Most of us need inspiration. Especially beginners. Moments to motivate, uplift, steady and shape the course of our efforts when we meet resistance, fatigue, or other shitballs tossed our way. When I teach writing classes online and for The Writing Salon, many folks say I’ve inspired them. It’s nice to hear.
Beyond that minor pick-me-up, though, if you’ve kicked the inkwell for more than a decade, inspiration becomes a crutch. A drug you think you need to work. I have to wait for the muse. I have to take one more class. I must attend the annual WE-CAN-DO-IT-CLUB JAMBOREE!
Soon, the crutch becomes a fix. You only work when inspired (which gets in the way of writing being labor: do you only go to work when inspired? The gym? Craziness!).
Most writing books, seminars, and gurus thrive on inspiration as part of their business model. Which makes some of them pushers, to stretch this analogy. Feeling uninspired? I’ve got what you need. 300 bucks a pop. Just take one more class. One more seminar. One more anything. You’ll feel like you can do anything . . . until it fades. Then buy my methadone, ur, quick-step-inspiration-set-of-lists to get you going!
Just like the war on drugs, the inspiration business (drugs!) can never lose.
Suspense and crime writer Lawrence Block once ran a touring seminar, WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE. It’s also a neat book. There was wisdom in it, but less than his best, and there was also a lot about getting inspired. Those parts stunk, but were redeemed when, in another book, Block noted he stopped the workshop when he tired of being a “guru.” That’s probably when I started to view inspiration as a drug tied to cultish behavior (see the GET MOTIVATED movement, critiqued in THE ANTIDOTE). Inspiration is sold to you. It’s an outside force that generates a FEELING of accomplishment . . . when you haven’t done anything. But you feel great! You feel like you can do it! Sometimes in a room full of strangers chanting mantras (sorry, affirmations)! And it feels so good! All of you believing you’re DOING SOMETHING!
Then you leave. And the kibble of life drowns the feeling. Three paths open for most: you stop writing, start writing, or wait for the next inspirational hit.
And for some, the hit becomes the point. And it isn’t. The hit should be THE WORK. The one you haven’t done yet.
For a teacher, the greatest validation, the greatest high, is when students succeed outside of their classroom. I’m a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Royal Military College of Canada, and I bug my former mentors when I’ve sold stories, won fellowships, or continued to achieve things within my fields. I make them look good the better I do. That’s fun! Why did it happen? Because I DID THINGS instead of waiting to be inspired!
When my students leave class and sell flash fiction or articles or finish major works, I’m thrilled. They’ve shown that they don’t need a hit of Ridler.
I’ve also met what I call lifers. People who claim they want to write and publish, but are in fact professional amateurs. They can’t make the leap. They need another shot of inspiration. They finish nothing, submit nothing, they publish nothing, etc. Some have major challenges that require more effort to break out and may do so over time. Others need someone to fill the inspiration well. Constantly. And that can destroy their own agency.
Now, is being perpetually inspired and accomplishing little a bad thing? Is it hurting anyone, like real drug addiction?
Not really. It’s just sad. Like drug addiction. And like drug addicts, until they kick, they can’t do what they want. Also sad. Unless what they want is the high of writing without writing. Which is crazy-banana-pants sad. But let’s assume they do want to write. Here’s what fifteen years and a thousand rejections have taught me. And it’s good to remind oneself when the career goals burp into memories and you wonder why you work so hard for so little in the eyes of everyone, when fifteen years and a thousand rejections may be the only reason anyone knows you write.
Inspiration finishes nothing. It’s served most often from something external. Which is why you need something internal. And not inspiration. Desire. Not for mad cash, fans, or acclaim (remember to KILL YOUR PORN DREAMS!). The desire for your own content.
Write about what you most desire, whatever the hell it is. Desire in the form of hates and loves and fears, desires for vengeance, desires for justice, desire for laughter, desire for a scream in silence. Desire to go ten rounds with Tolstoy, as Hemingway said. Desire to improve as an artist. Desire to add your voice to a dialog with literature, and do it so well that it might be heard and remembered. Unless you don’t believe in getting better, because that would mean some writing IS better, and not just taste, in which case, enjoy what you enjoy and leave quietly. Desire trumps fatigue, concerns for time, and drives you to finish that which you started.
Unlike inspiration, desire will not leave you alone. Desire is a call to action, even if it makes you sweaty and pushes you into the dark of morning. Desire tells the rest of the world to vanish, you’re doing something that obliterates time, and you don’t care if no one sees or everyone sees. You’re in the zone. Nothing else is intruding, and if it does, it’s going to get bit.
Inspiration will have you chasing others for permission to do that which is already at your command. You’ll keep chasing the high of doing anything while accomplishing nothing. It will kill the person in you that wants to get work done, the one who enjoy work getting done.
Desire finds a way to get what it wants: words on pages, submissions out to publishers, revisions that make a good story great. It wants the hard work. It wants the toil, friction, challenge. It likes it that way. And when sated, it will find something else to devour. Desire grows, and will not rest until it is acknowledged.
When you’re in the game for the long run, desires may change. This will scare the piss and excite the hell out of you. If you find the familiar is dimming in your sights, check out unchartered waters where it may be darker, but the light shines brighter. Fuck inspiration. Follow desire. Get off the drug of others and into the drug of you.
Are you inspired?