By Glen Thomas and Kelly Palmer
Teaching someone how to sit down to write is as important as teaching them how to write at all. While creative writing is often mythologised as the result of divine and spontaneous inspiration, a Dionysiac madness (Rieger 2011), many writers and instructors will offer different advice – that writing is a more Hephaestion labour (Dolmage 2006): one that requires consistent mental and physical struggle against one’s baser instinct to do anything else.
It seems obvious that arts practice is both: persistent writing makes space for, and is driven by, inspiration in a cyclical process that nevertheless needs feeding and tending from other sources (such as a walk in the park or therapy). Whether a writing student relates to either proposition – whether art comes from pleasure or pain – both narratives serve the central metaphor that arts practice is ultimately driven by divine intervention.
When the writing goes well, the writing is favoured among the gods, connected to spirit, channelling the will of the universe, birthing new life. To have writer’s block is to have been abandoned, to experience a dark night of the soul, to feel directionless, magically voiceless, without purpose or form. The issue, therefore, is a numinous one: that is, the practice of writing is one that chases and accepts connection to the divine, metaphorically or literally. Therefore, a numinous problem requires a numinous solution – an arts instruction that speaks the same language as the embodied and logic-making metaphor.
At QUT, in a first-year university course for creative and professional writers, students are guided to reflect on their own sense of inspiration and procrastination. The course, Communication and Composition, was previously titled Writing Fundamentals, and aims to build practice of various academic writing forms and creative techniques, preparing students with “the necessary writing skills to complete … assessment at a high standard throughout [their] course of study” (QUT 2022). Not only does the course offer writing instruction, but it also facilitates discussions around how and why we write, as well as how we keep focused in order to actually complete the task of writing, where writing at all seems to be the primary barrier for writing well.
Classroom discussions inevitably question if students wait for inspiration to strike before writing, or if they treat writing as a job like any other and push through the task whatever the weather. Both tendencies, but especially the former, are prone to disruptive procrastination, with students admitting to avoiding writing with a range of Dionysiac indulgences or Hephaestion chores, from bingeing Netflix to scrubbing the walls.
In our teaching, we question “inspiration” and turn to Julia Cameron, the bestselling author of The Artist’s Way, who describes her creativity workshop as a “spiritual workshop” and uses “God” as a synonym for “creative energy” (2020, pp. 1–2). Perhaps, inspiration cannot be magicked from nowhere, but it can, like energy, be generated, (re)directed, and harnessed. Being inspired is not after all a passive or lonesome process.
Rather than stop here, we invite students to reflect on how they prepare themselves to write, or rather how they invite inspiration, channelling creative energy into their selves:
Can you remember when you last felt inspired and compelled to write?
What were you doing when inspiration struck?
What routines or rituals lead to inspiration or the will to sit and write?
Do you ever ask for inspiration? How?
What do you do when you feel inspired? (What if you’re not always able to immediately sit at your desk for hours with your favourite pen and notebook?)
In what ways might you thank your inspiration for coming?
These leading questions treat inspiration as a kind of communion with another party or force, which may be a student’s own intuition or unconscious, or [insert philosophy of choice here]. We invite students to extend the metaphor and see themselves as Dionysus or Hephaestus – now not only in their writing practice but in their pursuit of practice too. As Partou Zia says, the spiritual or religious metaphor “does not necessarily make for contacting the numinous; it is too simplistic an expectation” (2001, p. 12).
Writing students must move beyond the metaphor and transmute divinity into everyday life, recognising that their spiritual metaphors are already “deeply intertwined with human life and endeavors” (Goodwin 2021, p. 11). They must see themselves as numinous beings even when – especially when – they are not writing.
Here, procrastination might be redesigned as a fruitful prologue to, or prayer for, inspiration. Rather than watch Netflix, perhaps a student will come to recognise that a more relaxing and inspiration-inducing pastime involves people-watching on the street. Rather than scrub the house, might an aspiring writer remember that their last spark of genius connected during a long shower. Whatever the practice, the procrastination may become ritualised so as to prime the writer for writing at all. The language of the divine – embracing and harnessing that proliferate metaphor – is one way of sanctifying writing practice with a Dionysiac indulgence. At the same time, students need not deny their sacred concepts of inspiration in order to actually write: with procrastination made sacred and ritualised, students may dedicate themselves to both their procrastination and writing practice with a Hephaestion will and consistency.
Cameron, Julia. 2020. The Artist’s Way. Souvenir Press.
Dolmage, Jay. 2006. “’Breathe Upon Us an Even Flame’: Hephaestus, History, and the Body of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review 25 (2): 119–140. doi: 10.1207/s15327981rr2502_1.
Goodwin, Grant. 2021. The Creative-Numinous Approach to Depression and Art Therapy: Healing through Creative Spirituality. Masters thesis, Pacifica Graduate Institute. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2539093708?pq-origsite=gscholar&fromopenview=true.
QUT [Queensland University of Technology]. 2022. CWB101 Communication and Composition: Introduction to Academic Writing. Queensland University of Technology. https://www.qut.edu.au/study/unit?unitCode=CWB101.
Rieger, Branimir M. 2011. “Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness”. In Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness, edited by Branimir M. Rieger, 1–16. University of Wisconsin Press.
Zia, Partou. 2001. Poetic Anatomy of the Numinous: Creative Passages into the Self as Beloved. Doctoral thesis, University of Plymouth. https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10026.1/2620/PARTOU%20ZIA.PDF?sequence=1.
Glen Thomas is a senior lecturer in professional communication and literature at the Queensland University of Technology. He is a recipient of the David Gardiner national teaching award and has a Certificate of Higher Education from Oxford University. He is also a communications consultant for technical firms and arms of government.
Kelly Palmer lectures in creative arts and media and communication at the Queensland University of Technology. She has delivered creative writing and media production workshops across South East Queensland for primary and high schools, libraries, writers’ centres, and the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre. Kelly offers writing, editing, design, and publishing services for small businesses and creatives.