When I write, the worst part is when I can’t figure out my emotions, when I feel numb and disaffected. Of course, I know from experience that it’ll pass. It always does—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But the fear that whispers close behind the numbness can be mighty persuasive: “Give up. You can’t do it. You can’t make it happen again.”
Eventually, I do make it happen again. Always. However, this is not and has never been a matter of low self-esteem, poor self-image, or any other pop psychology cliché.
It is a matter of writing for a living.
At some point, every professional writer experiences this unreasonable doubt and fear. Every professional writer works around and through it. The key here is acknowledging the whispers while continuing to write, instead of waiting for them to go away first, or for a brilliant idea to pop up before writing again. Taking action—that is, writing while we feel deeply uninspired—leads us out of the darkness and toward something worthwhile.
Do not wait for inspiration.
Write, write, write.
The ideas will thaw, melt, and flow your way.
I doubt this process every time.
It saves me every time.
There is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration to strike.” It’s just waiting, and it produces little of consequence. Most people who are not professional writers fail to realize this. As such, they become dilettantes along the sad, sorry way. My students teeter at the edge of dilettantism. It’s my job to pull them back.
Where they are is not their fault. After all, their ideas about how excellent prose happens have been shaped by romantic, highly unrealistic beliefs about writing. They are completely enamored with the idea of Being A Writer. They are passionately in love with the Idea Of Writing. And inspiration, they are sure, is what fuels this searing, delicious tinderbox of an affair.
For all his promises, Inspiration is a lousy lover, more wet kindling than lighter fluid. Inspiration is full of tease but never delivers: “all hat and no cowboy,” as a Texan friend says. Inspiration is sexy, charming, mysterious, compelling—on the outside. Get inspiration home and in the sack, though, and all we’ve got is a whiskey-dicked frat boy who, for all his looks and talk, gives our crotch half a clumsy rub before rolling over, puking in his own shoes, and passing out.
Wake him up. Don’t let him put on his clothes. Don’t give him a chance to rinse out his penny loafers. (Because you know Inspiration still wears penny loafers with his Members Only jacket.) Slam the door. Bolt it shut. Do NOT open it again, no matter how he begs. Don’t call him a cab. Call him what he is: a dud. No, no, he’s worse than a dud: he’s a charlatan. Kick his drunk ass back out in the street with the amateurs, where he belongs. As Carl Sagan explained years ago, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
Inspiration stops us dead and cold when we depend on him. Hard as it may seem, we must guide ourselves. We must trust in the process, even when we’re angry and heartbroken and numb and completely blank. When we rely on inspiration, he’s a no-show. And suddenly, we’re all dressed up and dateless at the Winter Formal, stuffing those racking sobs back inside our ribcage as we pretend to enjoy ourselves. We’re scared, humiliated, devastated that The One We Love has crapped out on us at such an important moment.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Inspiration is out back of the Teke house, blasted on Thunderbird with our potential and our creativity. He’d much rather get schnockered on the cheapest poison around—and steal our dearest friends—than deliver what he promised. He lives for this. He controls us when we depend on the illusion that we cannot create without him.
How, then, to work around the seductive, greasy charms of inspiration? By listening—listening to everything and everyone, listening to tiny flashes of things and people and creatures and plants and moments. The way we get big ideas is by paying attention to the small ones.
Now, ideas are wonderful, but they need a while to grow on us, to get to know us better. By noticing the things nobody else does, we give the small ideas the time and space and care they need to become stronger ideas—to become sentences, images, story lines, characters.
A tuft of fur caught on a hydrangea stem, flapping helplessly in the wind. The daddy longlegs crawling inexplicably up the truck tailgate in front of us as the light turns green. The way Wednesday morning lights up the plastic rain bonnets of old ladies at the grocery store—all small, and all vast, all at once.
Write it all down.
Yes, even if it “sounds stupid.”
After I hand back a set of papers, I ask students to reflect on where they might have gone wrong. They say, “Well, I was going to write about ______, but it seemed stupid.” And I clap my hands in wonder: “That’s not stupid at all. It’s what would make this essay work.”
And they learn, little by little, that Inspiration will not swoop in, all grandiose and deus ex machina, to save our writing asses. Good work happens in small pieces, and often almost imperceptibly.
In my first-year college writing classes, I show students a portfolio of my work, from eighth grade to the present. Professional, academic, creative—it’s all in there, the entire process. Some of it’s under construction, some of it’s pretty good, and some of it is capital-T Trash. “Look, dammit,” I want to shout, “look here and look hard. This is how we spin garbage into gold.”
Look, look, LOOK.
Soak it into your skin.
Soak it into your bloodstream.
This is noticing on the deepest, most profound level. This is where we build creative eye and ear and soul. This is where we begin: in noticing, instead of in waiting for someone or something to save us. In noticing the small, the insignificant, and writing down every last bit of it, we rescue ourselves from Inspiration.
And that is all I have to say today.
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)