Today I’m celebrating marvelous diversity in creative process. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Vladimir Nabokov, who claimed his characters were his galley slaves. Here the artist controls the medium and the content. You have an idea and, with great discipline and hard-earned skill, you execute it. On the other end of the spectrum, you get the novelists whose characters dance the tarantella or pick up a gun or cook tortellini of their own volition. The artist is simply a channel for material and craft. Creative energy works through you and your creation, surprising you in the process.
Then there’s the muddled middle between willful exertion and utter surrender which is where most artists reside. I love the dialectical nature of this realm, how we call out an idea in an inspired rush and then step back to listen, think, analyze, and respond. Next we sweat. Then we’re surprised. Then we crack the whip, fidget in our chairs, and despair at how hard the work is. Then we hear a still small voice. In the middle of the creative spectrum, the artist participates in a fantastic dialogue between his or her very human will and a mysterious, unidentifiable creative force. Call it The Muse, call it inspiration, call it God, call it the emergent collective conscience; this energy is an undeniable participant in every creative project. As are we.
I’m coming to appreciate how over time I skid up and down this spectrum. The poems I penned in junior high were all heavenly-inspired passion. Hannah, Delivered, my first novel, was 85% sweating blood. Most of the time I write somewhere in between, one draft a grueling effort that churns out sparkling prose and the next a magical flow in need of corrections. Both inspiration and willful exertion bring gifts and weaknesses; neither one is more worthy or more likely to produce art. That said, I’m convinced that an artist who inhabits an extreme on the spectrum at the stubborn exclusion of the other extreme is certain to stumble. The best art-making slides up and down the scale. The most meaningful art comes of dialogue between human and Spirit. And let me tell you—am I in love with this conversation! –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew