Inspiration, perspiration, and plain old sweat

“Do you only write when you’re inspired?” someone once asked me at a book reading.

“Where do you draw your inspiration from?” a reader of this blog asks. “How do you write when you’re not inspired?”

Ahhh… the vexed issue of inspiration! Has anything ever been more romanticized or misconstrued in the artistic life?

The answer to the first question is no, but I wish it was yes. It would be wonderful to be consumed with divine fire every time you sat down at your desk, dashing off work in a fevered trance.

That’s certainly how I thought writers wrote, back when I was much younger—a morning’s worth of passion followed by an afternoon of answering fan mail and being interviewed by famous journalists.

Certainly my fantasy did not involve having to do laundry, though sadly that’s closer to the truth.

“There is a popular notion,” says Mason Currey, the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, “that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where, and artists channel this energy, or tap into it, or become the conduit for it.”

Which doesn’t mean, as Currey, explains, “that inspiration doesn’t exist, or that some work is not more inspired than others. It merely means that you should work each day regardless of whether you feel the urge to; it is the process of working itself that will give rise to new ideas [my emphasis]. And with steady application, you can expect to hit inspired patches from time to time.”

In other words, “inspiration” is not a one-time thing, a bolt from the blue that sends you rushing to your desk or wherever you write. Those flashes of illumination will also come while you’re working—“like striking matches in a dark cave that keep going out,” as one writer described it.

The initial inspiration—let’s call it the trigger moment—can come from anywhere, to answer my second questioner. The key is to learn to pay attention, to be alert to the world around you for what it might offer, whether it’s a memory, a dream, a story told by a friend, a photograph (the possibilities are endless).

That trigger moment must also begin to obsess you, to haunt you. For example, what was it about that young woman you saw on the street? Why do you remember her? And why was she wearing a fur coat on a hot day? You don’t know the answers, of course, so you have to write about her to find out.

William Faulkner famously described the inspiration for his novel The Sound and the Fury as the image of a little girl standing in the branches of a pear tree looking through her grandmother’s bedroom window and wearing dirty knickers.

But inspiration alone will not produce written work. As Currey says, “Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.”

He quotes the American painter Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

No matter how exciting that initial ah-hah! may be, the writing only happens by actually sitting down to write. This may seem so obvious as to be ludicrous. But writers live in their heads a lot, and some of us convince ourselves for longer than we should that someday we will indeed write that magnificent novel that’s going to make our name. Someday. Not now, because we don’t have time, but someday, soon, there will be time…

The future, though has an alarming habit of turning into the present. Waiting for the right time, or divine fire, or whatever, is deadly. The time to begin is now, and that’s where the plain old sweat comes in. That initial inspiration may fade into oblivion, but you must keep faith with it by writing. As the French writer Colette used to say tartly to those who asked her for advice, “Who asked you to be happy? Work!”

Writing requires, above all, patience, tenacity, and perseverance, no matter the obstacles or the disappointments. It’s a matter of painstakingly acquired discipline, earned through repeated practice. As a practicing writer you learn that, whether you feel inspired or not—especially when not—you sit down at your desk anyway. Being a writer requires steady, diligent—and yes, unromantic—application.

So the next time you pick up a book in a bookstore and think, “Oh, if only I had that kind of inspiration … ,” remember that its writer sat down and wrote. And rewrote. And trusted that inspiration, when it was needed, would come.

If you’d like to get in touch, please contact me at


Next WIR blog post: April 4

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