On Being the Conduit

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Throughout my life as a writer, I've experienced in varying degrees what some call "inspired writing" (and what others call "psychosis"). When I found some of my own feelings and experiences echoed in the words of other writers, musicians, and artists, I began collecting these quotes. It's good to know that I'm not alone in my particular brand of benign madness.

    A writer of fantasy, fairy tale, or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his own knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wider. I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him. I know that this is true of A Wrinkle in Time. I can't possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice. And it was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.
   – Madeleine L'Engle, Horn Book interview, date unknown
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    The words [to "Across the Universe"] stand, luckily, by themselves. They were purely inspirational and were given to me as boom! I don't own it, you know; it came through like that. I don't know where it came from, what meter it's in, and I've sat down and looked at it and said, "Can I write another one with this meter?" It's so interesting: "Words are flying out like [sings] endless rain into a paper cup, they slither while they pass, they slip across the universe." Such an extraordinary meter and I can never repeat it! It's not a matter of craftsmanship; it wrote itself. It drove me out of bed. I didn't want to write it, I was just slightly irritable and I went downstairs and I couldn't get to sleep until I put it on paper, and then I went to sleep. It's like being possessed; like a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won't let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you're allowed to sleep . . . So letting it go is what the whole game is. You put your finger on it, it slips away, right?
   – John Lennon, Playboy interview, November 1980
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    [O]ne word suggests the next, one line invites another, and I try really hard not to think about the work unless I'm actually doing it. Because then it's like planning how you're going to act at a party or at dinner, and that never works. It's more exciting to accept the part of making something that is alive and might die. It's a living relationship that doesn't always work out. Sometimes the work is DOA. Sometimes it's so surprisingly alive that I feel I had very little to do with it.
   – Lynda Barry, The Onion's A-V Club interview, December 1999

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    SK: I have never felt like I was creating anything. For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there's a house under there, and I'm pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want. That's how I feel. It's like the stories are already there. What they pay me for is the leap of faith that says: "If I sit down and do this, everything will come out okay." . . .
    With Gerald's Game, it was like an unplanned pregnancy. I was on an airplane . . . and I fell asleep. I had a dream with something salvageable in it, and I said, "Oh, that's wonderful, what a great idea." I wanted to start writing it, not because I had a whole story but because it was one of these situations that's so interesting you figure if you start on it, things will suggest themselves.
    It's like seeing a building and saying to yourself: "I'd like to go in and walk through there." And in some cases there's nothing inside; it's just an interesting front. But in this case there was a lot of stuff inside.
    WD: C. B. Forester, the British writer, once described his story-developing process as dropping assorted objects into the water of his subconscious and letting them sit there for weeks or months or years. Eventually, he said, he would feel them merge and meld and take some sort of shape until an idea surfaced and he could start writing. How does that process work for you?
    SK: That's about it. The best work that I've ever done always has a feeling of having been excavated. I don't feel like a novelist or a creative writer as much as I feel like an archaeologist who is digging things up and brushing them off and looking at the carvings on them. Sometimes you get a little pot out of the ground, and that's a short story. Sometimes you get a bigger pot, which is a novella. Sometimes you get a building, which is like a novel. When I feel like I'm "creating," I'm usually doing bad work.
    The thing is, for me, I never get all that stuff out unbroken. The trick and the game and the fun of it is to see how much of it you can get. Usually you can get quite a lot . . . In the case of The Dark Tower, it's like excavating this huge buried city that's down there. And I'll never live to do it all . . .
    Sometimes the stuff just shows up at the right time. Sometimes when you're writing, you say to yourself: "Well, I know what's gonna happen for the next 30 pages, but after that I'm fucked." Then an idea appears and it's like a door opens and somebody ambles in and says: "You called for me." And you say: "I don't remember it, but come on in and help me because this is where you're supposed to be, you fit right in here today. Thank you for coming." And that's it.
   – Stephen King, Writer's Digest interview, March 1992
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   [T]he story just comes to you – or at least, the big events do. Some of the characters just sort of invited themselves in – and who am I to tell them what they can and can't do?
   – Marjorie M. Liu, "Writing Tiger Eye", 2005

