‘White Hot Inspiration’: Creative Impulse in Light of Divine Encounter

[Editor’s Note: In her contribution for the ‘Christian Doctrine and the Arts’ series, Alexis De Weese compares stories of creative inspiration to stories of divine encounter and explores how an understanding of spiritual practice might enrich our concept of artistic practice. For more information on this series, see the series introduction.]

When Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was asked about the inspiration for her masterpiece, she replied, ‘Naturally, you don’t sit down in “white hot inspiration” and write with a burning flame in front of you. But since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer, and Mockingbird put itself together for me so accommodatingly, I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or for worse’.[1] Lee points to an important distinction between creative impulse and creative action. One comes as a flash and the other through effort.

There is an air of mystery surrounding the inspiration of artists. Some ideas arise out of the maker’s context and experience while others arrive as if from beyond the maker. As devotional artist Scott Erickson describes it, to be an artist is to be haunted by an idea or the impulse to reconcile beauty with the fallenness of existence.[2] It is this artistic haunting that I find bears a resemblance to theological experiences of divine encounter.

One comes as a flash and the other through effort.

I posit that there is a parallel between divine experience and creative intuition by comparing the moments of sudden, creative inspiration experienced by contemporary fiction authors with the divine encounters of key biblical figures. My case studies are limited to fiction writing since that is what I am most familiar with in terms of personal creative impulse, but I believe my findings and assertions speak to a broader conversation about creative work across mediums. From these comparisons, I hope to draw out the theological implications of creative impulse and discover an approach for connecting Lee’s distinct categories of creative inspiration and its praxis.

To begin, let us examine two examples of creative inspiration and the corresponding Biblical narratives to which they bear a resemblance, seeking insight that may guide the creative practitioner toward what may be asked of them in their own creative endeavour.

J R R Tolkien described his moment of creative impulse as a ‘flashpoint’[3]—a phrase that echoes Harper Lee’s ‘white hot inspiration’. Tolkien was marking examinations and, upon finding a blank sheet amidst the stack of papers, began writing what became the first lines of The Hobbit. In a 1968 interview, he described this experience planting in him a desire to attempt a full epic, saying, ‘I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really stupendously long narrative and to see whether I had sufficient art, cunning, or material to make a really long narrative that would hold the average reader right through’.[4] In looking at Biblical divine encounters that share characteristics of Tolkien’s haunting, I’d like to assess Moses’s calling. In Exodus 3:1–4:17, Moses encounters God as a burning bush on the ‘holy ground’ of the wilderness. God instructs him to return to Egypt to demand the freedom of the Hebrew people. Moses doubts his ability to do this, but God insists it will be possible by his divine power alone.

Just as Moses knew the inner workings of the Egyptian court and customs, Tolkien spent a great length of time fabricating the mythos of a world that his work would inhabit. Likewise, just as Moses was unsure that he would be able to lead the Israelites, Tolkien was unsure of his ability to guide his readers through a long epic. However, once both men encountered a space in which their calling was literally or figuratively illuminated, they were provided the assurance to move forward in that calling. Their flashpoint moments instilled a sense of confidence in the work they were setting out to do.

As a second example, J K Rowling formulated the idea for Harry Potter while on a delayed train between London and Manchester. As she describes the origin story: ‘I did not have a functioning pen with me… I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me’.[5]

Rowling’s description of her experience brings to mind that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke 2:18–19 reads, ‘And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’.[6] Mary recognised and contemplated the reality that something deeply significant was unfolding. Similarly, Rowling did not put pen to paper until having mulled over the idea for some time.[7] Both carried a mystery that would change everything—one the series that would define a generation, the other God incarnate.

Before we become too uncomfortable with these comparisons, let me be clear: I am not saying that creative impulse is necessarily any kind of divine revelation. Christ may be the original boy-who-lived, but I am not proposing that Harry Potter is divinely inspired. The creative flashpoints are not equal to the divine encounters I’ve presented, however I argue that there are echoes of divine encounter in creative inspiration. In light of these similarities, I’d like to explore how divine encounter can inform our approach towards creative inspiration and action.

This parallel between creative intuition and divine encounter is explored in a TED talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert. After releasing Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert wrestled with the idea that her greatest success was most likely behind her—she could not be certain that another idea from seemingly beyond herself would come along. Discussing artistic identity and agency, she says that when an artist thinks of herself as ‘the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery’, the result ‘completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance’.[8]

She points out that before the rational humanists of the Renaissance ascribed the excellence of creative work to the brilliance of man, the classical era was governed by the thought that one was not a genius, but had a genius—the origin of the English word being this Roman concept. The Greeks called this helper a daimon. The ancestor of the English word ‘demon’, the concept of daimon reveals the connection between spirituality and the idea of creativity coming from beyond the artist herself. However, unlike the outcome suggested by the term daimon, I posit that artwork that speaks truth mirrors encounters with the Spirit of Truth.

There is an air of mystery surrounding the inspiration of artists. Some ideas arise out of the maker’s context and experience while others arrive as if from beyond the maker.

