Reminder: Writing requires more than inspiration

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Once, at a book event, a man asked me how long a novel takes to write.

I told him that for most of my career I’ve written one novel a year.

He stepped back like I’d hit him in the forehead with a spitball. “No way. A book every year? That’s impossible.”

I assured him it was extremely possible. “Deadlines are fantastically motivating.”

He frowned and shook his head. “You can’t write to a schedule.”

“Professional writers do it all the time.”

His expression shifted toward disdain. “But you can’t schedule inspiration.”

As I started to reply, he went on. Writing regularly? Ridiculous. “That’s not how inspiration works,” he said. The idea that I would deliberately sit down to write, when inspiration hadn’t driven me to the keyboard… His lips pursed.

I realized: He thinks I’m a hack.

He thought that to have imaginative value, every word an author writes must originate in an ineffable bolt of creative lightning. Unplanned. Uncontrollable. That crafting a piece of writing renders it crass and somehow inauthentic. He was a businessman, not a novelist; he admitted that the writing process was entirely foreign to him. But no matter how I explained it, he couldn’t abandon the idea that I was doing writing wrong.

I’d been invited to this event to give a speech. I’d been flown across half a continent, actually, to tell an audience of 500 people how I came to be an author with more than a dozen published novels to my credit. By pure coincidence my talk, which I gave shortly after this conversation, discussed the interplay between inspiration and craft. Inspiration is wonderful, I said. But when you’re in the trenches writing a novel, constant inspiration is neither necessary nor sufficient. Grab it when it strikes. But when it doesn’t? That’s when experience, and discipline, and a knowledge of dramatic structure, along with an understanding of plot and character and suspense — in other words, craft — will carry you across the finish line. Then you can recharge. And revise.

Inspiration, I said, looks a lot like work.

I don’t know if the man who challenged me heard the speech. Our conversation had wrapped up when he commented that he guessed publishing is a business, so he supposed that writers need to supply it with material. Then he shrugged.

“What do I know about it? I don’t read.”

4 responses to “Reminder: Writing requires more than inspiration

  1. On the stories I’ve written over the years — when re-reading them later, I’m compelled to edit by adding, subtracting or changing a word or phrase here and there. It seems I just cannot let them be ! I know I can’t be the only one who does this.

  2. My fingers itch to edit, constantly.

  3. Who was it that said the muse of inspiration is drawn to the scent of hard work? I can’t give credence to this guy not only for his inability to understand the work of writing, but also because he DOESN’T READ. How do you move through life without reading? I am suspicious of anyone who doesn’t have at least one book handy in any given day.

    • The thought of having just one book handy, instead of two or three or seven hundred, would give me hives.

      I feel bad for the guy. But at least he’s not a non-reader who’s writing a novel.

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