Intellectual versus emotional inspiration in the creative writing process

Copyright © 2016 Jerry Dunne

I include here a definition of these two types of inspiration, offer a practical example of each from my own work and point out some pros and cons of the two approaches. Of course, inspiration may also come as a combination of both, but when this occurs we have the best of both worlds and this discussion becomes merely academic.

Whatever the source of intellectual inspiration, be it a snatch of conversation, a painting, a story, fable, poem, etc., we have immediately taken the first practical step on our journey toward the final draft. The inspiration is in and of itself practical, offering us a partial or even full storyline, perhaps some plot, perhaps the flickering of an image of the lead character, perhaps more, and perhaps a combination of any or all of these. Of course, an emotional arc rises here, too, but this ‘lesser’ emotional high is common in the creative process, anyway, invariably triggered whenever we think up something clever or imaginative that is soon to benefit us. It is more akin to feelings of delight and enthusiasm than to raw passion. It does not make us feel that we absolutely have to pursue a development on this initial inspiration. Its power does not haunt us and continue to do us for months, even years after our first experience of it. Our intellectual inspiration may even throw up better ideas than we have ever dreamt up but our enthusiasm for developing them rests almost exclusively on the practical side of storytelling.

Based on this purely intellectually inspired approach, I quickly evolved the basic characterization, storyline and plot arc of my latest psychological crime novel, A Deadman’s File. Once I imagined I had some clever plot twists worked out, my enthusiasm made me race in the writing of it; but, in turn, somewhere toward the end of the first draft I realised that the novel was missing something very important. It lacked thematic depth. I had been so busy focussing on plot that I had failed to see this obvious flaw. Because the novel lacked thematic depth it also lacked character depth. Despite still believing I had some clever plot twists in play, I now understood that the novel was rather shallow. I had failed to invest real emotional energy in the story, which is why theme and character depth were sorely lacking. So, to introduce strong theme (in particular concepts of justice and revenge) and character depth, I was forced to engage with the story at a deeper emotional level. After I had set about correcting the weaknesses, the novel really started to grow. Now it had emotional tone: theme flourished; characters became passionate and far more engaging, their reasons for their actions became more convincing; situations became more dramatic; and last, but certainly not least, the psychological side of the story deepened. But if not for two previous psychological crime novels I’d written, both with strong theme and character, books I had engaged with at a fairly deep emotional level, I would not have been able to measure the third one by them and so might never have realised that it was missing something fundamental. Here, I believe, is the biggest drawback in bouncing a story into play off the back of intellectual inspiration alone. We may be so intent on developing those clever plot twists, for example, that we forget our writing also needs emotional engagement in order to develop theme and character depth.

Raw emotional inspiration works more or less to the opposite effect of intellectual inspiration. It happens suddenly, jolting the emotional side of our artistic personality to a very high degree, giving us a powerful and overwhelming feeling that the movie, novel, article, documentary, photo or whatever it was that set us off in this way will definitely have repercussions for our own creative processes; but it achieves this without immediately offering us any of the practical aspects, such as a flicker of character, storyline or plot idea, that is the hallmark of the intellectual approach. In the short term, it may possibly offer us no solid foundation at all on which to build the creative process. However, we really do feel deeply that we will eventually be stirred into finding and developing great character, storyline and plot, great stuff indeed to match the powerful and overwhelming feelings that our initial inspiration encouraged in us. We believe that once we get this story together, it will take our writing to a whole new level. We may even believe that this powerful urge to create ‘a special work’ triggered by the inspiration relates to something very primal about our personalities, our lives and our writing. This sort of emotional passion can burn away in us for years, of course, and the longer it burns, in the true artist, at least, the brighter it burns. The thing to remember is that we have absolutely no idea yet of the working substance of it.

For my latest piece of writing, a play, Falling Molly Twist, the inspiration behind it arrived in raw emotional form. In the French novel A Sun for the Dying, a subplot involves a Bosnian woman, Mirjana, a victim of the civil war in which her family have been murdered, and who, now in France, has fled captivity as a sex slave. Still on the run from the slavers, she temporarily takes up with the protagonist. The only thing she has left of her past life is a book of poetry by the French poet Saint-John Perse and a dog-eared family photo with part of its right side cut off. The photo is cut for a reason which I won’t go into here. But it is this startling image of a person who has so little left from their previous and tragic life that struck me most forcefully. A book of poetry and a dog-eared family photo with part of its right side cut off! No sooner had I read about her than a raw emotional surge of inspiration gripped me. For weeks, maybe months, I had no or little idea what I would do with this inspiration, what I might write about off the back of it; but the inspiration’s energy had swept me up so completely and held me in such a vicelike grip that it eventually compelled me to dream up the beginnings of a story. By the age of twenty-three, with no friends left in her life, Molly Twist has slid into casual prostitution. She has nothing left of her past, except a copy of the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which she has owned since the age of twelve. The book is stuffed with her notes, notes deemed very important at the time of writing, notes written between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. The play opens where fate is about to deal Molly a savage blow.

The main downside to bouncing a story into life off the back of emotional inspiration alone is that we may end up neglecting, at least in part, basic craftsmanship. Though the emotional inspiration behind Falling Molly Twist had been feverishly burning away in my mind for about two years, it was only when I started to write the play that I understood that some aspects of good storytelling were still lacking. Yes, strong character and theme quickly became of great importance in the development of the play but not necessarily storyline and especially not plot. Midway through the first draft, I realised that I needed more story and much more plot movement in which to control and nurture the emotional charge of the play. This is necessary, of course, in order to produce a continuously interesting and captivating story. No matter how much passion we have for our special story, our baby, how important we believe it to be, the reader or audience is still entitled to a well worked out piece of craftsmanship and entertainment. This is more or less the reverse attitude to the one I took with the psychological crime novel where plot development was at first of primary importance and character and theme depth of secondary importance.

The big lesson we can draw from the above examples is that neither emotional nor intellectual inspiration on their own are going to give us a good story. Whichever type prompts or propels us to write, we are now aware it may be limiting us unconsciously. We must always remember that a good story relies on both intellectual and emotional investment: strong character and thematic depth on the one hand and strong storyline and plot on the other.

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