The Truth About Inspiration According to Joyce Carol Oates

By inspiration, I don’t mean ideas. JCO is talking about something far greater than mere ideas. She’s talking about the kind of inspiration that we equate with genius, the kind that drives you to a 48hr writing marathon, the kind where you don’t even notice the passing of days.

Through a series of anecdotes about some of the world’s most celebrated writers, JCO depicts inspiration as a mysterious, spiritual, otherworldly phenomenon.

Her description alludes to a kind of spirit possession when she says, “Something not us inhabits us; something insists on speaking through us.”

But this source of inspiration, whatever it is, can’t be conjured up by formulaic rituals.

To be inspired we can only be open, sensitive, and receptive to both the fantastic and the ordinary.

She expounds on this directly by saying, “The epiphany has significance, of course, only in its evocation of an already existing (but undefined) interior state. It would be naïve to imagine that grace really falls upon us from without–one must be in a spiritual readiness for any visitation.”

More directly she says, “Images abound to those who look with reverence and are primed to see.”

I love those last three words because they apply to so much of how we exist as humans beyond any literary or artistic applications. “Primed to see” applies to our everyday relationships, politics, emotions, decisions, and the list is infinite. Think of psychological conditioning, perception is reality, we see what we believe, and so on.

So how do we make ourselves open, sensitive, and receptive? Again, the process is elusive, but JCO might provide insight in her description of Henry James: “James was one of those who knew how to keep still, and to listen.”

Perhaps that’s one avenue to priming ourselves to receive inspiration. Be still. It’s a phrase from Psalms 46:10 that I’ve not applied often enough.

Be still.

What are some of your moments of most profound inspiration?