The Myth of Inspiration
Or, writing only when you’re “feeling it”
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” ― William Faulkner
I hear this myth all the time: “Write when you’re inspired. Your best writing comes when you get smacked upside the head with Ms. Muse’s Hammer of Ubercool Writing Skills. Your writing will be garbage if you try to finish your 500-words target count for the day without first begging the Muses to have mercy on your poor, untalented soul.”
And it’s bullcrap.
Sure, sometimes you have a great day. You sit down to write and before you look up, you realize that you managed to write 5,000 words, and three hours have somehow gone by. You have no idea how, and it only felt like ten minutes. Relish those days. Embrace them. Love them. But don’t wait for them.
If you’re trying to be a writer, I’m sure you’ve hung out on Facebook writing groups, G+ communities, etc., and seen someone say it took them five or ten years to write their book. These are (usually) the people who only write when they’re inspired.
I don’t look down on them–I encourage everyone to write, and to do so through whatever methods feel right to them. But do you want to take a decade for your novel? Think about that for a moment.
That is what happens when you wait until “inspiration” hits you. The vast majority of awesome novels I’ve read did not take five years to draft.
As King says, “Kill your darlings.”
When he says that, he isn’t saying you must kill your favorite character, or that something important to you must be cut for the book to be worth more than pre-chewed bubblegum. No, he’s referring to a sentence, scene, or even chapter that you are totally in love with, but which doesn’t advance the story.
Perhaps editing and revising the book has made that darling obsolete, or perhaps it just needs to be cut because it can be without harming the story line. Inspiration doesn’t care whether it produces something perfect for your book, or something awesome that doesn’t belong there.
We can be so in love with our inspired, golden words that we resist cutting a segment out. Maybe it’s the best prose ever, but if the book is tighter and stronger without it, then you should kill it.
Faulkner’s suggestion that he found inspiration daily at 9:00 AM isn’t meant to be taken literally, in my interpretation. He’s saying that–
- Consistent writing habits matter more than inspiration, when it comes to producing quality writing, because
- Regularly forcing yourself to write when the muse isn’t with you creates inspiration, and
- Consistently good writing is better achieved through the experience that comes from quantity than by writing only when we’re excited to write. The more we write, the better we get.
Writer’s Block — Lack of Inspiration or Story Flaw?
The people who complain of writer’s block (the flip side of inspiration) are usually those who only write a lot when they feel inspired. Authors with more experience know how to recognize the problem early, what it means, and what to do to get around it.
Remember that writer’s block almost never means you can’t write at that moment, or that you don’t know what to write, just that nothing is flowing. The muse has left the building. Or has it?
In my experience, blocks come most frequently when my subconscious mind realizes there’s a problem with the words I’m trying to write. A problem in your storytelling is easily avoided by outlining before you write. There are as many methods of outlining as there are authors, and as many depths of outline. Somewhere out there is a method and level of detail that will work for you.
Finding and dealing with a block that arises while you’re writing (whether you’ve outlined or not)
Locate and correct the error that’s bugging your subconscious. It’s that easy, and that hard. There are many books on finding problems with your writing, things like MCs acting out of character, unrealistic plot twists, logic flaws, and more. Read those to learn how to spot and then fix your problems. (But outline if you’d rather avoid almost all such problems in the first place.)
But on those rare occasions when the writer’s block actually is caused by a lack of inspiration, that’s when I get frustrated answering questions in groups and so on. The solution is simple, but people seem to think it’s difficult. It isn’t.
The way to beat writer’s block is to smash it in the face with a brick, kick it while it’s down, and pee in its shoes.
- Sit down and write in some way that becomes habit, whether you write every third Sunday of the month or every day.
- And, it doesn’t matter what you write or how stupid it is. Just write. Anything.
- If you have to, rewrite an existing scene in a separate document. Or rewrite a news story. Just get writing something.
- If that doesn’t work, write down random words. Put crap down on paper, so to speak, and it will soon stop being crap.
As a ghostwriter, I have to draft each novel by the contract deadline if I want to get paid, get a referral, gain repeat business, and so on. (I have a big section on figuring out deadlines in the Professional Ghostwriter’s Handbook.)
I don’t get the luxury of having writer’s block.
I sometimes must just start writing, even if I have no idea where the story will go or even what the story is. Yet after about ten minutes, I just magically seem to get inspired. Write no matter what, even if it’s only 250 words. Try to do it at the same time every day.
After a little while, you’ll quickly find you’ve shattered the writer’s block. You may then notice that inspiration, the elusive thing we all want to catch in our writing, comes to you instead of you having to chase it.
Spending ten years writing a book only when you’re inspired doesn’t guarantee it will be a better book. If you’d like to make a living as a writer, you’ll need to write faster than that!
(Insert LOL emoji here).