“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh

Do You Write When You’re Not Inspired?

“The secret of it all,” said Walt Whitman, “is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment–to put things down without deliberation–without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote…. By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.”

Walt Whitman Poet

Walt Whitman

Have you ever written in the “gush” of the moment? Felt the pen fly along the page by itself, as if another Being controlled it altogether? Have you ever felt life throb in your throat so thick you had to get it out into your computer or your notebook or even the flesh of your hand?

Two Camps

There are two camps. There is the camp that says this is the only way to write, when writing hits you upside the face and demands your presence for a few seconds or a few hours. Then there is the camp that says, as William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” These are the writers who write to a schedule, who write everyday, and who may be struck often by the lightning bolt of creativity, but don’t wait for it to sit down and begin to write.

I find myself in both because who am I to argue with Walt and Will? I get up and write on a schedule, and then, when “the flood of moment” washes over while I’m walking down the street, I seek a curb and a pen (or my cell phone) and write as quickly as I can before the moment passes me by.

Which camp do you find yourself in? Do you wait for inspiration to write or do you sit and write no matter what?

PRACTICE

Today’s practice is a little odd. I hope you’re up to it.

I want you to find a notebook and pen, preferably a small one. Carry it with you all day long. Practice being like Walt Whitman and listen for “the very heartbeat of life.” If it strikes, pull out your pen and write—write, write…. If it doesn’t, carry your notebook around until it does.

And if it does strike, and you want to share what you’ve written, post it here in the comments. We’d love to see it.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Man, that’s a tough question. I have never been on a particular writing schedule but there is a persistence inside that begs me for it. However, I do find myself thinking and rethinking a subject, a story, a character, and until I’ve beaten it to death in my head, I find it hard to bring it to life on paper – or computer, rather.

    There are also very few times that I’ve seized the moment and just let the pen fly. I guess it goes back to what I just said. I will think about it first and wait for something more complete before I start writing. But I must admit, I’ve lost many great inspirations because of this…

    • Right. Sometimes you just have to seize it. You can let it sit idly in the filing cabinet if it doesn’t want to be “beaten to death” as you say, but on the off chance it’s a rare kind of inspiration that won’t come back, it’s best to get it on paper.

  • Stewart

    I’ve always been told that if you wait for inspiration to write, the page will always remain blank. This statement always goes through my head when I make excuses not to write.

    • I think some people have the temperaments to stay “open” to inspiration when they’re not actually writing. Whitman was obviously one of those. I think you’re right, though. Most of us need the rigidity of discipline to open ourselves up to inspiration.

  • If I waited for inspiration I would never write. The more time I spend in front of a piece of paper, the more likely it is that I will want to write. I find that if I even write “I don’t know what to write” for a full page or two, my muse will eventually take over the pen and other words and ideas come through. That means I have to write even when my words land like rocks because if I don’t, then there are no words at all.

    I’d like to know how other parents find the time to write, and how they work around a busy family life. I have four kidlets, and my husband is on the road a lot, and we homeschool. Squeezing in writing is a catch as catch can for me.

    • Agreed. I find it hard to write with two small kids, a full time job and jobs on the side, and a wife that works odd hours. Just last night I was trying to beat out some intimate details in a story and was distracted every three minutes by flying toys, unanswerable questions, and starving bellies.

      • My writer friend just found out his wife was pregnant. The first thing I thought, “Well, there goes his blog.”

    • I love complaining a little to the muse as I start to warm up a little. It works almost every time.

    • Marianne

      That’s a good idea about just writing nonsense until something comes to you. I could do that.

      You have my sympathy regarding the children, but try to make notes about what they do, because it is hard to remember it all later, and children have such amazing minds. They are the freshest of us all. I had to get up at about four o’clock to write when my daughter was little. Both she and my husband now know not to bother me if I’m writing. If they ignore the fact that I’m typing and talk to me anyway, I get out a little hat I have and put it on. That means, leave me alone or you’ll be really really sorry.

    • I loved your observations, Casey! Thanks for sharing. I just posted mine as a blog-link. I have a housefull, too – something the prompt led me to reflect on today as well!

    • Bethany

      My situation is very similar. Getting up early does provide a few minutes of uninterrupted quiet time. However, I’ve found that simply meditating on my writing throughout the day really sets the stage for the time I can sit down and devote myself to it. I write small increments throughout the day. I write a lot while I cook. My little notepad goes everywhere.

      One word of warning: don’t let the meditation thing get too out of hand. Little kids take notice when mommy’s mind is elsewhere…chocolate-smudged little faces and crayon marks on the wall testify 🙂

  • And from my notebook, things that I jotted down as I was driving to drop my husband off at his truck (I always have my little notebook, it’s really ragged around the edges):

    “No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” —Maxim in “Rebecca”

    Stout Street Foundation–is it a half-way house? Apt. building with a fenced portion of asphalt, picnic tables, groups of young men and women huddled together, some smoking cigarettes. It’s a bleak place, prison-like, but not a prison–quite).

    Follow Your Folly, on the back of a beer truck

    All of the middle-class mega churches, buildings that look like large recreation centers and empty parking lots, all promising fellowship

    Jinn.

    • You wrote while driving, Casey? That’s terrible. You should be ashamed of yourself. Although I’ve done it more than once. 🙂

      I love these little glimpses and moments of your days. Ugh, I need to capture these more often.

      • Marianne

        You can pull over, or just hold it in mind until a light. I did run into a van (just a little bump, but it could have been so much worse) once while writing so now I pull over.

        • No you didn’t! No! That’s CRAZY Marianne! (And a little funny.)

      • Wellll, the first was from my reading last night. It was at the top of the page, so it was included. The second I wrote while my hubby was driving. The last few I wrote at stop lights, except the single word. That one us scrawled in large, messy letters.

  • I write most when inspired, but I also try to write daily. Of course, some days are better than others in terms of both quality and quantity. Having a blog helps me produce more because I’ve commited to posting every other day and I don’t want to post junk (often).

    Katie

    • Agreed. I’ve found blogging to be good for writing productivity, as well.

  • I write whether I am inspired or not. I’ve discovered what many of the others here have shared. If I just show up and start it unfolds as I go. That doesn’t always mean it’s good but I’m still glad I took the time to do it. If often leads to something else. I’ve written lots of ideas on napkins while sitting at stoplights too.

    • What’s up with all of us and writing while driving?

  • Marianne

    I always stop and write, sometimes it’s just a vague idea, and I keep all that stuff. I often write with my iPhone. I’ve had over a hundred notes there last time I consolidated them. I record dreams too. I wish I could just finish the stuff at the moment that it comes into my head, instead of making kind of weak notes, and that’s what I’ll do at your suggestion, Jeff, today. Sometimes it’s ideas, sometimes just words that go together in my mind. The big problem is, it often happens in the car. If I’m not late to an appointment, I stop and write. If I can’t do that, I try to hold it in my head, but that usually doesn’t work. Reading over those notes can start the process (mania?) any time. I just get busy and don’t sit down to finish.

    • I wish I had an iPhone to take notes. I always text myself. It’s very inefficient.

  • My napper is up, so my time to spend on this is as well. I am unable to reformat text easily into these comments, so I’ll just link to my entry if anyone is interested: http://writex3.blogspot.com/2012/01/15-or-30-minutes-of-practice-prep.html Thanks for the prompt. You have such thought-provoking ideas.

    • That was beautiful Steph.

      It hurts to leave a place you love, especially when there was so much living there.

      • I agree with Casey, Steph. I love the idea of writing words into the spackle of your home, almost as if your living place were the story you were publishing for years.

  • Chris

    This is a timely exercise. Two of my goals for the New Year were to write in my blog at least four times a week (which I have not done), and to begin revising my NaNo novel, which I also haven’t peeked at.

