On Breathing

Inspiration is a vexed word. It means both breathing in, inhalation, as well as the root and more common divine guidance. These meanings seem to be at odds with each other: breathing is such a prosaic act, an everyday occurrence, while the divine, surely, visits only occasionally? But the act of breathing is also a second-by-second reminder that the human being needs things outside of itself to survive, is a dependent creature. In the same way, I think whoever claims that creative work springs fully-formed from its human creator’s imagination and hard work has a crippled understanding of creativity itself.

If you were to push me to find the source of the creative instinct—why do you write?—I cannot point to personal history. The literature professors I encountered at university seem to have grown up reciting Wordsworth and Tennyson at the insistence of their parents, while, on my end, I was weaned off bedtime storybooks by reading texts my parents had themselves abandoned in university. I know this because they would be unable to tell me what went on in, say, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. They were exposed to literature, but (come to think of it) only because they were made to read electives they had no interest in.

I think the best analogy I can give is that of a mantle. You can’t take it, and no-one can give it away—it has to fall on you, and sometimes you don’t even want it to. The least and most you can do is prepare for it. I know for a long time that I might be getting halfway-decent ideas for stories and poems, but I had never really bothered about craft or precision or learning anything, really, so they remained just thoughts, which were soon forgotten. When I began to realise that this writing thing would be, had to be, more than just a hobby, I quickly discovered the need for preparation. Depending on my own ‘boundless imagination’ and ‘significant experiences’ was simply not enough to turn whatever inspiration I had into words on the page.

Yesterday, I dreamt. In it, I was with friends, listening to a professor speak. As dreams go, I found myself on the floor, eyes closed, able to hear everything that was going on, but unable to move. I could feel my friends moving me out of the way, possibly dragging me to somewhere less embarrassing. I saw a bright light through my eyelids which I knew only I could see. Then the voice—of God?—in my ear, saying things which, as these things go, I cannot remember the details of. I tried to pull my eyes open. I tried to breathe deeper. Then, when it seemed like there was nothing to be done, the professor—don’t ask how I knew—swept water onto my feet—don’t ask why—and I woke up.

I’m not sure if this is all there is to the dream, but I felt like I learnt something about myself. My eyes can’t be opened to the full possibility of whatever it is I want to write next, unless they are opened for me. I can’t tell the rhythm of the next poem unless I’ve learnt to listen and remember the rhythms of people and texts speaking around me. And finally: even though I lost control of myself, I woke up somehow reassured, at ease. It’s not all on me, and it never was. The very word inspiration demands an understanding of the creative process as beginning outside the self. You can’t insist on a mantle. You can only prepare yourself to receive one, as it falls, like a dream or a thought or a breath.

Hao Guang Tse