evaluation. The moment a thought appears to me like this, I write it down. Not all of this becomes poetry, clearly. But none of it is wasted. This is my practice of being more present in daily life, which is what poetry helps me do. This is me listening to myself.

Black cows on the slope
courtesy of and Clodia Porteous,
who takes pictures near Adelaide, Australia.
She and her husband have a tiny boy named Bodhi,
and Clodia is a part-time architecture student.

The me-of-four-years ago would think, “Black cows? Who the hell wants to read what YOU [I] say about cows in grass,” or “Why do you keep writing about driving? Who else cares about you in the car?!” or “Why don’t I just eat more Thin Mints instead of trying to write anything intelligent--I know it’ll be mediocre.” Now I just write it down. This is my research.

In my blog, I also link to art that has somehow sparked each poem; there is a conversation happening between my words and the piece of artwork. Art turns me on. It turns my brain on. I spend so much time sifting through artist’s sites and looking at art in galleries (also glorious research). When I see a piece I am drawn to, I start in on myself. What do I notice? What is interesting about what I have noticed? What is compelling about that specific observation? What does that remind me of? When have I had this thought before? What emotion is linked to this thought? Where else does this idea occur? What is another way to explain this same concept?

This is not an interrogation; it is an effort to locate inspiration. The painting or the cows on the grass---those are speaking to me because I am speaking to myself (about the world). It just sounds like it is coming from out there. We just have to decide to listen, to respond.


  1. "[There] are bits of language that are trapped in the drain of my ear...." and “What you are desperate for creates a rattle in your core.” -- So well put! I see those black cows too, and a host of many other things, as someone who also has a daily writing habit :)

  2. Here's where I find inspiration: in the example of truly dedicated poets such as Hannah, Luisa and Marly. :) And yes, in works of art, and so much else besides. Perhaps we should find some other, more humdrum word to replace "inspiration," but I must admit I do love the vestige of animistic belief it implies. (And I would suggest that most true animists are or were rather pragmatic people, too. Vodun priests and priestesses, for example, tend to emphasize praxis over belief, from what I read. They don't passively wait for the spirit to descend, either -- they pretty much compel him or her to show up!)

  3. I always liked Faulkner saying that he was only wrote when he was inspired--"Fortunately I am inspired at 9:00 every morning."

    Think I'm almost always ready to write, but I find that three children and other important bits of life move with force and insistence into the way. But life comes before art, creation before subcreation... so that's fine. From one skewed point of view, life is just material gathering and writing.

  4. Thank you for posting this, Marly. Thanks also to you, Luisa, and Dave for the kind words.

    "Hey you, Muse, get your ass over here!"
    (that's me, writing a poem).

  5. Hannah,

    Well, that would make an interesting first line!

  6. Hello Hannah. Nice to meetcha. How do you fit teaching into your writing life? Just how much teaching (how many classes per semester) do you do?
    Of course, you know by my questions that I, too, am a teacher, or at least have long been one, though one never knows how long these things will continue in the adjunct game. And a poet too, though not writing as often as I ought to be.

  7. Hi Robbi!

    Good to meet you, too.

    Regarding teaching---I teach 3 classes each term (usually at 2 different schools). I try to make it MWF at both so I can have Tuesdays and Thursday for catch-up.

    Teaching fits into my writing life very well right now...I always let students in on the fact that I'm a poet and blogger, and tend to focus on the craft and process of writing. I invite students to poetry readings that I host or participate in (not that very many of them come to them!), just to show them what's going on in our city, literary-wise. (My poem at The Storialist tomorrow is totally all about teaching...)

    Yes, the joys of adjuncting--I appreciate the flexibility, but have trouble with the uncertainty sometimes.

    How about you? Do your teaching/writing intersect?

  8. Yes they do Hannah. I get a lot of ideas and energy from my teaching and my students. I have been fortunate in the past 11 years to have been permitted to create my own syllabi, and I have explored all sorts of things I wanted to learn more about--modern slavery, revenge, obsession, the world from a child's point of view. However, politics have decreed that I must leave that job, and I don't know where I will go.
    I have been teaching 2 classes (research papers are very time-consuming) plus hours at the writing lab at one school. Now that I must leave that school, I don't know what I'll do. Things in my state (California) are not so great, as you must have heard. The colleges and universities are hardly in a position to take on new hires, especially expensive ones like me.
    I have been thinking of looking into writing jobs of various kinds, but I have no experience writing on demand. I just follow my own inclinations.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.