    Writing scares me. It’s more like – what it represents scares me. When I was a freshman in college I tested out of basic comp. and took advanced composition. On the first paper I turned in, the prof wrote “You have decided possibilities as a writer.” I left the class and never went back. I’d see her around campus, ducking behind trees or into door walls in the hall, etc.

    Ever since then, this . . . this thing I’ve loved has become more fearful than anything else. I wouldn’t even write this, except that a friend of mine has captured my inner critic and she’s being entertained by two dragons (has been since the beginning of November, actually). I suppose right about now they’re playing Solitaire and drinking champagne. 😉

    • Hi Chris. What is it you’re afraid of? The possibility that you might be a writer? Or the chance that you’re professor could be wrong? Either way, I hope you know that you will not stop being you. Writing is only the product of an effervescent soul, which bubbles up and foams over onto the page. It’s not an identity. You will always be, for better or worse, just Chris.

  • Beck

    I found your site through Jeff Goins tonight and I’m excited to join in the practicing!

    I must say I tend toward the Walt Whitman side of things. However, that’s probably because as a mommy with toddlers I’ve had little opportunity to try the more structured approach.

    I’m not sure why but I felt compelled to write about time today, this is what I jotted down:

    A hard pull, a tenacious stalking, I can’t untangle myself from the grip of relentless, sharp toothed time. An unforgiving task master. Already the mirror and the mind disagree, a vicious argument between truth and perception. Time bends weird and a heart just freshly in love has suddenly been married 13 years. How can that be?

    Like everything else, blue whales and stars, man’s heart and the earth itself, time has also been cursed.

    I wouldn’t forgive time if the brutal march that steals my beauty and turns my babies into adults didn’t also rush me to your side.

    • Marianne

      Well said!!!

    • You won’t be disappointed, Beck.

    • This is wonderful, Beck. I like that last line, although I can only grasp it in my gut, not my brain. Thank you for sharing it. I hope to see you around here more.

      • Thanks Joe. I’m planning on being around here more. I can use the practice!

    • “I wouldn’t forgive time if the brutal march that steals my beauty and turns my babies into adults didn’t also rush me to your side. ”

      I love this.

  • Qwrules

    Er, the inspiration quote is by Somerset Maugham not William Faulkner.

    • Not according to Google. I’d be happy to be proven wrong though. You have a source?

    • Marianne
      • Qwrules

        Marianne, glad to hear you’re writing! If you had time to look a little further you would discover the quote is misattributed to Faulkner. You may think this is a trivial matter, but it is really important that as writers we check our sources and don’t perpetuate myths and misattributions. One of the issues we face is discernment, the need to evaluate the reliability of websites and not simply tally up a number of blogs that say a certain thing is true.

        • I agree with you about discernment. However, I googled that quote with Maugham, but couldn’t find it. Do you have a link?

        • Marianne

          Where is there more I information on that quote? I hadn’t seen it before and when I googled the quote three fairly popular sites attributed it to Faulkner. I would like to actually know if it’s correct or not. Why dont you contact those sites and let them know about their errors? Or maybe you already have

  • Maeve

    I usually have to set time aside, and physically go to a coffee shop or the library with the intention of writing, or I just won’t do any writing at all. So hopefully inspiration will strike while I’m working on whatever project I’m engaged in at the time. Which I always thought was a bad thing, but I have found more and more that on the rare occasions where I do just feel inspiration strike out of nowhere and start writing it down, I usually find it’s not something I want to develop when I come to read it back later. So nice though it is at the time, I find it’s more useful to have controlled inspiration!

    • I’m like you, Maeve. I find setting inspires me more than anything else. Although, I’ve never written in a library. Is it fun?

