What An Evening With Yaa Gyasi Taught Me About Inspiration

I first came across the incredible stillness and power of Yaa Gyasi’s writing early last year when reading a short story penned by the Ghanaian-born author in Guernica Magazine.

Inscape, narrated from a daughter’s perspective, told the tale of a woman and her Ghanaian mother, weaving between themes of religion, culture and mental illness with an unerring lullaby-like quietude that somehow made the story all the more arresting, not to mention, well… disturbing. The reading experience was like being electrocuted with a feather.

And so, offered the opportunity to be in the audience this past Tuesday night at Manchester’s Waterstones bookstore as Gyasi discussed her debut novel, Homegoing, I was excited to hear, from the woman herself, where that savage stillness to her writing originated.

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I ain’t gonna front. I was pretty stoked to have her sign my copy.

However, although she shared plenty of interesting insights about her creative process and the seven year journey that led to the completion of her book, the thing that stood out the most was a comment she made whilst describing a trip to a slave dungeon on the coast of Ghana as part of a fellowship grant she’d received to research her novel.

“It’s the one time I’ve truly felt inspired to write something.”

And by inspired she meant a sense of conviction – compulsion even – that she would give form to the emotions she felt as she stood in that dank, dim space where centuries before hundreds of men, women and children had been manacled and imprisoned whilst waiting to be shipped to an even worse fate on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s a sentiment that got me thinking…

Here is an incredibly talented writer, an author who’s debut novel was reportedly secured via a seven-figure advance, and yet she is able to name only one moment in her recent past – and a pretty emotionally loaded one at that – where she can claim with certainty she felt inspired to write.

The implication?

She works whether she feels inspired to do so or not.

Which reminds me of the words of one Pyotr Tchaikovsky…

“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.”

You see, Tchaikovksy believed that inspiration, although not an illusion, was overrated. And that work, even creative work, should not hang on its breath. Here’s how he described it.

“There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest (inspiration) does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.”

Eloquently put isn’t it. And the kind of truth you could apply to all sorts of things — relationships, career, whatever. But the reason I find myself thinking about it now is something I’m beginning to observe with my own attitude to writing.

With most walks in life we take Tchaikovsky’s advice as given. We get the whole there-are-just-some-things-you’ve-gotta-do rhetoric. It’s just part of being an adult. The paying of bills or keeping of appointments are not the kinds of thing we can leave to whim or claim to be subject to inspiration. Obligations aren’t like that. That’s why they’re obligations.

But when thinking about things involving creativity — writing a song, or a story, or coming up with an invention, or innovation — you can’t (or at least I can’t) help picturing the Archimedean Eureka moments like Newton’s apple or Einstein’s clock tower.

And so the idea of just demanding for those things to happen, setting a deadline for them, seems akin to the king’s demand for the jester to make him laugh — a pressure that can’t help being counterproductive to the desired result (not unlike trying to improve learning by asking seven year olds to sit tests. But anyway, I digress).

The funny thing is recently I’ve been discovering the surprising gift of the deadline, of being obliged to be inspired. Something American author and artist, Bill Watterson, developed an ironic take on, saying

“You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last minute panic.”

I’m beginning to feel he may be sort of right. The squeeze of a deadline brings about a certain focus, makes you surprise yourself and, as Stephen King once observed, separates ‘amateurs’ from those who might aspire to something more.

The question is, how do you know when that pressure is too much? Can the answer only be discovered through trial and error? Is there no other sure-fire way to discern good pressure — the kind that raises your game, and provokes productivity — from its more destructive counterpart (e.g. SATs for seven year olds)?

Is it possible to summon inspiration at will? And is inspiration, as Tchaikovsky, Gyasi and others suggest, overrated?

What do you think?

What inspires you?

Do you even need to be inspired?

Would love to hear your thoughts and any stories you might have of working with or without inspiration. Did it change the quality of the work, or just the experience of working?

Let me know below.

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