Waiting for Inspiration

Let’s talk inspiration…

Fuck inspiration. We’re done talking about inspiration now.

Fine, fine, we’ll elaborate: If you wait for inspiration to strike before you start writing, you will count yourself lucky to average one page a month, and it will not be nearly as good as you think it was when you re-read it the next day. Then you’ll get discouraged and give up writing for a while, only to get inspired six months later and repeat the whole process. That’s a good way for a writer to avoid writing.

You can try to force inspiration by doing inspiring things – Hemingway went fishing, Hunter used drugs, Dostoyevsky had Tuberculosis – but that’s not ultimately necessary. Sure, I work out my creative problems and come up with my best ideas when I’m doing something besides staring at a blinking cursor. But those other tasks are not inspiring – they’re almost universally boring and monotonous. Mundane tasks leave your mind space to roam. Every great idea I have ever had has been conceived, refined, or tweaked while doing the dishes. Or in the shower. Maybe mowing the lawn. I think I had a good idea while cleaning the garage once – but even that was too thought intensive to allow for the right kind of brain rambling.

Further, don’t go thinking your hobbies are your inspiration. If you like sailing boats, or camping, or riding motorcycles, people will invariably ask if that inspires you.

No.

If inspiration struck me while riding my motorcycle, the next thing to strike me would be a tree and I would die. If what you’re doing is inspiring, be present in the experience. Maybe you can draw on it later – but probably not. Because if you’re out doing inspiring things, you’re not going to have time to think about writing; to designate parts of the experience as muse-worthy while discarding the chaff. If you are thinking about writing while making love with exotic women or fighting bulls, then I assure you that you’re doing one or both of those things wrong, and you’ll either end up in the wrong hole or with a very wrong hole of your own.

Your own brain is your only inspiration. The only way to stir creativity is to practice getting your brain to work on the regular.

Externalizing inspiration is a sucker’s game. This is such generic advice, handily repeated a million times on every blog by every writer on Earth. And yet, I still get this one question more than any other: “How do you just sit down and write?”

The form of the question varies. Last year it was: “What is your inspiration?” Last month it was: “Where do you get your ideas?” Yesterday it was: “Do you find maintaining a routine is best, or just write when it strikes you?”

Here’s the answer to that last question: My own schedule is too hectic to allow for setting up a specific time to write, but I do budget an amount of time. I will write for an hour and a half today – whether that’s before work, on my lunch break, or later in the night may vary, but the amount of work I get done does not.

Here’s the answer to the unspoken question behind the question: No, there is no trick, or hack, or easy way to fool words into existing. Writing at exactly 8:55 in the morning, or only after surfing, or twenty minutes after taking two point four tabs of acid — it won’t help. Writing is a skill. Talent helps, as it does with anything — there are talented mechanics and talented pinata sculptors – but practice helps more. If you sit down and write right this second — even if you’re not feeling it — and you turn out garbage, throw it away and do it again tomorrow. It will be slightly better.

Repeat.

Forever.

Until you die.

12 thoughts on “Waiting for Inspiration

  1. Whoa, Molly

    Inspiration does tend to strike while doing mundane tasks: I got the idea for the awful novel I’m writing while making toast with raspberry jam and a cup of tea. I work out plot holes while I’m driving.

    I think the brain needs time to be bored to allow for it to work things through. Whenever I’m stuck on a particularly hard scene I go and do some boring life task (laundry, mop the stupid floors, go to the lame gym) and the solution is always there when I get back.

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  2. Kyle

    Great tip. Thank you. I used to think that writing was purely inspiration. Great writers, as you’ve pointed out before and pointed at yourself (in a good way), do a great deal of research. I had always assumed in that seemingly endless stream of research that inspiration was a wellspring from which you great writers pull their creative strings from. Difficult to imagine writing ‘like’ Hemmingway, it just seems like he was born awesome and full of ideas. Practice, repeat, and practice again is fucking solid practical advice. I feel stupid for never thinking of it sooner. All sports, no matter what, if you want to be good, require that you practice constantly.

    Good stuff.

    Reply
  3. SteveySteve

    Luckily my job as a machinist at a tape factory is almost comically mundane. I get some of my best ideas just quietly wishing I was doing literally anything else…

    Also, typing stupid comments on your website is how I get my additional practise in.

    Reply
  4. Luke McKinney

    Well said.

    You don’t wait for a muse to spring from the green glades of Greek mythology, you fly on your keyboard and napalm that ephemeral forest with five thousand words of hot burning crap until an idea flees from the devastated underbrush. Then you joyfully pour more fuel into its burning wake, an idea on fire, then bulldoze the toxic text all around the good bit and start writing some more in the empty space.

    I write a five hundred word boot on a random subject first thing in the morning before I’m allowed to touch a real article. Because routines are bullshit, unless your routine is “write more”.

    Reply
      1. Luke McKinney

        Nothing is wrong as long as you’re writing about it. Reminds me of Warren Ellis’s tale of the screenwriter who could only work by dictating while naked and swigging from a bottle of scotch, and he and his dictatee just took it because the work needed doing.

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  5. Whit

    My ideas always come while the kids are chattering away in the backseat and I am blank faced, mouth opened driving down the street. That’s when my creative mind roams best. How do you capture ideas at these moments? I always forget them and am almost too ADD minded to commit to actually finding something that works so I can hit back on points later.

    Reply
  6. Robert

    While rambling through the fields of electrons that make up the eldritch world of the Internet, I have found truth among chaos. You, Brockway, have just unlocked the metaphorical gate for me to become a writer.

    Reply
  7. violafury

    My best ideas come to me in the shower. However, it is through the Persistence of Time, like practicing the Viola, or doing 8 hours of fucking Calculus when I went back to school to get a Computer Science degree, because Hubz #2 who was also a violist, was jealous, when I got to tour with the Moody Blues and he didn’t. I guess he was disappointed that the Zither Fairy didn’t show up the day after we married… Good points; thanks!

    Reply

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