  • It’s easier for me to write when I’m inspired. Obviously. When I’m inspired I can easily produce over 1000 words in a few hours and not be tired. But I try to write at least a new sentence every day, even if the inspiration isn’t there. I have the story I’m writing on right now outlined so I know what’s supposed to happen, how and when. It’s a matter of pushing the story along, putting the words to the idea. I don’t require them to be good words. Everything can be fixed in edits. But I feel better keeping the routine of writing everyday. At least a sentence.

    • It’s almost like brushing your teeth, isn’t it. Having a creative routine is like having good mental hygiene.

  • Fabulous post.

  • Nancy

    As a fulltime freelancer I don’t have the luxury to wait for an inspired moment 🙂

    When you write for a living (I write books, mag articles, ghosting, et al) the muse tends to always be there–otherwise I’d never hit a deadline!

    Great post.

    • Very true. I find it far easier to write for others than myself.

    • Like you, Nancy, I am a full-time, freelance writer. Lately, of business plans – ich! I’ve also written a novel. With my technical writer’s hat on, the words generally come quite easily. I seem to have an undefined formula for starting and keeping the copy flowing (a la Faulkner).

      But for the creative writing, it’s a very different process. That inspiration almost always comes in the middle of the night. Or when I’m out hiking. And sometimes, when I’m fighting with copy in a technical document (a la Whitman).

      I’ve often wondered if my career writing comes from a different part of my brain than my hobby writing… sure feels different. Or, perhaps, technical writing is from my brain while creative writing is from my heart?

  • I have a schedule. I write for one hour every morning, Monday through Friday. I write for an hour each Saturday, wherever it fits into the day’s rhythm. I may or may not write on Sundays.

    And for capturing those rare flashes that come to me, I like to use the “email in a draft” feature on my blog. Even if the idea isn’t for the blog, it’s a handy place to save the thought.

    • love that.

    • Ooo I’ve never thought of using my blog to capture ideas like this. Smart.

  • Writing itself inspires me, so I write in both states. Thanks for addressing this important topic, Joe. I’ve heard many claim they aren’t writing, or creating other art forms, due to lack of inspiration.

    Maya Angelou says she writes every day, even if all that comes out is “I love my cat,” (or something to that effect). Eventually, great words come. 😉

    • You’re making me like Maya Angelou more and more.

  • Joe, I love your site every time I come here, but add in your audience and the comments (such as those on this post) and it’s like a graduate-level writing course. Thank you.

    • What a compliment, Ken. I’ll mention this if I ever apply for grad school!

  • For the last week I have remained uninspired, and am not passionate about any of my upcoming projects or ideas. When this happens, sitting down to write is comparable to taking an axe to a wall in hopes of creating a doorway. But that’s exactly how I MUST think of it, otherwise I will remain trapped in this unimaginative room.

    • Marianne

      Good analogy. I just feel like maybe I should play video games instead. I read that Jonathan Franzen has completely disabled his computer so that it can’t be used for much more than a word processor. I should be writing now, and what am I doing? Trying to get inspired or trying to procrastinate.

      • during my one hour each day, I close my email and facebook. But I keep my internet connection open for speedy research, synonym searches, and the like.

        It’s been encouraging to find that I have the discipline to stick with that plan. Small victories!

      • I read the same thing about Jonathan Franzen. That’s bold. But sometimes that’s what it takes to be a critically acclaimed author. Facebook and Twitter absolutely destroy my creativity because I lose track of time. So I’m also trying to use a timer. Set it for an hour or two so I can tangibly see how much time I have wasted or actually accomplished. Using a timer can be a game-changer.

        • Yep. Agreeed.

          I like writing on a typewriter or by hand.

        • christina

          This thing with ‘setting time’ and ‘seeing the acomplishment’ reminds me on my DRAWING practice where I use to sit in some coffee bar or on a coast and do the skecthes of the town as improving myself as an architect…

          Or some intersting buildings and houses.

          The story is about 30minutes or one hour, where I get 30 to 60 drawings and see the difference.

          See the progress.
          There’s always the best drawing hidding in all that mess.
          There’s always better.

