A short while ago I read John Scalzi’s ’10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing’ in which he basically tells them that they currently suck, but with diligence and discipline they can keep practicing until eventually they stop sucking, develop their own authorial voices and begin to kick ass.
I chimed in with a comment that got eaten by the blog’s Cerebus, but I basically agreed with him. I reminisced in fine language about my own troubled teenage years, when I thought writing was all about inspiration, about being struck by lightning and then channeling all the brilliance onto the page in a torrent of genius. However, back then I didn’t write much, and what I did write wasn’t really very intelligible either.
Eventually I came to terms with the fact that I was rarely if ever inspired, and that I was writing frothy, adjective-laden stuff that didn’t amount to much more than pretentious prose-poetry. So I had a good, hard look in the mirror, decided to get serious about it all, and began writing everyday, even if what I was writing was crap. Or felt like it. If you’re going to be a writer, I now tell everybody at my book signings, you have to sit down and write.
NOW. Cue Socrates. Listen to the man in Ion:
“This fine speaking of yours about Homer, as I was saying a moment ago , is not a skill at all. What moves you is a divine power… For all good epic poets recite all that splendid poetry not by virtue of a skill, but in a state of inspiration and possession… A poet, you see, is a light thing, and winged and holy, and cannot compose before he gets inspiration and loses control of his senses and his reason has deserted him.”
Teenage Phil would have hi-fived Socrates and given him a pair of shades to wear at night.
Now, interestingly enough, one of the most dreaded questions that most writers face is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Neil Gaiman wrote a fantastic little essay on this over here, in which he basically admits:
Where do I get my ideas from?
I make them up.
Out of my head.
And I think that’s about as good an answer as any honest author can give you. Here is where Socrates would leap in, robes flapping, crazy beard a wagging, finger shaking and pointing at the clouds as he yelled, “Ah ha! Out of your head… or placed into your head by the Gods!?!?”
But what Socrates doesn’t get, and what Neil Gaiman also says in his essay, is that there’s more to it than the idea. In fact, Neil Gaiman says quite clearly:
And thirdly, the ideas aren’t that important. Really they aren’t. Everyone’s got an idea for a book, a movie, a story, a TV series.
This is where Socrates would stop, and stand there blinking. See, Socrates in Ion thinks that you get possessed, are struck by the lightning, and blurt out your genius onto the page, whammo! Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Prof. Frank and countless others disagree:
The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.
Socrates dismisses this part of the creative process. As did I when I was young and wore shades at night and did precious little writing.
However! It’s not really Socrates’ fault. Here’s what Mr. Saunders’ had to say in the intro to Ion:
It is clear that Plato objected to the poet’s claim to be moral experts, in rivalry to the moral expert hopefully to be produced by dialectic (philosophy). But that rivalry arises ultimately from two radically different ways of looking at the world. To Plato, particular things in this word are mere reflections of the world of forms; to rise above these reflections and to discover the forms themselves, by reason and dialectic, is to penetrate to knowledge of truth., to absolute moral standard, and hence to the secret of the happy life. Poets, by contrast, appeal not to reason but to reason’s enemies, the emotions. They never even try to rise above particulars: they simply adopt (and then in turn influence) the accepted standards of society, and relate their moral lessons to no objective norm at all.
Back then, around 400 BC, poets who expounded on Homer were the teachers of the day. Kind of. So Plato is trying to disqualify Poets from the moral expert tournament by saying they’re not skilled or rational but rather possessed and passive, and thus can not be moral experts on the good life, but rather base educators and entertainers at best. Socrates himself is but a puppet for Plato’s over arching goal; perhaps Socrates would have been totally chill about all this. He may indeed have accepted my offer to wear sunglasses at night, but might also have subjected me to wise elenchus so as to bring me to wisdom!
Also, Emerson said some cool things about the Oversoul (Emerson’s pet name for God) flowing in and out of him and inspiring him as a result. I’ll dig it up later, and see if he’s claiming Plato/Socrates style that artists are possessed, or whether he attributes some skill to the process like everybody else does. I think Emerson will side with Neil Gaiman, because Emerson was a savvy dude.