The importance of inspiration, idea, and concept

What I learned from Jorge Luis Borges, one of my all-time favorite writers.

Micha van Amsterdam
Writers’ Blokke


source: SDASM Archives via flickr (No known copyright restrictions)

I believe that one of the prime ways to be inspired is to read a lot. That’s why I like how Medium works. It feels somewhat like the YouTube of the written word. I can easily switch between topics, publications, ideas, and content of all sorts, lose track of time, and be entertained for some hours. And in the meantime, all kinds of new ideas pop into my mind.

The trick is to take different scraps of ideas from other stories and mold them into your own. These bits & pieces can be words, sentences, concepts, structures, topics, or simply an atmosphere another writer tends to create.

What we’re doing then is challenging our own minds to think out of the box. The result is originality through inspiration and cross-pollination. It is the opposite of a copy & paste technique that too many people lazily apply in their own lives.

An authentic, interesting writer has to have an authentic view of life. This authentic view is defined by ideas and concepts and stimulated through inspiration.

One of my own big inspirations is Jorge Luis Borges. To me, Borges is all about the importance of ‘idea’. The focus is not on impressive sentences, emotional involvement, or strong character (although those are present). The focus is on the concept.

Keep it short

In his lifetime Borges wrote a lot. Though he only wrote short stories. And this had a reason.

“It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.” — Jorge Luis Borges

A 1000-word story, if written well, can tell as much as a badly written 50.000-word story. Even more so, a short story can be a very powerful tool to transfer ideas to the reader. Longer stories on the contrary too often lead to distraction and a blurry focus.

In fact, Borges invented his own technique to circumvent this urge of quantity. Instead of writing the entire novel, he wrote an imaginary critique on it. Calling himself a ‘lazy writer ‘ (which he was not of course) he chose to write notes on imaginary books. (If you’re interested, I’d suggest reading ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).

In that sense, he transformed his ideas into some kind of literary review. This offered him an extra layer of depth, authenticity, and a way to keep it short as well.

Write to find your audience

Here’s a quote from Emerson as cited by Borges in one of his lectures:

“The taste of an apple does not lie in the apple itself. The apple cannot taste itself. Neither does the taste of the apple lie in the mouth of the eater. What is needed thus, is contact between apple and eater. “

This, says Borges, is a good analogy for writing. True meaning only emerges when the right reader finds the right story for him. Nothing exists in a vacuum. It’s the interaction that’s important.

So, do not only write for the sake of writing. Do not solely write to please others. Do not only write to gain a big following. Write so that your story connects with people and thus gets the meaning it deserves.

Treat your work with the respect it deserves

Our society obsessively focuses on speed. It craves constant change. We’re confronted with an overload of information every day.

It’s so tempting to view our stories as a throwaway product. Planned obsolescence, after all, is the name of the game. It seems that we’ve forgotten how to value things, especially our own creations.

Yes, perfection can cripple creativity, but this doesn’t mean we can’t strive to create solid sustainable work.

For Borges, every story was a unique piece. A text containing knowledge collected in the catalog of an artist. He treated his work with the uttermost respect.

And like artists tend to do, he kept working, altering, and fine-tuning his work. Even after publication. He wasn’t afraid to update his stories, rearranging, revising, repolishing if needed.

The legacy of Borges is not the quantity of his work (although he did write a lot). The legacy is the superior quality of every individual piece.

A multi-project approach

Even though he kept fine-tuning his older works, Borges was constantly writing something new. In his lifetime he published more than 1200 works, including essays, poetry, translations, and reviews.

His medium was the written word, yet his content was broad, profound, and very diverse. His interests ranged from the Divine Comedy to the Kabbalah and King Kong. He was always working on multiple projects at once. Besides his own fictional writing Borges wrote book reviews, he was an editor of a magazine, a lecturer, an overseer of other people’s work, a compiler of anthologies, and of course an avid reader.

This brings us back to the beginning. The importance of inspiration, reading, and authenticity.

Now, this multi-project approach was one of the key elements in his creative workflow. The more things he did the better his own writing output seemed to be.

Which of course makes sense: when you tend to do lots of stuff you tend to have lots of sources of inspiration. The more interests we have, the more we do, the more sparks we create that ignite our inspiration. This is a solid route in finding our own, original voice.

Enjoy life

In the end though, first of all, we should do what we love. Never forget to love writing.

Still, we must remember that writing is only a part of our lives. From time to time, we should step out of ourselves, and from the sideline observe our own doings, grasp the bigger picture, and put everything into context.

“I’ve dedicated my life to reading, analyzing, writing, and enjoying. Yet in the end, I found out that ‘enjoying’ was the most important of them all.” — Jorge Luis Borges



Micha van Amsterdam
Writers’ Blokke

Simple, sustainable lifestyle design, self-sufficiency and local, perennial culture.