          But.
          There’s a point too.
          I have to continually recount the tales about the materials that I’m seeing, the technique that has been built, the lines and elements that never before have I noticed. In my mind.

          And it has to have a funny sound so that I can have fun doing the same picture over and over again.
          In my heart.

          (I like this timer as a game-changer. 😉 Just go for it.)

      • That’s smart. I probably should do that. Facebook games (and now Google Plus games) are my enemy.

    • Mmm… great analogy, Max. I’ve definitely wanted to take an axe to something while writing.

    • Kind of a “Heeeeerrreees Johnnnnny” moment. I like it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Diana Trautwein

    You people are either AMAZING or CRAZY! Sheila has such discipline – wish I could borrow it. And those who write while they drive?? Sheesh. Didn’t there used to be tiny tape recorders into which you could speak things? Maybe we should have a sideline selling those to people who write while they drive. I think they were shaped like pens, and you could stick them in a pocket or purse.

    I try to write on my blog 3-4 times a week and I try to do guest posts and/or essay contributions to themes about once a month. I’m not trying to write a book – it’s way too late for that! – but I am trying to become a better writer and to get down the pieces of my story that might be important for my grandchildren – especially my two youngest, who are the only girls. I have pretty much lost the ability to write cursive – it’s pathetic, actually. Even I can’t read it. If I’m sitting at a table – at CBTL or a restaurant, I can jot legible notes or outlines, but I cannot write an entire anything that way, not even a coherent thought. So…I rely on memory a lot. And who knows how much longer that will be available to me?

    So, here are some thoughts from various activities of this particular Saturday in Santa Barbara – FOR 15 MINUTES:

    She sits and looks at me across the scones and tea. Tired and sad, the tears begin to gather, the jaw line begins to tense, the fingers curl.

    “My daughter has blown up her life. And I don’t know what to do.”

    She waits, trying to control the barrage of emotions that are washing through her as she speaks. Some are triggered by memories older than she is; some come from pieces of her own story, long before she had a daughter; some are as fresh as today’s coffee, the scent of which is filling this public space.

    I know something of her story, so I listen carefully, gently asking questions when I need to, offering words of comfort, making one or two suggestions.

    We spend about 70 minutes together, sipping tea, wiping tears, sharing stories. I bless her at the end of our time. I bless her with the words of Aaron and I hold her hands and cry out silently from deep inside myself; I cry out the ancient words of the blind man by the side of the road, the words of the leper on the way, the words of the woman who grabbed the hem of his garment. I cry out to the God who made us both: Have mercy, Lord. Have mercy.

    Then I drive across town. Through the traffic, the road work, the line-up for the downtown farmer’s market, the red lights and the green ones. I pull into the underground parking, find a place to park and ride the elevator up to the first floor to look at shoes.

    Shoes.

    The bane of my existence.

    Nothing fits. Nothing is comfortable. Nothing ever works.

    But today, I find some fur-lined clogs that are PERFECT. And I stride upstairs, able to walk in something other than Asics running shoes for the first time in several weeks. Triumph!

    There’s a baby shower this afternoon – a last-minute invitation that was more than a bit awkward. As the former (now retired) associate pastor, people are a bit uncertain. Should we or shouldn’t we? This mother-in-law decided to go for it and I am happy to be included.

    And I love shopping for baby things. Yes, I do. I’m not ashamed to admit it – I love it. So I pick up several adorable tiny things for this little-girl-to-be and leave them to be wrapped while I walk across the third floor to the restaurant.

    Lunch. That’s exactly what I need! A salad, a tall, cool glass of water, a Cookie Royale. Sigh. I spread out the paperwork I’ve printed and look at all the possible writing assignments I can sign onto for this month. One deadline is past – that one is shoved aside. One is due within the week. Maybe. One the 31st of this month – definitely. And one the 20th of next month. Absolutely. Now I have a little direction for this writing part of my life. The salad tastes better because I did this small bit of sorting first. And the cookie – well. The best cookie ever baked, that’s all there is to it.

