inspirations / novels / other writers / writing

On Inspiration: Guest Post by Alexander Chee

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

I couldn’t have a blog series on inspiration without asking Alexander Chee to contribute. Those who’ve read his novel Edinburgh, or keep up with his blog Koreanish, or follow him on Twitter and elsewhere, they know why. Everyone else, I want you to know why.

It’s because of THIS:


“I Just Feel Like It Is Going In A Really Random Direction”

by Alexander Chee

“How’s the writing going,” I get asked, so many times, I want to get t-shirts that say “The Writing Is Going Okay I Guess” or “The Writing Is Not Going Well” or “…”.

I never want to say, because whatever I say feels like a lie.

*            *            *            *

Over time I’ve decided the idea of inspiration is a terrible burden, to many. A cruel one. A myth, or even a cult, sometimes. I think people are haunted by it, as they are horoscopes that say they’ll meet a lover this week, or that there is a perfect someone out there for everyone, that maybe there is a god, but maybe not, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Santa Claus. Maybe there is inspiration. Maybe there are just ideas. Maybe it is just the world. Maybe there really is a jolly fat man in a red suit and a beard with a gift just for you.

Maybe just go make whatever it is you are waiting for that man to give you.

The idea that anything I do as a writer needs inspiration to move forward makes me feel like not just a gambler, but a monk in the garden, searching for the faces of Jesus and Mary in the grass and roses, but with the urgency of searching for money.

I do not think inspiration can be chased. I do think much of the work of writing involves putting yourself where it can, if it exists, find you.

This is often in your chair. But sometimes it is not. And in the meantime, I look for ideas, which seem to me more durable. Inspiration strikes me like a fever and leaves. An idea is like a new friend who could, with time and attention, become an old one.

*            *            *            *

Somewhere in all of the insane writing advice that surrounds me (there is so much advice!) I remember someone saying that Joyce Carol Oates had advice for writer’s block. When I get to this part invariably someone always says “She never had it.” In any case, whether or not she’s ever had it, and whether or not she said this, it’s good advice: “Writer’s block comes when the writer believes the idea is fraudulent.”

I have always liked this quote.

Whenever I get stuck, I see myself staring at the idea. Looking for the seam of the wig.

So then, sometimes you are not out of ideas. Sometimes you are afraid of the idea you have. This idea, it is an imposter. It will ravage your life. Undo all your hard work. Destroy you. You’re sure of it. At the least it will humiliate you. Are you really not inspired or are you afraid of being the person who will write the thing that will come if you sit down with the idea you have? Who do you need to love you so much that you will hide this idea from you and act like it doesn’t exist?

Which is to say, sometimes you need to be destroyed. The person you are is in the way and the person you will be is waiting on the other side of the shell that you call you.

*            *            *            *

Sometimes people say “I just haven’t found myself yet” and what they mean is they have and they don’t like the answer. Do you not like the answer? What did you think you would write? Where did the answer come from? Did it come from you? This is a leading indicator, if it came from you. “I just feel like it is going in a really random direction,” students often say to me when they get depressed about their work. They act as if their work is someone who has stopped paying attention to them, someone beloved and suddenly indifferent to them.

In fact it is usually the opposite. The random direction is the rejected one, the one you fear because what if you are the person who wrote that?

The random direction is the inspiration. The fear is “I am not the person who writes that kind of thing” which is the obstacle. The inspiration lays there, neglected.

There is what you plan to write and then what you write, always. What comes out is not wrong if you don’t recognize it. It is called inspiration, after all, and not “totally recognizable thing you always knew would be there.” The thing you don’t recognize waits, waiting for you to pick it up and finish.

This is part of what’s hard: there is a middle part to the work you do when it is neither what it was nor what it will be and seems terrible and certain to betray you. But it is only unfinished.

*            *            *            *

When I need an idea, I will often go out. Or stay in.

I go to museums I would never think of going to, I call a friend I haven’t spoken to in ages, bookstores, a library I’ve always neglected.

Or I stay in. I cancel. The idea has been waiting for me to tell everyone to please leave the room for a while, ok? It just wants to talk.

I take a train. A subway, MTA North, Amtrak, wherever. I bring a notebook and a book. Turn off the phone.

