Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Revisiting Inspiration and Creativity

by Donn Taylor

            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.

            Several things came together to result in the Paddington Bear books. On Christmas Eve of 1956, Michael Bond saw a single toy bear left on a store shelf by itself. He reports that he felt sorry for it and bought it for his wife. As a child, he had always had a story before he went to bed. He was already writing, so he began writing stories about the bear. He added the Paddington name because he and his wife were living near Paddington Station at the time. His stories sold then and, with subsequent books, have sold more than thirty-five million copies.
            Accidents can also lead to creation. In 1943, Richard James was working with metal springs to cushion the Navy's sensitive radio equipment. One coiled spring fell off of a shelf. But instead of simply lying there, it seemed to "walk" its way from one place to another. James converted that quality into a toy, the Slinky, that walks its way down stairs without help from human hands. The result came from a mind that not only observed, but asked "How can I use that?"
            I can't claim any such inspirational moments in my writing experience, but in retrospect I can see instances where a number of disparate things coalesced into a written work. During an anti-communist rally in North Dakota in the 1980s, I met historian Lewis Tambs, former US ambassador to Colombia and Costa Rica. He explained to me Soviet Russia's global strategy of controlling critical places on the earth's surface. Examples included the (then) Soviet naval base at Aden, the entry to the Red Sea, and their (then) submarine base at Cam Ranh Bay on the South China Sea. I saw the same strategy being practiced in the Caribbean area.
            More than a decade later I began to write a novel intended to be modeled on Gavin Lyall's The Wrong Side of the Sky. It didn't end up that way. Ambassador Tambs' information led me to research the interaction of the Soviets with Colombian guerrillas and drug lords. I'd long been angered by American leftists' practice of outing US undercover agents, getting at least one of them assassinated. And there were the CIA's known defectors to Cuba and such places.
            During the Colombia research I found a picture of a lone house on a hill. With that, everything fell into place: a landscape setting for much of the novel's action, events derived from the study of Soviet subversion, and flight scenes based on my studies of drug flights into the US from Colombia.
            In retrospect, that seems more analytical than creative. The creativity, if any, comes from brooding over those materials and continuously asking, "What if…?"
            I'm told that sometimes the creative idea will come to a writer like a lightning strike. But more often it seems to come like my procedure described above: a gradual accumulation of experiences without particularly thinking of writing, followed by reconsideration of those experiences while asking, "Why not?" and "What if…?"
            I will be interested in hearing how other writers have experienced the creative process 
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