Inspiration is a funny thing. It’s powerful enough to move mountains. When it strikes, it carries an author forward like the rushing torrents of a flooded river. And yet, if you wait for it, nothing happens.
The irony is that so much is actually created—mountains moved, sagas written, grand murals painted—by those who might not even describe themselves as particularly inspired. Instead, they show up every day and put their hands on the keyboard, their pen to paper, and they move their stories forward, bit by bit, word by word, perhaps not even recognizing that inspiration is striking in hundreds of tiny, microscopic ways as they push through another sentence, another page, another chapter, of their novel.
This is the principle way writers finish 50,000 words of a novel each year during National Novel Writing Month, and it applies to being creative the rest of the year as well.
Inspiration is often characterized as a thunderbolt—a brilliant flash that strikes from the heavens—and that metaphor certainly holds truth because inspiration can be a sudden igniting force, random and illuminating and otherworldly (and even a bit dangerous). Yet I sometimes think of inspiration, at least the big, gobsmacking moments of inspiration, as more like Bigfoot. Sightings of Bigfoot are rare, and he’s so elusive that he can’t be captured, physically or even truly on film, so his very existence is in question. It’s wonderful to believe he exists, because it’s nice to think of the world as strange and beautiful enough to spawn such a creature, but if you go out into the woods and look for Bigfoot, you’re not likely to find him, just as you can’t force sweeping gusts of inspiration to appear on any given day.
“And the muse? I have no idea who has one, but if anyone does, I’d like to know so I can stage a kidnapping,” said author Kami Garcia in a NaNoWriMo pep talk.
The fantastical “muse” Garcia speaks of is the source of inspiration in Greek and Roman mythology. Ancient authors invoked muses near the beginning of their work, asking the muse to sing directly through them. As Homer puts it in Book I of the Odyssey:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
This mythological muse was often illustrated as a creature in a beautiful flowing gown, playing a harp and singing a song from the heavens, but I’d like to recast this muse because maybe, just maybe, the “kidnapping” Garcia mentions is possible (or at least a type of kidnapping). I see the muse as invisible sprights that sleep in the whispery spaces between each word. This sprights are enlivened only by the breaths of a churning imagination, by the stirrings of a story moving forward. Such a muse is ineffable, so miniature that she often goes unnoticed, yet an author must trust that the responsibility for bringing those story sprights to life resides in the spool of words spinning onto the page. The muse doesn’t sing the words of a story; the muse is conjured in the telling.
“No one looks forward to those lulls in the writing process, but they are natural, and they can be overcome,” Marisa Meyer wrote in a NaNoWriMo pep talk. “These are the times when we must proceed on willpower and caffeine and the unflappable confidence that each word we write is one word closer to a finished novel.”
When willpower isn’t enough
True words, but such tough moments can certainly feel like they’re killing inspiration more than they’re nurturing it. Your thoughts dull. All of the synapses that used to fire with such eager alacrity have either gone into a deep hibernation or abandoned you all together. Perhaps your initial bolt of inspiration carried you through the first hour, the first day, the first week, or even the first month of your novel, but it’s becoming a faint memory, a cruel con, because without its strong winds, you feel adrift, your journey stalled.
This is a dangerous moment because when inspiration stops carrying you, the doldrums of self-doubt creep into your thoughts (perhaps in between sips of your favorite caffeinated beverage and your diligent intentions). You tell yourself no one wants to read your story. You tell yourself your characters are clichés, your plot unremarkable. And you—you!—are not a writer. You are a person with silly dreams who should know better, and you should just return to a life where you sit and simply be entertained by other people’s imaginative creations. A life of binge watching Netflix isn’t all bad, is it?
Here’s what you must know: Every single creator throughout history has experienced such moments. The question is how to deal with such deadening humdrummery.
“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time,” said Leonard Bernstein.
The unromantic and unheralded “rest of the time” is actually a yeasty opportunity. It’s an invitation to fertilize your imagination. If a dulling lull is smothering your willpower and caffeine’s power to propel you through another paragraph has dissipated, then pull away from the page for a spell: Pick up your favorite book to be reminded of the fantastic places words can take you, take a walk and marvel at butterflies twirling about in dapples of sun, or go to a museum and stare at paintings and people—anything that it takes to stir and heighten your senses, to let your mind dash back onto the playground of the imagination and caper with your new ideas.
Every writer needs a strategy to deal with those dulling lulls. Joan Didion describes her method of retrieving her imaginative oomph in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”: “When the world seems drained of wonder … when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write … I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest … dialogue overheard in hotels and elevators and at the hat-check counter in Pavilion (one middle-aged man shows his hat check to another and says, ‘That’s my old football number’).”
“It all comes back,” Didion writes.
Yes, it all comes back. If you revere and remember the natural, irrepressible gambols of your imagination, writing won’t be all about a ponderous and painful plodding forward. And it’s necessary to make sure you don’t write with too much of the “no pain, no gain” approach (those tiny story sprights can only handle so much discomfort). “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun,” Ray Bradbury posits in Zen in the Art of Writing, “you are only half a writer.”
So step away from your writing if need be and find a source of inspiration that will put air beneath your wings. But don’t step away for too long. Many a writer has made a lifestyle out of stepping away. You must return after an hour or an afternoon and concoct inspiration on the blank page. Let the blank page be a spigot for all of the dramatic, ornery, lyrical, and shocking thoughts in your head that are eager to come out.
“The blank page is yours,” wrote Chuck Wendig in a NaNoWriMo pep talk. “Cast aside worries over art and criticism. Imagine a land without rules. Imagine that nobody has ever told you that you cannot or should not do this thing. Those people were wrong. Forget those voices. Because, for real?
It’s an empty field and you’ve got the keys to a freaking Ferrari.
It’s a white tablecloth and you’ve got ketchup, mustard, and relish.
It’s a blank page and you’ve got all the letters and words you need.
Rev the engine and take the ride. Paint with all the colors the condiments at your table allow. Create whatever robot-human monstrosities your mind cares to conjure. Crack open your chest and plop your heart onto the page.”
When you plop your heart onto the page, you’ll realized that the words you create every day are each fruit-bearing kernels of inspiration. Each word wants more and more words to follow. And you are the God that sends those words—those story-igniting lightning bolts—into a world that’s coming to life before your own eyes. You are your own muse.
Here’s an inspiration exercise to fuel your inspiration engine:
Write a page or two about what inspires you to write—whether it’s the desire to create lyrical prose, escape this world, or explore your inner world. After you’ve written this short piece, focus on the things that inspire you as your guide to sit down and write on even the worst days. Your big “I” inspiration can open a pathway back to writing.