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Becoming a Writer: Creativity & Inspiration

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Becoming a WriterWhat’s the difference between imagination and creativity?

Well, the biggest difference is that imagination is passive while creativity is active. Just look at the root of the words: image and create. One’s a noun, one’s a verb. With our imaginations, we form images in our minds; with our creativity, we do something with those images, whether it’s painting, acting, composing music, or writing poems or stories.

So if imagination lays the foundation upon which our story is to be built, creativity is the process by which we begin construction.

“The creative process has a lot to do with faith…
at the moment of creation, [the artist] must have complete faith,
faith in their vision, faith in their work.”
~Madeleine L’Engle

In most artistic disciplines, the practitioners will often times speak of “the process” or the methods unique to creating that particular type of art. What kinds of brushes, paints, and canvas did the artist use? What kinds of brush strokes? What masters does his work most resemble? What musical style did she write in? Who were the musicians who came before her who influenced how she uses her voice/instrument?

For most people, analyzing authors in such a way is usually left up to academics and literary critics. Sure, when we write reviews of novels we’ve read, we might compare one author’s work to another’s, but it’s usually more about how the story made us feel than any real analysis of the authors’ process—of their creativity.

One topic I’ve been asked about in numerous ways in interviews over the past couple of weeks is what my writing process is. It’s usually asked this way by other writers: “Are you a seat-of-the-pants writer or an outliner/plotter?”

My answer: I’m somewhere in between.

There are more than two processes to creating novels. And our own personality and approach to creativity is what determines our own personal process of writing. You may play the whole scene out in your head before you ever start writing, or you may have a vague idea for something and won’t be able to imagine it until you actually start putting words on paper. The process of creativity is as unique as the person doing the creating.

“Everyone engaged in any kind of creative activity is as enamored of the process of making as of the thing made.”
~Denise Levertov

Inspiration, the Breath of Life
So we’ve imagined something that’s sparked our creativity—our urge to create, to construct something. But there’s this third, vital element: inspiration. I’ve written before about how the origin of the word inspiration is the same as the word for breathe (inspire). But what does that really mean when it comes to the creative process?

    One day, God got a picture in His mind of a creature made in His own image. This sparked His creativity, so He constructed something that resembled that image out of mud. But it just stood there. Lifeless. Dumb. Blind. Deaf. Incapable of movement. Until God breathed life—inspired—into it.

You can have the greatest imagination and creativity in the world, but without inspiration, what you create isn’t going to go far.

Where does inspiration come from? Well, in Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that inspiration “far more often comes during the work than before it.”

Have you ever used an old-fashioned water pump? If it hasn’t been used in quite a while, you’re going to have to work long and hard to get anything out of it. But if it’s used regularly—every day—when you go to it wanting a drink of water, the pump is already primed. The water is right there, waiting to pour out.

Inspiration comes when we prime the creative pump. It is not thinking about a final product that gives us inspiration. What gives us inspiration is what leads us to write in the first place: the joy we take in imagination and creativity. When we are in the creative process and inspiration hits, everything else falls away. We lose track of time; we’re deaf to anything going on around us; nothing fills us with more joy than creating a story from our imagination. Or, as Gordon Dickson put it, we “fall through the words into the story.” That’s inspiration.

Remember the verse in Ecclesiastes that says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart”? Well, here are our “three strands” as writers:

    Imagination = Idea
    Creativity = Words
    Inspiration = Story

“The writer in the midst of writing, like the penitent in the midst of prayer—finds the self falling away. Or getting out of the way. Only when we slip out of our writer bodies do we truly don the skin of story. We become one with the piece we are creating.”
~Jane Yolen

  1. Tuesday, January 27, 2009 12:48 pm

    Another great post! Thanks!


  2. Tuesday, January 27, 2009 9:02 pm


    Interesting post. Well researched too. I think I am somewhere in the middle, too. I find I start with an outline of scenes/plot points; then I fill them in.

    Most of this process goes on in my head (except the actual writing, of course)


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