How do you handle writing inspiration? Can you write only you're inspired? Or is it possible to write anytime, whether you're inspired or not?
What Is Inspiration?
I like how Walt Whitman, the great American poet, talked about it:
The secret of it all 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.
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?
The Two Camps of Writing Inspiration
There are two camps, two schools of thought when it comes to the role of inspiration in the writing process.
The Inspiration Camp. 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. A few writers who might fall into this camp: Cormac McCarthy and Walt Whitman.
The Discipline Camp. 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 every day, and who may be struck often by the lightning bolt of creativity, but don't wait for it in order to sit down and begin to write. Writers who fall into this camp: Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Ernest Hemingway.
Both of these camps have benefits and both have drawbacks.
The Inspiration Camp's drawbacks:
- You often have a strong start at writing a book, but then find yourself quickly abandoning the project when it gets hard.
- You can spend very little time writing or practicing your craft because you're always waiting for inspiration.
- Finishing projects is hard.
- You may have an easier time writing poetry rather than novels because the whole of a poem can be written while inspiration is hot upon you.
The Discipline Camp's drawbacks:
- Writing can seem formulaic, lifeless, or stilted.
- You can finish projects, but they always seems to be missing something.
There's a Middle Way Between Inspiration and Discipline
There's a third camp, though, a middle way that combines writing inspiration and discipline.
You get up on time, you write out your daily word count, and every day, you wait and hope that inspiration will strike you. If it doesn't, you do the work, putting the words on the page.
In this camp, your job is not to write a great book. That's inspiration's job, the “Muse's” job. Your job is simply to be at your keyboard or in front of your pad with a pen in your hand, waiting and ready for when inspiration might decide to show up.
This middle way is the path of writing freedom, because if your writing isn't good, then it's not your fault. The inspiration simply didn't strike you, then. And if your writing is good, then it's still not your fault—and your ego won't become bloated—because inspiration was there working for you.
My Writing Process
I get up and write on a schedule. I put out my 650 words. Some of them are good but many of them are terrible.
And then, when Walt Whitman's “flood of moment” washes over me while I'm walking down the street, I seek a bench and a pen (or my 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 writing inspiration before you pick up a pen or do you sit and write no matter what? Let us know in the comments section.
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.