Waiting for Inspiration

inspiration 3This is not the typical Virtual Napkins post. This has been on my mind for a while, and I thought I’d bat it around for a bit with you folks.

Have you ever been to a poetry reading on a college campus? These events can range from the tedious to the awesome. (I saw Kim Addonizio last year at Georgia Tech, and she is amazing on the page and in person.) The tediousness or awesomeness of these events has almost as much to do with the audience as it does with the poet, and college poetry readings are typically populated by a handful of people who are genuinely interested, and then a slew of people who are only around for the extra credit for an English class they’re trying not to fail.

The crowd is usually quiet through the reading part, but then comes the Q and A portion of the event. It is near impossible to make it out of this portion of the reading without hearing this question: “What inspires you?”

This question always bothered me, maybe because the word “inspire” implies something spiritual to me. It feels a little bit like divine intervention instead of work, and writing is work. I think the oldest definitions of the word support this idea, too. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the literal meaning of the word “inspire” is “to breathe or blow upon or into,” or in a more figurative sense, “to breathe life into” something.

To say that something inspires me implies that something breathes life into me. This definitely holds true to classic ideas about art–the Muses, the gods, etc. And there are moments that I have been truly inspired–by people, events, or images–which is to say that those things breathed life into a new idea.

Inspiration happens. Certainly. I won’t argue with that. It has happened to me, but I can definitely point to the person, moment, or thing that brought that art out of me.

But inspiration doesn’t always happen, does it? People have asked me what happens for me when the inspiration runs out–do I wait for another bit of inspiration? When I was younger, yeah. I only wrote when I felt moved to write. But that’s a bullshit way to do things. That’s an excellent way to never write anything. In fact, it’s kind of a bullshit way to live life–waiting for some kind of inspiration.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve read a lot about it, and I’ve heard a lot of authors talk about it. Inspiration is nice when it happens, and it occasionally does happen. But if you wait for it, that’s all you’re going to do. Wait.

At the Crossroads Writers Conference, Sarah Demot (author of 90 Days to Your Novel) offered this advice: “Don’t wait for inspiration.” Pretty profound. The acclaimed filmmaker, Robert Rodriguez echoed the same sentiment in a recent interview on SiriusXM. His advice, to paraphrase, was to make your own inspiration. Sit down, start creating, and the inspiration will come as a result of working.

Stephen King recommends writing 2000 words a day (easy for him to say). That’s the same idea, though–work instead of wait. Eventually, you’ll hit on something you like.

The act of creation is divine, and if you start creating, the inspiration will come. Sometimes you just have to believe in the process.

It’s a little bit of a chicken/ egg thing. Which comes first? Inspiration or Creation? I think we can have it both ways. What do you think?

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22 thoughts on “Waiting for Inspiration

  1. I’ve experienced both inspiration and creation, and in both cases, the result has varied from awesome to total crap. But you definitely can’t finish a book if you don’t park your butt in the chair and put words on the screen.

  2. It’s funny, because I just wrote a post about music that inspires me. And skeptical atheist that I am, sometimes, when I’m struck by a story idea that implants itself in my brain seemingly out of nowhere, it is almost like a spiritual event. (Or the closest to spirituality I’ll ever get.) Though I know better, it does feel like there’s something more than just neurons at work.

    As far as inspiration goes, I’ve heard the advice that we shouldn’t wait around for it to strike us. I’ve heard all the “shoulds” and “ought-tos,” that we need to treat our writing like a job. We should show up for it on time every day. And you know what I say to that? Bullshit. Sure, if my goal was to pay the bills with my writing, then I’d sit my butt down in the chair and go at it each day. But being realistic, I know the chance of me ever supporting myself with my writing is very slim. I write because I enjoy it, because it keeps me from going crazy, because sometimes I feel like I have to, or I’ll jump out of my skin. But when I’ve worked all day and I’m tired and the characters in my head are being sullen and quiet, the last thing I’m going to do is sit down and try to force them to talk. I’ve attempted it before, and it’s agony. So yeah, I’m breaking all the writing rules. And I’m okay with that. Seems like the less pressure I put on myself to write, the more open my brain is to new ideas.

    • I don’t think you’re breaking the rules. I think the rules are different for everybody. It’s obviously much easier to sit and write when that’s a person’s job. Days go by for me when I don’t write.

      But to say I’m “inspired” feels like I’m selling myself short. Why do I have to be inspired? Why can’t I come up with those ideas? We read and write to train ourselves to see patterns and stories and to put those things together in new patterns.

      But I really do think that if I write enough shit, something good will be in there somewhere. I’ve seen it happen too much to not believe in it. But just because that works for me doesn’t mean it works for everyone. We all write our own Truth, and that includes the how as well as the what.

      Oh and music also gets me.

      • I definitely understand that. You want to own your ideas and not give credit to some rather indefinable and ephemeral idea of inspiration. And I agree that you have to write–a LOT–to come up with something decent. I’ve been writing for over 20 years now, sometimes obsessively, and 99% of it is utter shit. But it’s all worth it to create that 1% that can be salvaged, revised, and sent out to the world. I think I just get frustrated when big name writers say things like, “If you don’t sit down and write every single day, then you’re an amateur. You’re not devoted to your craft.” We writers put enough pressure on ourselves without hearing that kind of stuff.

