Is Writing Under Inspiration Just a Huge Myth?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

A friend gave me a really cute Pearls Before Swine comic by Stephan Pastis that was titled, "A Day in the Life of a Writer." The comic starts off with a little mouse in front of a computer saying, "Today I will write ten pages." But then as the day progresses, he comes up with one excuse after another to NOT write. 

First the little mouse steps away from his computer because he needs coffee. Then he realizes he's hungry. Once he's eaten breakfast, he decides he needs inspiration and so he watches YouTube for a while. By then it's lunch time so he takes another break. 

After lunch he says, "Still not inspired. I need a walk." And on it goes, one excuse after another all day. Until finally by 5:00 pm he hasn't written a word.

Of course we all chuckle when we see comics like that, because we can totally relate. We've faced days exactly like the little mouse, days when getting a root canal seems easier (and perhaps preferable) to writing ten pages.

The truth is, all writers, no matter their stage, have crappy days.  There are plenty of days when I wake up bleary-eyed, fighting a migraine, with a to-do list that stretches to Australia. The last thing I want to do is sit down and type a fairy tale. I'd much rather escape into one.

But, if there's one lesson I've learned well over the years it's that I have to show up to work anyway. If I consider myself a professional writer and if I want others in my life to treat me like one, then I have to act like a professional. I have to take my work time seriously. 

Pablo Picasso once said: Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

My philosophy is very similar. I would say, sit down and write, even when you're not inspired. Once you start working, inspiration often comes along later dragging her feet. Sometimes she may even join you enthusiastically. But if she decides to stay in bed and never show her face, you must write anyway. You must stay at the keyboard and type one word after another, one day after another.

Most writers don't have lightning strike moments of inspiration where we're overcome by some kind of inner frenzy of creativity that won't let us rest until we've poured ourselves out. Sorry. It almost never happens that way.

Usually our writing days are fairly ordinary, perhaps even mundane. We eke out words, agonize over the story, and pray it won't end up sounding quite as bad as it feels. 

The bottom line is that most successful authors have learned that "writing under inspiration" is largely a myth. Instead, we must learn to "write under discipline." Writers have to develop self-discipline–the ability to force ourselves to do something even when we don't want to.

So what are some ways we can develop a habit of self-discipline? Here are just a few things I've done to facilitate self-discipline in my writing life:

1. Plan writing time into our daily schedule. Find a time, even if it's only for an hour (or even 30 minutes). Make the time and goal realistic and doable.

2. Don't let any excuses keep us from our scheduled writing time. Nothing is an excuse (outside a major catastrophe!), not tiredness, not appointments, not phone calls, not interruptions from family. Nothing.

3. Show up to the task on time. We can't tell ourselves that it's okay to check facebook for ten more minutes. Or go make a smoothie first. Or answer two emails. Start on time.

4. Just write. We can't worry about if we're doing it right, if our prose is pretty, or what other people might think. Turn off the internal editor and let the words flow. It doesn't matter if they're good or bad. Instead, just write.

Eventually all those words day after day end up turning into a story. Sometimes those words even surprise us by being a good story. But even if they're not good, that's what editing is for, to turn the lump of coal into a diamond.

How about you? Do you find yourself waiting for inspiration to strike before you write? What percentage of the time do you write under inspiration or under discipline?

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