On Nothing in Particular

About 20 years ago, I was poking around a used bookstore in San Francisco when I spied the following title on the chipped and battered spine of a dust jacket-less hardback: Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing. With a name like that, I thought, it had to be good. So I bought it immediately; I think it cost $2.00. When I took the book home and started reading, I discovered some of the funniest, most philosophical and aphoristic poems I had ever encountered. The author was a man by the name of Samuel Hoffenstein, whom I had never heard of. In the 1920s, though, when this book was first published, he was one of the most famous American light versifiers. Six months after it appeared in 1928, Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing had sold some 90,000 copies, an astonishingly high figure for a book of poetry. Hoffenstein is a master of the mundane, creating poems that make a lot out of what seems like very little.

Hoffenstein’s verse is witty, irreverent and poignant. The titles of individual poems—“Songs about Life and Brighter Things Yet; A Survey of the Entire Earthly Panorama, Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral, With Appropriate Comment by the Author, of a Philosophic, Whimsical, Humorous, or Poetic Nature—a Truly Remarkable Undertaking” and “Songs of Fairly Utter Despair”—are often rewarding little poems in themselves. Hoffenstein treats life’s triumphs and tragedies with a teasing humor and a powerful sense of the transience of things. He always manages to find a big idea in the little transactions of daily life:

Babies haven’t any hair;
Old men’s heads are just as bare;—
Between the cradle and the grave
Lies a haircut and a shave.

I always find Hoffenstein inspiring when inspiration seems in short supply. I was talking to a friend recently, who is working on a novel, and she said she wasn’t making any progress because she didn’t feel inspired. This launched us into a lengthy conversation in which I tried to make the point that inspiration is overrated.

There was a time when I thought that inspiration was everything when it came to writing, and I enthusiastically pursued various routes to induce that state when it was reluctant to come about of its own accord. But it seems to me now that inspiration, while it has its uses, is probably the least important thing about writing. Much more vital, in my view, is simply doing it—especially when you’re feeling least inspired. Writing is a job, just like being an accountant, a bricklayer or a school teacher. If your accountant said to you, ‘I’m not doing your taxes before the deadline because I don’t feel inspired,’ you’d look for another accountant pretty quick. I feel the same way about writing. I hardly ever feel inspired. If I waited for that elusive feeling to descend upon me, I’d never get anything done. So after I roll out of bed in the morning, I roll into my study, sit down before a blank screen and start writing—whether I feel inspired or not. And to my delight and amazement, something worthwhile usually gets written.

Thomas Edison coined one of the best ever aphorisms about inspiration:

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

I think what Edison said about genius applies to creativity, too. Inspiration is a lovely feeling. Those eureka moments—when the solution to a problem suddenly comes to you out of the blue, when the perfect words in the perfect order just seem to flow effortlessly out of you—are precious. But they are by definition fleeting, and it’s difficult to build much of substance on such evanescent foundations. So I look to that great sage Nike for my philosophy about writing: Just do it. My experience has been that writing is the mother of inspiration, not the other way around. It’s sort of like learning to play a musical instrument. After the drudgery of practicing day in and day out for a very long time, one day you find you’re making really sweet music. Inspiration has very little to do with it. And the most inspiring thing of all about this is, something interesting always turns up as long as you’re always willing to keep digging. What that even greater sage Marcus Aurelius said about goodness also applies to creativity:

Delve within; within is the fountain of good, and it is always ready to bubble up, if you always delve.