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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?


16 comments:

  1. Sometimes it works best to leave the keyboard. This weekend I could not get the story flowing. Finally I shut down my laptop and went for a bike ride. Back home again, the story took off. It took a slight detour, but was so much better than I'd been trying to work it before.

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    1. Good point, Terri. There are times when we show up, when we're working, but really do need to step away for a little while. This happens when I'm especially tired and writing at night. I find that if I just pack it up and start fresh in the morning I can get twice as much done. We have to know our limits!

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  2. Such a great post, Jody. What I love is that this idea of discipline can apply to so many other tasks as well, besides writing. And I agree--inspiration often comes AFTER you start to work. Any quite often, she brings along a few friends...like enthusiasm, energy, and confidence.:-) ~ Betsy

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    1. Thank you, Betsy! Yes, I really think this can apply to so many areas of life and work. We need to show up regardless of our feelings. (Since feelings are so fickle!) And then when we start our work, usually the enthusiasm follows!

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  3. I especially agree with your point about treating writing as a profession; I think that's the problem for a lot of people (including me). That is, we treat writing as a hobby or as a leisure activity, which makes it easier to put it off.

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    1. I'm definitely not saying that writing can't be a hobby. It totally can for some people! I wonder sometimes, if there's too much pressure toward publication. Writing can be a healthy outlet in and of itself for anyone. However, if we are seeking to make a career out of writing and publication, then I do think we need to step up the game and treat it as a profession. :-)

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  4. Great advice! I write even when I'm not feeling inspired and I feel like my words are terrible. And you know what? The words usually aren't as terrible as I'd thought.

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    1. I find that too, Julie. Once I go back to edit my book, I usually can't tell the parts that I wrote on "bad" days versus the parts that really flowed!

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  5. Thanks, Jody, for the great advice. I'm really good at coming up with excuses not to write. ;) It's nice to hear that I'm not the only one writer who has crappy days!

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  6. Jody, I've heard this attributed in several forms to numerous writers, but whoever said it, it's true. "I only write when I'm inspired. I make certain that I'm inspired at 9 AM each day."
    This is what separates the people Lawrence Block calls "Sunday writers" from those who look on it as a vocation. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. I've been struggling to make time to write since school started a month ago, but tomorrow is a fresh start (and yeah, I've been saying THAT for a month), but seriously. I'll start with 30 minutes and go from there. Thanks for the reminder.

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  8. If we're equating inspiration with a feeling, I totally agree. I don't wait until I feel like writing any more than I wait to feel like spending time in the Word of God.

    In fact, true inspiration often shows up when there are zero feelings. I'll write something and think, "now that's lame." Yet, a reader will comment on it and say how much it affected them.

    Inspiration isn't a myth. The myth is in how we perceive it operates.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  9. Your point #4 is SO important... like the Nike motto, "Just do it!" We can talk about writing, and keep reading books on the craft of writing, but if the writing never actually happens because we're waiting for the Muse to drop words onto a page for us, publication isn't likely to ever become a reality. Thanks for this reminder. :)

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  10. Your article is very helpful thank you very much for sharing .

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  11. Definitely agree. Plan to write. Open up your WIP and get going on it. I do find that I work best in shorter spurts, taking breaks, doing chores, getting out of the house for a run/walk, as others have said. But then you have to put your butt in the chair and get to work!

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