This is Sparta: Inspiration, Creativity, and the Writing Life

This is Sparta. Watch your step.One of the most memorable scenes in 300 occurs when King Leonidas yells, “This is Sparta!” He then promptly kicks the Persian messenger down a cavernous well. Chaos ensues; the Spartans kill the remaining Persian messengers. The scene seems somewhat illogical unless one is a Spartan (Shouldn’t the Spartans have allowed one of the messengers to survive?), but the sentiment of the king’s cry and act is all too familiar.*

The sentiment is all too familiar because I often feel that way about the writing life. I have to yell at myself, “You’re a writer,” and kick myself into gear. I can’t wait to “feel” like writing, and I certainly can’t wait for some angel or muse to visit.

I don’t wait for them. They’re fickle. They rarely visit, and, when they do, they don’t stay nearly long enough. They also visit at the most inopportune times, such as when I’m trying to sleep, or I’m combatting rush-hour traffic. At such times, I’m tempted to kick them down a well and to rely on the discipline of the writing life.

It isn’t such a bad route, albeit a hard one, to choose. In fact, King Leonidas and Federico Garcia Lorca probably would applaud the choice. Lorca says, “Reject the angel, and give the Muse a kick.” For Lorca, art only happens in the presence of the “duende,” which is nothing like the angel or muse. The duende is a force against which the writer struggles. It only appears when the writer has stripped herself of the notions of muse and angel and of pride. It is in that vulnerable moment that the duende appears and meets the writer, resulting in the writer creating something new and often terrifying.

Unfortunately, the duende almost is as fickle as the angel or muse. She doesn’t appear on demand, which may be why Lorca says there is no map or discipline to finding her. She appears as she wills, but – but – she always appears during the act of creation. The writer can’t wait around for her to visit. The writer must be in the act of writing in order to find and to be found by her.

That concept relates to one of my favorite ideas about writing: writing as encounter. Paul Celan, in “The Meridian,” states that the act of writing leads to the finding of something else. That something else could be the duende, but, usually, it is an encounter with the “other,” a person that is both me and not me.

It’s that idea that causes me to believe in the discipline and effort of writing even when I, as a person, have nothing left to give. I have to believe that I will find something during the act of writing. Will it be a wonderful blog post or poem? Probably not, but I will discover something, perhaps something about my writing or myself.

*Originally published October 2011.


  1. […] the words don’t come easily, when I have to fight for them, I fight. I come to the paper or the screen and make my offense. I write, even if the words are the worst […]

  2. […] to come quickly. When it doesn’t, you tremble, then make ready for an attack. You say “This is Sparta!” and stand your ground. You have to be courageous. It’s too late for anything […]