    But as I look around me, I see something that makes my own eyes well up this winter Saturday. There is a table, just to my right, with three women at it – three generations of women, actually. A white-haired older woman – attractive, convivial, engaged; a brown-haired woman of middle age – listening to the older woman attentively; a 20-something, head moving between the two older women, shifting from one end of the conversation to another, taking a bite of lunch, pausing, pushing back the hair from the side of her face.

    That was my life just about 18 months ago. My mother was stronger, saner, her beautiful, vivacious self. I and one or the other of my daughters would sit together with her, enjoying a meal or a story, listening and learning. That part of my life appears to be slipping away, along with large chunks of my mother’s mind. I miss that life.

    I miss her.

    FIFTEEN MINUTES IS UP.

    • I”m so glad to hear that you write things down for your grandchildren. Family stories are a favorite of mine. My grandmother wasn’t a writer, but she was a storyteller, and I used to hang on her stories. I wrote them down, and now that she is gone I still have them. These stories are some of the fondest memories that I have of her.

    • Ah, my friend. My “discipline” sometimes chokes me. It may be closer to OCD…I’m pretty sure you don’t want to borrow THAT! 🙂 I can’t write with a pen or pencil for any length of time, so I have to figure out ways to remain productive at a keyboard, you know!

      I would not be so sure that it’s too late to write a book. You’ve accumulated a lot of material already! I had intended to ask you to consider coming to Irvine for the OCCWF conference this spring with me (I was waiting to see how your mom settles in) but just now I checked the dates and I can’t go! I didn’t think to confirm that it would be at the end of April again, and now I have tickets to be in Hawaii with my daughter during the conference.

      Oh, and your practice here? So real and moving. My parents moved away when my daughter was 17, so we didn’t have those three-generation lunch occasions often. But when we did, we just wallowed in joy.

    • YOU are amazingly crazy. You wrote this long beautiful piece in fifteen minutes? And you don’t think you can write a book? Unbelievable.

      Thank you, as always, for your engagement. I find your wisdom and kindness so encouraging.

      • Diana Trautwein

        Thanks, Casey, Sheila and Joe – I always love to stop by here! One of these months, I’m going to do the BIG prompt – but so far, the timing has been off for me. The prompting (and the writing) in this post was perfect for the kind of day I had on Saturday, so it was fun to get it down. Thanks for the encouragement – and for the creativity, Joe. This place is a rich resource.

  • Becominghiseve

    definitely need to get into the habit of free-writing even when the creative juices aren’t flowing.

  • I just blogged on this! I’ve felt less inspired than I expected post-MFA residency, but the packet is due, so I’m writing anyway. But I’m finding the last couple of days that just forcing myself to write is opening the creative floodgates and the words are starting to seem less putrid. It’s the journalist in me that is used to forcing my way through to meet a deadline, but several of the artists I’ve interviewed advise using the creative lulls to take care of busywork.

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  • I’m a professional writer, I have to write even when I don’t feel like it. I like to think that I can tell the difference between in the quality of the work between the times I’m inspired and the times I’m not, but honestly? I never can.

    • I know. I love it when I go back and read something that I thought was just crap and it’s kind of okay. However, there’s nothing worse than going through something you thought was incredible and it turns out… well, it’s not.

  • Love that quote Joe. It burns. Today’s practice is an incredibly useful idea. It’s how I live my life. No matter where I am I have pen and paper. Keeping it dry as I’m working is sometimes a problem 🙂 I’m reposting the quote and your link!

  • I did the practice today and this is what gushed out. I only changed a couple of sentences and put some links in. http://bobholmes.blogspot.com/2012/02/turn-on-and-tune-in-to-god.html Pretty cool. I’ve still got to put it through my editor. 😉
    So, Thanks Joe!

    • Awesome, Bob! I’m so glad it got you started!

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