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21 November 2011

From zero to one – You know how every once in a while things line up in a such a way that it seems like the universe is trying to tell you something? When all the pieces of the puzzle just seem to fall into place? I’m having one of those experiences these days.

“I guess I was waiting around for inspiration to find me, but it never came knocking.”

Of course, it’s not really the universe trying to tell me something, it’s my subconscious trying to get a message across to my conscious mind. That may not sound as grand as having the universe speak to you, but when your subconscious tries to tell you something, it’s usually a good idea to listen.

Around the beginning of November, That David Guy emailed me to ask me if I was going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Now, those of you who have been around for a while will remember that I did do NaNoWriMo for a few years in a row, and was even the ML (Municipal Liaison) for Korea for some of those years. It’s been a number of years now, though, since I last took on the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in a month. I don’t remember exactly when I stopped, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the end of my NaNoWriMo run roughly coincided with my coming to HUFS. November is entrance exam season for my graduate school, which means a lot of extra work. It’s also right before final exams, major classification exam, graduation exams, and master’s thesis wrap-ups. In a nutshell, it is the absolute worst month of the year in terms of having free time.

The truth, though, is that I probably still could have done NaNoWriMo. I mean, all you have to do is write 50,000 words, which comes out to fewer than 2,000 words a day. During my NaNoWriMo years, I wrote at least 2,000 words every day and usually more; had I set aside just an hour a day for writing, I probably could have pulled it off. But I just wasn’t feeling the inspiration, or the motivation. It’s one thing to be capable of doing something, but it’s quite a different thing entirely to actually do that something.

Not too long ago, Kevin sent me a link to Conan O’Brien’s commencement address at Dartmouth. I skipped it the first time around, and then not long after he asked me what I had thought of it. I had some time then, so I sat down and watched it. When I was finished, I couldn’t really find the words to express what I thought of it, and I still can’t find the words now. What I can say is that it made me realize I am in something of a strange place these days. I suspect there will come a day when I will be able to go into greater detail on this, but that day is not today. Suffice it to say that I’ve been feeling... weird. Somehow this video put this into perspective for me.

And then, all on my own, I stumbled on Ze Frank. Again. In 2006, Ze produced a daily video program called “The Show with zefrank.” Back then I had somehow stumbled onto the show early in it’s year-long run and became a regular viewer. It’s a fantastic journey, and if you didn’t take that journey back in 2006-2007, I would recommend starting at the beginning and watching the entire year’s worth of shows. Sure, the parts where he talks about the news will be dated (and yet, somehow still strangely relevant), but most of the show is timeless.

Anyway, as I was browsing through the archives and taking a stroll down memory lane, I came across a short video that Ze had done on inspiration. It’s under two minutes, so go watch it now and then come back. No, seriously, I’m not going to continue until you watch it. OK? OK.

So... oof. As I watched that, I realized that my “lack of inspiration” was yet another in a long line of excuses for my inactivity. A while back I told Gord that I was going to start writing fiction again, and that I would even drop by his crit group. Nothing came of that thanks to my inactivity, thanks to my inability to get from zero to one. I guess I was waiting around for inspiration to find me, but it never came knocking. When I watched Ze’s video, I realized why.

Ze’s idea is not a new one, of course. Leonard Bernstein said something very similar: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long.” And then, of course, there is Edison’s famous quote: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” The bottom line is that sitting around and waiting for inspiration rarely gets you anywhere.

If I may be allowed a brief etymological tangent, I’d like to talk about why I find Edison’s quote so fascinating. Most people realize that the quote is a play on the similarity between “inspiration” and “perspiration,” but it goes deeper than that. In modern English, the semantic distance between inspiration and perspiration is quite far, but several hundred years ago, not to mention in the original Latin, that gap was much narrower: the Latin “inspirare” means “to blow into,” while the Latin “perspirare” means to “to breathe or blow constantly.” Essentially, the difference is between blowing into and blowing out of something. So not only is Edison’s quote a play on the sound of the words, it is also a clever linguistic commentary on the difference between being the passive recipient of something and the active doer of something.

The connection between breath and inspiration is a mystical one: inspiration was perceived to be the movement or breath of a divine presence (in the Greek New Testament, the word for “spirit” is “pneuma,” which comes from “pnein,” meaning “to breathe” or “to blow”). Yet breath is not only the movement of a divine presence, but the key to life. It is no coincidence, for example, that “expire” means both “to perish” and “to breathe out.” And this is not only the case in English. Even in Korean, a language that had no connection with English in its early development, the word for “life” literally means “the breath of the throat” (mok-sum). (Incidentally, and to bring this little linguistic discursion full circle, the Sino-Korean word for “inspiration” literally means “divine feeling.”)

In this way, inspiration has been associated with the divine and with life itself. It’s no wonder that we place such importance on it, that we seek after it like a lost treasure. The truth, though, is that you never know when it’s going to strike. More importantly, at least in my experience, inspiration is like a pump—you have to prime it first before anything comes out. So, by way of priming the pump, of going from zero to one, I have begun to transcribe/edit the journal I kept during our trip to China this past August. I have about ten pages typed up so far, and judging by the overall length of the journal and the portion that I have done so far, I expect the finished product to be somewhere around forty pages at the least. This is why I didn’t post anything toward the end of last week, as I normally would have—I was spending my time typing up the journal.

It would not be entirely accurate to say that this is a work of creation, since most of what I am doing is transcribing, but I have been doing some editing and supplementing as well, and at least it has gotten me back in the habit of writing. On a ten-point scale of creativity it may indeed be a one, but getting from one to two (and from two to three, and so on) will hopefully be easier than getting from one to zero, like Ze says.

As for the timetable on this, I am not going to put any of it online until I have typed out the whole journal. The reason for this is that we also took a lot of photographs while we were in China, and what I’d like to do is put up journal content and the corresponding photographs at the same time, linking to photos in the galleries from the journal pages. Since we started our trip on the 14th of August, I think what I’d like to do is start putting up the journal on the 14th of December and put up one day’s worth of the journal each day until the 24th. I will also be writing an epilogue or retrospective on the trip from my present point-of-view, and that will go up on Christmas. So that will be something to look forward to, for me and (hopefully) for you as well.

I suppose all this talk of inspiration could be seen as a subtle form of procrastination. So to keep the momentum going I am going to stop here and get back to journal transcription. I will try to take time out of my schedule to also post on a more-or-less weekly basis, though the posts may be a little shorter than usual until I finish this project. Hopefully the finished product will be worth it.

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