      • I agree with that sentiment completely. We do our best with the time we have, and in some ways, we work harder than those who make their living as writers.

  3. I’ve also experienced both – and to be honest, the inspired writing may be fast and full of passion and life, but it also, to be perfectly honest, usually goes nowhere and ends up getting tossed. Inspiration is beautiful, but it usually doesn’t work well with the whole of whatever I’m trying to do.

    • Rachel!
      Agreed. Wordsworth says that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of emotion, but he comes back in the next breath to say that emotion alone can’t carry the poem. We have to revisit those ideas after the initial passion fades so we can actually think clear about what we’re working on.
      Thanks for stopping by! I hope all has been well with you. 🙂

  4. I certainly don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. At least not all the time. 🙂 Honestly, the thought that writers or any other artists have their creations spring out of their heads fully formed like Athena sprang out of Zeus’s head is pretty ridiculous. We get our ideas and inspiration from all kinds of places, but to create something that communicates, you have to work at it.

    But there are definitely times when my subconscious is resistant to writing, and that seems to be related to the fact that I am simply not ready to write yet. It may be that the idea hasn’t percolated enough to be coherent on paper. Or it might just be that I’m tired, haven’t had my coffee kick in yet, am antsy and need a walk first… That is, sometimes I need to wait until I’m ready to write. So I do. I guess the bottom line is doing what works for you, as long as you’re doing something that yields a result at some point.

    (I would bet students getting extra credit for English class wouldn’t be too impressed with that last thought. LOL.)

    • Yes! All of this! It’s 100% okay to “not be ready to write,” but we owe it to ourselves to try. If it’s not working out, we can come back later.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment!

  5. I attended one of these poetry readings at a college campus — at my husband’s place of higher education, the University of Penn — and the experience was somewhere in between tedious and awesome (but, for me, the needle pointing closest to awesome.) I would call it euphoric. But that’s because I was very much excited to attend a poetry reading. I doubt many people there were as giddy about it as I was. Truthfully, some of them were there to fulfill a course requirement. The poet’s name refuses to surface to my consciousness, though I still own a copy of his work, purchased and autographed that afternoon.

    I don’t recall a q & a, nor the inspiration question, but at the time, it would have intimidated me. (Now, I have a boilerplate to pull from.)

    I agree with your viewpoint put forth here. As if. If only. If only we writers and any creative types could hit upon inspiration simply by waiting. Imagine what we’d have by week’s end! There have been so many times in my writing and art that what you borrowed here from R. Rodriguez has proven true — just start doing the thing and inspiration is meshed somewhere in there.

    As for the chicken/egg of inspiration and creation, I think both are obtained. It’s cumulative, and once it gets rolling, there is no end or beginning to either. They just feed into each other.

    • Maybe it was just my little state university that allowed for Q/A with poets. There was no such thing when I saw Addonizio at Ga Tech, so maybe the bigger crowds make organizers stay away from such things.

      Thank you so much for stopping by, Julia. And thanks for the comment!

      And when you remember who the poet was, let me know his name! I’m always looking for new poets. 🙂

      • I think I know where the poetry book of his is currently located in my house. Honestly, I am gnawing away at trying to remember, so, I’ll have to figure it out.

  6. We can have it both ways. We have to. You never know when inspiration is going to hit and you never know if it’s going to turn into something you can really use. Hard work can help to trigger inspiration. Also a positive attitude. Sometimes “hard work” actually means getting out of your own way and letting things come together, too.

  7. I’m not a believer in “the muse.” It feels like a cop-out to me. “Oh, it’s not the right time,” “the muses aren’t speaking to me.” It’s true that some days, you just don’t have it in you, but I balk at the idea of “divine inspiration.” Sure, things inspire me: art, music, coffee talk with a friend, but you have to work for your ideas to become reality. It’s not up to unknowable muses or gods; it’s up to you.

    • I agree with this completely. The only muse I believe in is the one I can see and touch. And there is something to those people that help us reach ideas. But you’re 100% right on the work element. I work damn hard on writing. I’m not going to give some unseen force that credit!

      Thanks so much for coming through and contributing to this conversation.

  8. I think the question, “What inspires you?” is, itself, poetic. *Nav clutches his guts, laughing, insufferably pleased with himself. Must be the Canadian Club 12 yr old small batch whisky* Perhaps more accurate to ask is, “What motivates you?”

    If you were looking for a reason to write or a topic upon which to write, you sought a motivation or a subject. If you had no intention of writing and something then provoked you to do so with great passion, you were inspired, in that creative life was blown into you, and, through you, into your writing.

    I am not inspired in writing this comment, nor am I in my business writing. In my book, I certainly was. In my poetry, I don’t bother writing unless I am, which might explain my absence from it for a few years.

    A thought-provoking post – well done, Sir.

    • I’m not mad at the distinctions you draw. I especially like the idea of motivation versus inspiration. But I still think the act of writing depends more on the motivation than the inspiration itself. People get great ideas all the time. Do they ALWAYS act on them? Great comment! Thanks!

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