Why Milton Makes Writers Look Bad

One on my favorite poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay, would sit and create sonnets in her head, not writing them down until each line was perfect. Milton, as we all learned in school, was blind and he said Paradise Lost to an amanuensis as he composed it. He claimed that a divine spirit inspired him at night and in the morning he would recite new verses. Both of these authors knew what they wanted to say before committing to print. I envy them.

I seem to be working out the novel as I go. My story hasn’t changed since the first draft, but they way I want to tell it has. I’m in the midst of tedious editing as I change the chronology and presentation of events. The thing that bothers me is that I can’t really write in an inspired way for long stretches. It’s more like solving, or rather creating, a puzzle at this point. So I write a bit, think a bit, switch a scene or delete something, and read over it. It’s a series of stops and starts.

Of course, when I was in the middle of the first draft, you wouldn’t have heard me going on about “inspired long stretches.” Those tended to only come after a fair amount of hard work, but looking back it seems like halcyon days. Now it also seems best to work everything out in your head first. Think of all the time and typing I could have saved. Maybe if my novel were 14 lines I could do that, but I certainly couldn’t come anywhere close to Milton. The bastard.

4 thoughts on “Why Milton Makes Writers Look Bad

  1. Yes, it is hard to tell sometimes whether the examples set by the likes of Milton, Edna St. Vincent Millay and others are inspirational or infuriating. Certainly, it is hard for us mere mortals to think of them as instructive. I recently came across a truly amazing account (to the point of stretching credulity) of how inspiration visits upon one particular author in a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html).

    She describes meeting 90 year old poet Ruth Stone and hearing her explanation of how poetic inspiration would come to her as a young girl out in a field in her native Virginia. The poem would rush at her “like a thunderous train of air … barreling down at her over the landscape”. The ensuing description of this encounter between young poet and hurtling wind of inspiration is absolutely marvelous. The talk is nearly 20 minutes long but worth every step of the way. This particular bit begins at around 10 minutes and 15 seconds into the video, but I really recommend seeing the entire talk.

  2. Cool, thanks!

    Just this morning I subscribed to TED Youtube channel after a Twitter recommendation. Sometimes it definitely feels like the universe is nudging me along…

  3. I always find it challenging to allow myself to take on tasks like writing and studying literature because I think of the insane talent with writers like Milton and Millay, and their critical counterparts (oh, Bloom, I mean you). and think about how pitiful I am by comparison. Like, if I can’t be Gerard Manley Hopkins, I might as well not pick up a pen. Cheers to you for taking on the challenge and seeing it through. I can’t wait to see the end result!

  4. In my nearly forty years on this planet, it has been my experience that whenever you hear some story about an artist’s extreme genius — whether it be a writer’s memory or a painter’s facility — it turns out to be greatly exaggerated. In fact so far it always turns out to be kind of like a trick of stage magic, where the magician is doing something which appears miraculous but is really just a very simple toy.

    For example, I’m reading this book on improving your memory. Harry Lorayne is the author. He’s known for memorizing the names of all 400 audience members, stuff like that. Turns out it’s a trick, and a pretty simple one, and he spends an entire book repeating the trick over and over. It’s a good technique, and once learned, it’s just a matter of practice.

    Milton probably employed something similar. It doesn’t make him a bad person or a worse writer, but it does put his accomplishment on a more human level, to think of him that way.

    We all have our own gifts and we develop them in our own ways.

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