by Carolyn Williams

Carolyn WilliamsWhile having an espresso the other day, I was struck by the word. Espresso comes from the same Latin root that gives us “expression.” The coffee is denser and more intense because hot water is forced at high pressure through finely-ground beans. Like expression, espresso is literally pressed out, generated under pressure.

The meaning of this little analogy is that pressure is important to the creative process. (So too, perhaps, are heat and a finely-ground texture; but I won’t take the metaphor too far.) Pressure can be a good thing, an inspirational force.

We were certainly under pressure during the exciting process of creating Writers House on the ground floor of Murray Hall. In February 2007, Rutgers alumnus Thomas J. Russell—who holds a BA in biological science (1957) and a PhD in physiology (1961)—made a generous gift that enabled us to begin a process that unfolded at a breakneck pace. As a result of the efforts of an overwhelming number of people who worked through the summer to make this dream a reality, Writers House was opened to students by the fall semester of 2007.

The inspiration for Writers House was also a team effort. Inspiration literally means “in-breathing,” with the implication that inspiration is given from without. In classical antiquity, the idea was that the Godhead comes down, comes in, and fills the poet with divine breath. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a secularized version of the idea gained prominence. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, used the image of the Aeolian harp as a figure for poetic inspiration. Also called a wind harp, an Aeolian harp was a stringed instrument that could be placed in a window, hung in a tree, or placed on a hill so that when the wind blew across its strings, the harp produced music. According to this model, the poet still receives inspiration from outside, but the wind is no longer imagined as divine breath.

More and more, since then, imagination, genius, and inspiration have been theorized as internal qualities. Unlike skill, those qualities were characterized by irrationality, since no one could explain how one could depend on getting access to them. Dreams, visions, even madness can contribute to a refreshed sense of perception, helping one to “think outside the box.” But we shouldn’t forget that there are still plenty of sources of inspiration outside the self. To think of inspiration as a solitary matter is a myth well worth debunking.

The Muses have their modern counterparts in colleagues and friends who add to, shape, and expand a project together, in time. Writers House is a great example of the communal, cumulative growth of such a vision. But there is another sense in which inspiration still comes from without, for a feeling of being inspired comes periodically when you are totally immersed in the process of creation. It feels as if inspiration comes as a gift—in a sudden eureka moment, for example—but these bursts of inspiration tend to occur when one is devoting time, day after day, to the process.

I’m reminded of a related myth about creativity, also worth debunking: that expression means self-expression. It can be disabling to think that we must express our “selves,” when there’s so much more out there to express than that. Think about the terrible command: “Express yourself!” I’m sure most students are more intimidated than enabled by this command. How frustrating the demand for self-expression can seem, until we realize that it’s something like writing, a process that must be done again and again and again. All writing is really revision, and inspiration comes during the process— not before the process begins.

And this is where pressure comes in. What forces can press the thoughts, feelings, ideas, images, and voices out of us? A course, an assignment, a waiting audience, a writing group, a self-generated plan of so many words per day, or so many minutes spent writing—all these can produce the necessary pressure toward expression. So too can the hope that we might lend inspiration to others.

When engaged in writing as a process, we are submitting to a regular discipline of pressure—not too much, not too little—under which expression will emerge. Unclear and inchoate at first, it will take shape in time. Then, too, the pressure must be periodically alleviated. During those times of relaxation—times of play, sleep, dreams, listening, watching—ideas will come, as long as you’re involved in the process enough so that you know them when you sense them. This is how a “voice”—and even a sense of self—is created, through successive experiences of concentration and relaxation, pressure and its release.

True for all forms of traditional writing, this model of inspiration and expression is also true for the expanded sense of creative writing we are developing in Writers House. There, writing, “broadly construed,” includes digital and web-based forms of writing as well as essays, poems, plays, and fiction.

If we want to help our students “come into voice,” what we really must do is give them enough confidence in the writing process so they will believe and know that a voice will come into being. Learning how to go through the process is what’s important. Voice is not an essence; it is a practice.

In this sense, inspiration can’t be given. It must be taken.

Carolyn Williams