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   The most startling creative moment of my life happened here . . . Westley is strapped in The Machine and Prince Humperdinck roars down and turns it all the way up and Inigo and Fezzik are on the way to the rescue when the Deathscream begins and they track it and as I was going to work that morning I kind of wondered how I was going to get Westley out of it. I sat at my desk and had coffee and read the papers and fiddled a while. Then I realized, I wasn't going to get him out of it. And I wrote these words: Westley lay dead by The Machine.
I think I must have looked at them for a long time. Westley lay dead by The Machine. He was perfect and beautiful but it hadn't made him conceited. He understood suffering and was no stranger to love or pain, yet the words were still there.
Westley lay dead by The Machine.
You killed him, I thought. You killed Westley. How could you do such a thing? I stared at the words, and I stared at the words some more, and then I lost it, began to cry. I was alone, you see, no one could help me get out of where I was and I was helpless. Even now, more than twenty years after, I can still truly feel the shocking heat of my tears. I pushed away from my desk, made it to the bathroom and ran water on my face. I looked up and there in the mirror this red-faced and wracked person was staring back at me, wondering who in the world were we and how were we going to survive? . . . And if you were to ask me the high point of my creative life, I would say it was that day when Westley and I were joined.
   – William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade, 2000

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   Once you've had it good, you don't want it any other way.
    Not Joan [of Arc]. But there is a connection. The high when you're flying with a scene rolling out like it's alive – that euphoria is worth putting up with the detractors and distractions. It's like an all-nighter when you can't get enough of each other, you and the characters, and no one wants to sleep again ever, and it's already all there . . . just listen.
   – Pamela Douglas, "Muse-ings: Hearing Voices" [article in Writers Guild of America Written By newsletter], November 1995

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    This book came through me. All books come through the writer – the transcriber – as all art works come through the artist, all music through the musician. William Blake talked of his poems as being "dictated" to him. The creator of a work of literature, music, or art realizes the work does not come "from" but "through" her. You have to work to get yourself to the point of letting it come – you have to be a good conduit to let it flow. But when it flows, you know if you are honest the source was not you. You may not know what or who or where the source was; you may wish to think of it as "source unknown," but you know it was not your own brain . . .
    Sure, you have to work hard and sometimes slave over a book, to shape it, or let it out, get it out, into the world, but the origin of it was "given." The theologian Elaine Pagels told me her own struggles to write those marvelously illuminating books of hers (The Gnostic Gospels, Adam and Eve and the Serpent) she had the feeling that the work, the book, was already "there," but all these boulders were in the way of it. Writing, for her, seems not so much a matter of "creating" or inventing the book, but of "getting to it," around and over and through those boulders blocking the way.
   – Dan Wakefield, Expect a Miracle: The Extraordinary Things That Happen to Ordinary People, 1995
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–- Rainer Maria Rilke said that The Duino Elegies were "dictated" to him. –-
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    Genius is a boat that sails itself. All you have to do is get in and it does the rest, i.e., I didn't spend months and years thinking up the shapes and forms of my most renowned buildings. They came out of nowhere and my only job was to funnel them onto pieces of paper. I'm not being modest. The ideas come like breezes through a window and all you do is capture them. Braque said this: "One's style – it is in a way one's inability to do otherwise . . . Your physical constitution practically determines the shape of the brushmarks." He was right. Bullshit on all that artistic suffering, "agonizing" over the empty page, canvas . . . Anyone who agonizes over their work isn't a genius. Anyone who agonizes for a living is an idiot.
   – Jonathan Carroll, Outside the Dog Museum [novel], 1992
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    As an artist, I want to tell stories. I want fables, channeled through me and onto the page. For the deeper elements to be expressed through my labors and whims.
   – Aaron Siddall, MySpace page, 2007
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    I needed that approval. We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell us we're not crazy after all, that what we're doing is all right. All right, hell, fine!
    But it is easy to doubt yourself, because you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.
    But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.

   – Ray Bradbury, The Stories of Ray Bradbury [introduction], 1980
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    For the next fortnight Anne writhed or reveled, according to mood, in her literary pursuits. Now she would be jubilant over a brilliant idea, now despairing because some contrary character would not behave properly. Diana could not understand this.
    "Make them do as you want them to," she said.
    "I can't," mourned Anne. "Averil is such an unmanageable heroine. She will do and say things I never meant her to. Then that spoils everything that went before and I have to write it all over again."
   – L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island [novel], 1915
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    The more you write, the less you censor, and the more comfortable you become trusting your instincts. You learn to get out of your own way, and start to experience that sense of spirit-writing, where scenes create themselves and characters find their own voices. . . I believe the most satisfying work a writer does is that for which she or he feels the least conscious responsibility. It simply flows from somewhere. You don't write it down so much as the paper is there to catch it. Ego is lost and you become transparent, something through which the story is seen and focused.
    For a writer, this is a state of grace.
   – Joseph Dougherty, thirtysomething stories [introduction], 1991

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