Today I had a call from the National Shielding Helpline to ask whether I needed anything. I said no, thanks, I am doing fine so far. Of course I should have said a new car, a lifetime’s supply of chocolate, and a case of champagne, but I never think of these things at the time. The truth is that I really am not doing too badly with lockdown — not flourishing, exactly, but OK given the circumstances. But I do feel a certain pressure to be doing something special, unusual, extraordinary. I keep hearing on the radio, or on social media, tales of people who have learned to make sourdough bread, crochet a blanket, or teach their dog to dance. Me, though — I find that working from home feels just as intense as it is isolating, and I cannot believe quite how tired I am. And as for all those writing deadlines just asking to be met — well, I congratulate those of you who have written your new novel since lockdown began, but I am struggling merely to focus on the footnotes for something I wrote in January.
I have, though, been forcing myself, when my brain feels incapable of other things, to sort through old files, dumping what I don’t need and putting the rest in order. And here I found an old sermon on the Holy Spirit, inspiration, and — yes! — the necessity to withdraw, chill out, and WAIT! If you, like me, are feeling deeply lacking in inspiration, maybe this will help you too. If not, just take a nap. I don’t think it will do any harm.
PENTECOST 2011: Waiting for inspiration
The Holy Spirit is often referred to with the somewhat dull-sounding label “the third person of the Trinity”. But the imagery that both Luke and John use is far from dull. Luke describes a rushing, mighty, violent wind, and tongues of fire – both images of transforming and even frightening power. Mighty winds – gales, tornadoes – are destructive forces, and we all learn at our mother’s knee that if we play with fire, we might get burned. Luke’s imagery is far from gentle, mild or passive: this is a God to be reckoned with. John, though, uses the image of breath – “Jesus breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit.” This is an intimate scene – you have to be close to someone for them to breathe on you. But it’s also a theological point: the Greeks used the same word – pneuma – for spirit , breath, or moving air. Jesus’ breath, the breath of life, the spirit of God – they are all inter-connected ideas. The same ideas play out in the English word ‘inspired’, from the Latin verb spirare (to blow into or upon, or to breathe into) which, added to the preposition in- gives the sense of filling with, or directing into. Dante used a variation on this in 1308, giving it the sense of suggestion or prompting, and by the 16th century “inspiration” had come to be associated with creative work.
Everyone who works on creating something out-of-the-ordinary hopes for inspiration — the poet needs a muse; the preacher hopes for unction, the painter waits for illumination. Even scientists speak of the flash of inspiration – the idea that seems to come out of nowhere – that will suddenly lead them down a new avenue. Inspiration is that something-extra, the mysterious connection, the new angle, the missing piece that pulls all the ideas together. We can work as hard as we like, but without inspiration our work remains nothing more than workmanlike. Where do we find inspiration? Perhaps there is a clue, not only in the action, but in the location of the Pentecost story.
Both Luke and John tell us that the moment of inspiration came when the disciples were all together in the Upper Room – a kataluma, a large, all-purpose guest room where people would gather to eat, socialize, or have important meetings, and then at the end of the night they might roll out their sleeping rolls and sleep there too. This particular upper room was where the Last Supper took place – where Jesus had told his friends, “I am going away… but another comforter will come” (it’s worth noting, by the way, that “comforter” in 17th century English wasn’t anything like a duvet, or comfort food, or any of the other things we associate with making ourselves feel better… it meant a motivator, or a jab in the ribs to get you moving! )
At the Ascension, Jesus had told them that they would be witnesses to all they had seen and heard, but first they had to go to Jerusalem and wait. What for, exactly, he didn’t really say – he was a little vague on the details. And neither did he tell them when it would happen; we, with the benefit of our liturgical year, know that Pentecost always comes ten days after Ascension Day. But the disciples had nothing much more to go on than to wait in Jerusalem, not knowing what for or how long. So rather than rush out to try to make things happen by themselves, they did what he said: and the Upper Room, where they had said their farewells to Jesus, was where they waited.
When Pentecost eventually came, whether it was with the drama of wind and fire, or the intimacy of feeling a friend’s breath on their faces, they suddenly found that they had the power, energy and inspiration to carry on the work of Jesus without him: not by trying harder, not by following instructions, not by finding a replacement for him, nor even by trying to imitate his work. Instead, in some mystical way no-one was able adequately to explain, all the pieces come together and they were filled with the same energy and vision and stamina and urgency as Jesus.
There’s a classic episode of the comedy show Morecambe and Wise – one of those that’s sometimes replayed at Christmas – where the star guest was a youthful André Previn. After Morecambe introduced him as Andrew Preview, they agreed to play Grieg’s piano concerto, and Morecambe quite brilliantly created a performance in which he missed all his cues, so that it seemed like an amateur catastrophe (he was, in fact, an excellent pianist in real life!). When Previn stopped the show and pointed out that he was playing the wrong notes, Morecambe memorably replied, “I am playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order.”
It’s been my experience as a writer that the elusive moment of inspiration, when the words seem to come in the right order, only comes along if you punctuate work with moments of retreat. If you don’t work, and simply wait for inspiration, it doesn’t come. If you work too hard and too long, inspiration can be equally elusive. But if you work in a pattern (whether that’s every day or in seasons), and then take time between to wait and rest, it seems inspiration can catch you unawares, and suddenly it’s as if the pages seem to write themselves. The right words come in the right order, and there’s some extra, glowing quality to the work.
Malcolm Gladwell would say that it’s an interaction of the spheres of the brain – that if you train one part of your brain to take precedence, the creative part recedes. It’s only when you allow the other side of the brain space to do its lateral work that the mysterious, instinctive ability kicks in. That’s why when you’ve been working all day long it’s sometimes when you’re washing the dishes and not thinking about anything in particular that the great idea suddenly comes to you. I always recommend to students and writers alike that they take plenty of breaks. Work hard and intensely, but take breaks to walk around the garden and let the brain relax. The learning, and the writing, and the processing goes better if we make space for inspiration. It may be a geographical place, or it may be an activity that we do regularly (like running or swimming) but it needs to be somewhere the brain can withdraw from work and the worries of life to allow for subconscious mental processing.
The Upper Room, then, becomes symbolic of respite, relaxation, withdrawal from the world: and the place they said goodbye to Jesus at the Last Supper later became the place they were filled with such force of inspiration that they went out and quite literally changed the world.
If we want to be inspired, and not just impressive; if we want to be world-changing and not just workmanlike, then we too will need to find our equivalent of the Upper Room, and withdraw often enough to give room for inspiration.