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Writers on Writing: The Myth of Inspiration

Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting to Be Inspired to Write


Writers on Writing: The Myth of Inspiration

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005)

Are you the sort of writer who has to be in just the right mood before the words start to flow? Professional writers say that waiting for inspiration to strike is usually just a striking waste of time.

In one episode of Bill Watterson's sorely missed comic strip, Hobbes asks Calvin if he's come up with an idea for a story yet.

"No," the boy says, "I'm waiting for inspiration. You can't just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood."

"What mood is that?" Hobbes asks as he joins Calvin in the sandbox.

Without raising his head the boy replies, "Last-minute panic."

The truth is, inspiration is a mood that few of us can afford to wait for or depend on. Not surprisingly, professional writers are generally reluctant to give much credit to the power of inspiration (a word that comes from the Latin verb inspirare, "to breathe into"). Most will tell you that the process of writing follows Thomas Edison's formula: "Of inspiration one percent; of perspiration, ninety nine."

Next time you find yourself putting off a writing project until the right mood strikes, consider what these 12 authors have to say about inspiration.

  • "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."
    (Jack London)

  • "Don't wait for inspiration, but sit down quietly, and begin; once you have gotten to work, shut up, even to yourself, about writer's block; use your imagination, and keep working. . . .

    "A homely example that a student gave me: she said that using discipline and not waiting for inspiration feels like someone who owns a bucket with which she hopes to catch rainwater. If she went out with the bucket only when she knew it was actually raining, she would certainly get some water sometimes. But if she goes out daily no matter what the weather she can catch the rain that falls unexpectedly.

    "The curious truth . . . is that the writer who goes out with the bucket daily seems to provoke the rain."
    (Leonard Wolf, quoted by Naomi Wolf in The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom From My Father on How to Live, Love, and See, Simon and Schuster, 2005)

  • "You can't rely on inspiration. I don't even believe in inspiration. I just believe in working. Work generates work. What frustrates me horribly is not knowing what I'm going to do next. And so you force something to happen. . . . You can't sit around thinking. You have to sit around working."
    (David Long, interviewed by Linda B. Swanson-Davies in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Inspiration and Discipline, Writers Digest Books, 2007)

  • "Better beware of notions like genius and inspiration. They are a sort of magic wand and should be used sparingly by anybody who wants to see things clearly."
    (José Ortega y Gasset, Notes on the Novel, 1925)

  • "Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration."
    (Stendhal [Marie-Henri Beyle], quoted by Enrique Vila-Matas in Bartleby & Co, New Directions, 2004)

  • "I can't explain inspiration. A writer is either compelled to write or not. And if I waited for inspiration I wouldn't really be a writer."
    (Toni Morrison, quoted in Time magazine, January 21, 1998)

  • "I have learned, as has many another better writer, to summon inspiration to my call as soon as I begin my day's stint, and not to hang around waiting for it. Inspiration is merely a pretty phrase for the zest to work. And it can be cultivated by anyone who has the patience to try. Inspiration that will not come at its possessor's summons is like a dog that cannot be trained to obey. The sooner both are gotten rid of, the better."
    (Albert Payson Terhune, Writer's Digest, June 1930)

  • "All this about inspiration. . . . I think writing is mainly work. Like a mechanic's job. A mechanic might as well say he was waiting for inspiration before he greased your car because if he didn't feel just right he'd miss a lot of the grease points, that he had to feel right up to it."
    (E.B. White in an interview with Robert Van Gelder, The New York Times, August 2, 1942)

  • "There are those . . . who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till--inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting."
    (Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, 1883)

  • "What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration is nothing other than finding the right road empirically, following one's nose, taking shortcuts."
    (Italo Calvino, "Cybernetics and Ghosts," November 1969)

  • "I've always disliked words like 'inspiration.' Writing is probably like a scientist thinking about some scientific problem or an engineer about an engineering problem."
    (Doris Lessing)

  • "And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something."
    (John Irving, National Book Award Interview, June 3, 2005)

Admittedly, not all writers are quite so skeptical about the power of inspiration. Novelist William Faulkner once said, "I only write when I am inspired." But then he added, "Fortunately I am inspired at nine o'clock every morning."

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