Following the Footsteps of Inspiration: Where I Searched for Stories
From Sir Walter Scott, to Robert Burns, to J.K. Rowling, the beauty of Scotland has ignited the creative spirit of famous writers for centuries. When walking along the cobble stone streets of Edinburgh…
or gazing in wonder over the rolling green hills and severe cliffs of the Isle of Sky…
or marveling over Edinburgh and the North Sea from high above on Arthur’s Seat…
the sheer commonplace of beauty in the country is overwhelming, so how could it be anything other than wildly inspirational? As a self-proclaimed book nerd, I was absolutely ecstatic upon learning Edinburgh’s reputation as “The City of Literature” and let me tell you, it sure lives up to the name. There is an immense amount of bookstores in the city and one of my last days there my flat mate, Emily, and I spent an upwards of three hours scouring the towering shelves of book shops as our bags got heavier with every stop, beginning to overflow with treasures as we continued our slouch through the city and abandoned our “we’ll just go to one more” mantra.
Once I learned about the city’s deep literary history, I decided to make it my mission to visit all the places I could that were said to inspire these great writers as I wondered to myself, has the inspiration well run dry? How can someone still find inspiration in places that are now specifically marketed toward tourists as places that inspired some ridiculously famous people? Do these places lose their magic? Is there anything original even left to create? Luckily there were many places in the city where I could satisfy my dramatic curiosity. Edinburgh is home to a lovely museum called the Writers’ Museum that is tucked away in Lady Stair’s Close, which is a small alleyway in Old Town. I assume it’s lovely…but I have to admit I never actually went inside. Though this museum is home to original manuscripts of texts by Robert Louis Stevenson and has exhibits dedicated to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, I somehow just never made it a priority on my journey to literary enlightenment (which is the most comically pretentious phrase I’ve ever written). In my mind, this was just too obvious of a choice and I wanted more of a challenge. There’s no dynamism to a glass display case.
I began my quest for answers at one of the most popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh, the Elephant House café. The Elephant House came to fame when J.K. Rowling, a resident of Edinburgh, announced that she wrote most of the first Harry Potter novel in the back room of the restaurant. They now have a giant sign outside to prove it, so it must be true! My first encounter with the Elephant House was a claustrophobic one, and this was before I even went inside the building. The Elephant House is nearly constantly swarmed with Harry Potter geeks…I mean fans. During the day, it is hard to even get into the building because there are so many people outside trying to take pictures of the building or taking pictures with the sign, because how can you even enjoy a visit to such a spot without nearly getting into a fist fight to create some evidence that you were there at all?! You can’t apparently! The sidewalk in front of the restaurant is nearly impossible to walk through because you have to fight through an actual sea of tourist nerds…I mean literary enthusiasts. Right off the bat I was skeptical that there was any magic left in this place at all, so I snapped my photo and got the heck out of there with minimal battle wounds and maximum disappointment.
After my unimpressive first attempt to go inside the Elephant House I went to another spot from which J.K. Rowling revealed to have gathered information: Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is a cemetery with graves dating back as far as the 1500s. Many of the names for characters in the series, including McGonagall and Riddle, are names of people buried there. The sprawling cemetery is comprised of grassy corridors and walls with graves embedded in them. The crumbling rock walls and wild grass make the cemetery look like a picture out of storybook, not to mention the beautiful view of the city you get after just a hop, skip, and quick little climb onto a low wall in the yard. Walking through the pseudo-rooms and open air hallways of the cemetery, it was easy to imagine someone writing a story about such a place. The air was thick with history, thick with magic, and thick with stories yet to be told about people who have long been gone.
I waited about four days before trying to go back to the Elephant House, and this time I actually went inside. I was determined to sit in that back room and write. I got in line in the stiflingly hot front room and put on my best unimpressed pout as I daydreamed about drinking a bowl filled with hot chocolate and marshmallows and felt disappointed at the tourist trap this once magical place had become. At best, I was feeling distraught. After an unbearable and unacceptable five minute wait, I was lead to a table in the back room. I sat down and scoffed to myself at the cacophonous noise wondering to myself, how could anyone focus on writing a masterpiece in a place like this, but then I looked to my right and all that negativity went right out the window. This window in fact:
I turned to the right and looked upon one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. The cool air hit my face, and that was it…I was inspired. I ended up sitting in the cafe for two hours sipping hot chocolate and writing in my journal. Sure I didn’t write a great story, but I put my feelings and ideas on a page in a way that to me was beautiful. It didn’t matter if I wrote a timeless masterpiece or a grocery list, what I saw and that place I was in sparked my creativity. Maybe this was and maybe this was not the same view that J.K. Rowling saw when she was writing, but it simply didn’t matter, and I think that’s the point. A magical place can never and will never lose its magic. It’s magic not because of what it is, not because of who has seen it before you, but because of what we see in it ourselves. So of course, there is always ALWAYS something new to create, something new to be inspired by. It can be as simple as a houseplant framed by grey sky, or as magnificent as a castle cloaked with mist. It does not matter if it is the greenest mountain you’ve ever seen or the most magnificent latte swirl you’ve ever seen. Grandeur is not a pre-requisite for inspiration.
While in Scotland, I had the pleasure of meeting an amazing man named Stuart. Stuart is an older gentleman and he plays traditional Scottish ballads on his guitar at local pubs. Though the ballads are hundreds and hundreds of years old, Stuart does not think they are out of date or that the world has gotten all they can out of their stories. To Stuart, each time these ballads are sung, they become something new. The stories are alive. Just because these stories have been told for centuries does not mean the stories are over. Not to Stuart! Stuart thinks that everyone can and should bring their own flair to the ballads. Each time someone sings these ballads or tells the stories, they become the person’s own story. Anyone can add any details or change anything they want and in the very act of saying it out loud, it becomes true! It becomes a part of the story and the story becomes something new. In this way, inspiration is fractal. A story was originally inspired by something in the world, and then in the act of telling the story again, it becomes an entirely new story. Stories inspire stories, and therefore inspiration cannot run dry. I think that’s the whole point, there’s no such thing as a universal well of inspiration, and thank goodness. That would be terribly dull.
So I guess if you are looking for a moral or a real answer to the questions I posed in the beginning of this article it’s this: You find your own inspiration. I didn’t need to go searching for inspiration, and it was silly of me to even think I could find it in such a forced way. Magic is not a quantifiable resource and it does not have to be grand. Magic can reveal itself in subtle and simple, but beautiful ways. I saw magic the first time the sun came out in Edinburgh; I saw magic during my first rain storm there; I saw magic in the tunnel under the bridge the first time I got lost. I felt magic in the warmth of every delicious hot chocolate I drank, I heard magic in the voices of strangers on the street. Just like Stuart said about stories becoming new every time they are told, I like to think the world becomes a new story every day and every time you look at it from a new perspective. And isn’t that inspiring enough?