In his chapter on the Holy Spirit, Geoffrey Wainwright expounds on the concept of the Spirit being the breath that accompanies God’s creative word,[9] writing, ‘The picture that emerges from the Old Testament is that of a divine Spirit which is distinct from the Lord and yet equivalent to God’s creative and redemptive presence’.[10]

Jacques Maritain’s work regarding creative impulse and praxis has similar pneumatological outworkings. He defines creative intuition as the ‘divination of the spiritual in the things of sense’, claiming that ‘things are not only what they are. They ceaselessly pass beyond themselves, and give more than they have, because from all sides they are permeated by the activating influx of the Prime Cause’.[11] Maritain’s exploration of the transcendentals points us toward Being—the idea that beauty, truth and goodness are part of our divine image and echoes of the ‘Prime Cause’ although suppressed in fallenness. Brett David Potter comments on Maritain’s thoughts here, observing that ‘the transcendent is not a faceless ground of being but the God of the Christian Scriptures who irradiates all beings with Truth, Goodness and Beauty to their capacity’.[12]

This suggests that the foundation for creative impulse is the Imago Dei bestowed upon all humanity and that art, regardless of the artist’s religious leanings, can represent redeemed humanity and provide, as Maritain says, ‘the interior reflection of the radiance of grace’.[13] Maritain suggests that the heart of creative impulse comes from beyond ourselves, that the metaphysical is embedded in the Self and Things of the sensual world regardless of what one believes religiously. The plumbline of truth, beauty and goodness that can be found in such impulse does not depend on the human creator. This idea alleviates the pressure on the artist to be brilliant, instead trusting that the transcendent will speak through the fruit of creative praxis.

The understanding that revelation—creative or spiritual—does not arise from the individual releases a good deal of artistic pressure.

Although this sort of encounter has been experienced by creatives across the spectrum of belief, it may be most familiar to the Christian who has encountered the Holy Spirit. The understanding that revelation—creative or spiritual—does not arise from the individual releases a good deal of artistic pressure. We cannot demand divine encounter just as we cannot manifest the lightning strike of creative ideation. If the Christian has a better sense of this reality based on experiences with the Spirit, might the Christian life also offer the creative practitioner guidance in how to move forward in their work when the flashpoint of brilliance beyond themselves isn’t present?

Gilbert and Maritain point toward the same solution: habitus. ‘To become an artist’, says Potter in his commentary on Maritain, ‘is to cultivate a habitus that supports and nourishes [creative] intuition, discipling oneself to grow in the aesthetic and ethical practice of poetry’.[14] I do not think it is an accident that Potter uses the word discipleship alongside the root of the English word for habit, as there is a mutuality between creative praxis and spiritual practice, just as there is a mutuality between creative impulse and divine encounter.

Gilbert says of her own process, ‘The way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly. But even I, in my mulishness, even I have brushed up against that thing, at times. And I would imagine that a lot of you have too’.[15] That ‘thing’ to which she refers is the flashpoint both Lee and Tolkien referred to above. What Gilbert describes is a faithfulness, a choice to abide with the work regularly that I argue mirrors the Christian’s time and posture toward the Spirit in personal discipleship.

As seen in the stories of our Biblical comparisons earlier, divine encounter was not the action itself. The individual was instructed or given a piece of information, but it was up to their own obedience and faithfulness to bring what was given to fruition. Moses still had to go to Egypt, confront Pharaoh and wander for forty years with the people he saw set free. Mary had an infant to raise and, eventually, to witness being crucified so that all that was celebrated the night of his birth might actually be fulfilled. A divine encounter does not complete the work or even decrease the labor required. It is incitement. Creative work is difficult and often costly to the creator emotionally, mentally and even relationally because it is born out of hardship. And yet we are asked to be faithful and to attend to our calling. As Gilbert says, ‘What I have to sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that is don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be’.[16]

Just as divine encounter takes place out of faithful attending or spiritual practice, creative impulse is born out of regular creative praxis. The creative practitioner who only waits for what Gilbert dubs the ‘elusive creative genius’,[17] is not a practitioner after all. A practitioner must take up a habit of making space for such encounter—only in such practice can encounter happen. Like Moses pushing past doubt and embracing the identity of one called to creative work, and like Mary quietly abiding with the work and serving its needs and the needs of its audience, it is through intentional and regular practice that the attending muse is invited to be present and to participate in the creative process. And so, we faithfully show up to the desk and attend to the work that has been given us to steward, whether accompanied by ‘white hot inspiration’ or not.

 

[1] Roy Newquist and Harper Lee, ‘“All I Want to Be Is the Jane Austen of South Alabama” An Interview with Harper Lee’ (Counterpoint, 1964), http://www.thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2010/july10/harper-lee-interview.php.

[2] Scott Erickson, ‘Say Yes: A Liturgy on Not Giving Up on Yourself’ (lecture, Crossroads Bible Church, Grand Rapids, MI, 31 January, 2020).

[3] In Their Own Words British Authors: J R R Tolkien Part 1 (aired 1968, on the BBC), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XR-4vMEiQ_U.

[4] Ibid.

[5] J K Rowling, ‘It All Started on Platform 9&3/4’, J K Rowling (website), 2016, http://www.jkrowling.com/en_GB/#/timeline/it-all-started/.

[6] Luke 2:18–19 (King James Version).

[7] J K Rowling (@jk_rowling), ‘This is the true birthplace of Harry Potter, if you define “birthplace” as the spot where I put pen to paper for the first time.* I was renting a room in a flat over what was then a sports shop. The first bricks of Hogwarts were laid in a flat in Clapham Junction’ (Twitter, 21 May, 2020, 12:58 p.m), https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/1263439084636319746.

[8] Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’ (recorded February, 2009, by TED2009), https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.

[9] Geoffrey Wainwright, ‘The Holy Spirit’, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Gunton, Cambridge Companions to Religion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 274.

[10] Ibid, 276.

[11] Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Bollingen Series, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953) 127.

[12] Brett David Potter, ‘Creative Intuition After Beauty: Jacques Maritain’s Philosophy of Art in the Contemporary Context’, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 2, no. 2 (2018): 86.

[13] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry (New York, NY: Scribner, 1962), 66.

[14] Ibid, 87.

[15] Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’ (recorded February, 2009, by TED2009), https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

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