Romantic Genius or Victorian Worker

Struck by a sudden burst of inspiration, I will begin with two anecdotes. Do not be alarmed, I will hit upon the practical and productivity-enhancing as soon as the muses allow.

According to his own testiment, in 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the old drug-fiend,  took some opium and fell asleep:

The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, … during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him … without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. (Coleridge, quoted from Wikipedia)

What began as a fun experiment in self-medication became one of the most important moments in the history of writing. Not because Kublah Khan is considered one of the greatest Romantic poems but because Coleridge’s account shaped the ideal of writing in the popular imagination. In some way, most people believe that this is what writing is supposed to be like. A sudden burst of inspiration, perhaps fueled by a dream, or indeed, a drug, urges the writer to write. No pesky planning, no hard work, no effort necessary. Indeed, effort would actually be detrimental to success. Hacks work, geniuses are inspired.

Sixty years after Coleridge published his account of writing Kublah Khan, the Victorian public was shocked by Anthony Trollope’s account of his own writing process:

According to the circumstances of the time — whether my other business might be then heavy or light, or whether the book which I was writing was or was not wanted with speed — I have allotted myself [to write] so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. … There are those who would be ashamed to subject themselves to such a taskmaster, and who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till — inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn (quoted from the Autobiography, which, by the way, is very entertaining).

Unless you are a student of literature, it is likely that you have never heard of Trollope and this admission is, at least partially, responsible. Althouth Trollope was a successful and prolific writer in his lifetime, writing 47 novels (in addition to his work as post-master general), posterity has not forgiven him his insult to the muse. No good writing could possibly happen on such a schedule. The muse does not charge by the hour, she visits the worthy as she pleases.

Unlike many a practitioner of the art of planning, I do not fully share Trollope’s outrage. I know inspiration happens and it’s wonderful. Even if there is no mythical muse singing sweet songs into my ear, I obviously am aware that there are days when words and ideas and awesomeness just happens, and there are days when nothing goes. And it can seem like it’s out of your control, as if there really was some fickle, mythical woman toying with you. Not only have we been socialized to believe in inspiration, muses, tortured writers and writer’s block, we also find it in our experience. The idea that I am in control of writing, that I can just sit down and write, is both obvious and counter-intuitive. It’s also, bloody difficult. If you imagine yourself not to be in control, there is nothing you can do if things don’t work out. On the other hand, if you believe you are in control and things somehow don’t work out, it’s all your fault.

To achieve happiness, then, perhaps the best way to think about writing is actually the Coleridge model. That way things either go right, or it’s not your fault. Unfortunately that’s not what appears to be happening. Most people who think of themselves as Coleridgean writers waiting for inspiration seem quite unhappy, because, when things go wrong, they can’t blame it on the muse (because most people tend not to believe in mythical creatures), nor on their behaviour (because behaviour has nothing to do with it), rather they blame it on themselves. Something in their essence is wrong. They aren’t geniuses. They aren’t writers. They aren’t academics. If you believe in the Romantic Genius notion than if things don’t work out it is never because of what you do, it is always because of who you are.

Now, if you view yourself as a Victorian worker, like Trollope, not achieving what you set out to do has nothing to do with not being a genius; in fact, geniushood becomes incredibly unimportant. What matters is what you do, not who you are. If you try to view writing through the Trollopian lense, asking “why did I not do as well as I intended?” suddenly becomes a meaningful question. More importantly, you get to ask, “what can I do to do better?”. Rather than having to think that you did not write that chapter because, plainly speaking, you suck, you get to work on doing better. And even if inspiration, and lack thereof, will always remain facts of life, you get to work out when inspiration is most likekly to happen and you find ways to induce it – in my case, turning off the internet, or blocking facebook, does wonders for the muses. As William Faulkner put it: “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning”.


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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4 Responses to Romantic Genius or Victorian Worker

  1. jenniferhelps says:

    Beautiful Post!

    “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 4 or 5 o’clock every single morning.”

    I also do not believe there is such a thing as writer’s block!


    • oxforddphile says:

      4 or 5 am? That sounds amazing!


      • jenniferhelps says:

        Every day! Then after banging out a few thousand words, I go for a five mile run! Then I come home to a bubble bath, and breakfast! Then back to the writing again! Anyone can do it, if they discipline themselves!


      • oxforddphile says:

        That sounds really fun and really reliable! I guess what it boils down to is that one needs to find a scheme or discipline that works and stick to it consistently. Beginning work at 4 wouldn’t work for me because I have evening engagements that are work-related. But I do know that I am most productive and, more importantly, most happy, when I work reliably at certain hours every day.


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