Whether at home or in a bookstore, I go to my bookshelves and flip books open at random, reading what I find there.  The book often makes it to my To Be Read (Or To Be Re-Read) pile and then eventually returns to the shelf. All I needed was that paragraph. But this is partly why my apartment resembles a small bookstore.

I am looking at a book right now, right above my desk, that I have not read since the snowy day I was in the used bookstore and I opened it and stood enthralled and the paragraph told me something I needed to know and so I left with it. We were running away together then. Now we are here in the place we ran to.

I also have a collection of postcards entirely made of cards bought in the act of possessing the idea I got from the image there, a tone or a sense of a character or a charge. They sit in an old Japanese pencil box on the shelf over my desk, as if owning them this way was owning them. I take them out and look at them. Sometimes I’ve gone along with the ruse that I can send them to people, and I write messages and even addresses on their backs, and never find the will to send them. Because of course I did not buy them to send to other people.

I smile when I see these, a little sadly.

An idea sometimes like a postcard you forgot you send, but to yourself.

I go through my old magazines. I go through my old notebooks. I try to chart a course across what I have forgotten and what I have not yet seen.

So much of being out of ideas is simply a need to make your way out of the little world you are in. The days have made a burrow, and you didn’t notice until you did, and now you must climb out.

*            *            *            *

Writing is the opposite of visual art, I think—the more a writer works on something, the less visible it is, it vanishes before the writer’s eyes, but slowly, until you are like someone lost in fog, who doesn’t dare move for fear of falling down.

Sometimes we think we need inspiration and we need something else. We need for all of the ink to be blue instead of black, for the font to change, for the work to look like something someone gave us to read and not like something we’ve worked on for a long time. In that moment, when that distance happens, both the good and bad that we have not seen before appears.

Or we think we need inspiration to go back to work and what we need is to just go back to work.

Depression and intelligence are apparently linked, according to studies on orangutan. The most depressed orangutan are also the most intelligent ones. When I read this I felt sorry for the orangutan, but I also understood—before you reconcile what has never been reconciled, what you want to do or understand feels impossible. Afterward it is as if it was always there.

And so here is a last trick: that feeling of despair, the depression, is usually a sign that the answer is almost there. The feeling that there is nowhere to go and you can’t get away, that is not a signal to escape. It is a signal to go in, continue, to sit there and finish.

—Alexander Chee


Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and the forthcoming The Queen of the Night. He is a recipient of the Whiting Award, the NEA in fiction, the MCCA in Fiction and residencies from MacDowell, Civitella and Leidig House, and his essays and stories have appeared in The Morning News, Out, The Paris Review Daily and Granta.comand are widely anthologized. He has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Amherst College and the New School. He blogs at Koreanish and lives in New York.

Follow @alexanderchee on Twitter. 


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16 thoughts on “On Inspiration: Guest Post by Alexander Chee

  1. Pingback: I Just Feel Like It Is Going In A Really Random Direction | Koreanish

  2. I love that question of, basically, who do you need to love you so much that you aren’t willing to risk the unknown… Especially once you’ve been published, you can create all of these false ideas about whose love and approval you MUST have to feel okay. And that effs with the actual process, big time. Thanks for this.

  3. Wow. I so needed this today; how did it hit the nail exactly on the head, when meandering and at loose ends at 1/4 of the way ? *needs to frame this*

  4. Insightful and inspiring. Annie Dillard would be impressed. I was particularly struck by the observance that visual arts are the opposite of writing. Good screenwriting bridges this divide and might finally illuminate my struggle between cinema and literature.

  5. Pingback: An Offering « Gucci Little Piggy

  6. You state, “Writing is the opposite of visual art, I think—the more a writer works on something, the less visible it is, it vanishes before the writer’s eyes, but slowly, until you are like someone lost in fog, who doesn’t dare move for fear of falling down.”

    I have to say, as a photography student, inspiration for writing and visual art are not opposites but, quite honestly, one and the same. That statement rings excruciatingly true for visual art. The inception of an idea will warp and change with every step towards its reality. Once that pre-visualized image hits paper or a screen (and I believe this is probably true in other visual arts), the fragment you began with will gradually vanish as the tangible work you’re creating comes to life. I always mourn the loss of that early idea but I think that’s just part of the creative process.

    I’m only saying this because you are so spot on, reading this felt like looking into a mirror.

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