Inspiration is for Amateurs

In a recent workshop the leader asked us why we wrote. Here were some answers:

I write because there’s nothing else I know how to do.

I write to make a difference.

If I don’t get it out I won’t sleep.

Because the world is bewildering.

To stay curious.

To define chaos.

I don’t know what I want to say until I write it.

In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), editor Meredith Maran seeks out answers on the why and advice on the how of writing from twenty of today’s most acclaimed authors.

source: Brain Pickings

Prolific novelist Isabel Allende shares in Kurt Vonnegut’insistence on rooting storytelling in personal experience and writes:

I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.

Though many famous writers have notoriously deliberate routines and rituals, Allende’s is among the most unusual and rigorous. Ultimately, however, she echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”), E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) and Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), stressing the importance of work ethic over the proverbial muse:

I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell. Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person. I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed – because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

She offers three pieces of advice for aspiring writers:

  • It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.
  • When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.
  • When you tell a story in the kitchen to a friend, it’s full of mistakes and repetitions. It’s good to avoid that in literature, but still, a story should feel like a conversation. It’s not a lecture.

Celebrated journalist and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean considers the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction, exploring the osmotic balance of escapism and inner stillness:

When it comes to nonfiction, it’s important to note the very significant difference between the two stages of the work. Stage one is reporting. Stage two is writing.

Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar.

Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.

A necessary antidote to the tortured-genius cultural mythology of the writer, Orlean, like Ray Bradbury, conceives of writing as a source of joy, even when challenging:

Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.

She ends with four pieces of wisdom for writers:

  • You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.
  • You should read as much as possible. That’s the best way to learn how to write.
  • You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.
  • Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.

True to Alan Watts’s philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose,Michael Lewis remained disinterested in money as a motive – in fact, he recognized the trap of the hedonic treadmill and got out before it was too late:

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers – where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeodfamously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:

Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.

And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out – with extraordinary candor and insight:

Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.

That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.

Still, his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:

Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do. After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story. That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.

Read more on the best books on writing, creativity and photography here:  http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=908a56d436&e=12c1f3c8b2

So why do YOU write? 

21 thoughts on “Inspiration is for Amateurs

  1. Really wonderful writing inspiration for 2014, Carol. Thank you!
    I write because when I don’t write- I’m the least connected to myself. And writing is the best natural high (when I’m doing my own writing, that is.)

  2. Pingback: Inspiration is for Amateurs | Spoken Words

  3. Why do I write? I have always been interested in words and their meaning. I like a good story, and if I can manage to write a good piece, I feel fulfilled.

    • Once again, I couldn’t get into your page…it said page not found. I really wanted to comment on the video you posted on Ian McEwan. I love hearing advice from the greats.
      I hope you get your site fixed because I really enjoy your posts.

      • I wonder why this is happening. My Mac is working good now as I had to empty thousands of files. Everything is saved on a hard drive, however.
        Thank-you for telling me. Appreciate it very much, but don’t know what to do about it.

  4. Great post, Carol!
    My reasons for writing:
    – People want to read
    – I like writing
    – Stories want to be told
    – Mysteries want to be unravelled
    – Ideas need to get out

  5. Interesting topic. I write to inspire and BE inspired, also because I like the magic when characters become real and the story is ready to spill. I never wanted to be pigeon-holed into writing a certain genre just because it was believed to be more profitable … so money has never been a primary incentive.

    As others have also commented here, another reason to write (esp. fiction) is to let out whatever needs to be expressed.

    • I like what you say…you write to be inspired. I think that the reason why writing is so enticing is that it provides us windows into our inner selves. Also it can be so enjoyable.

  6. Great article.

    Reason(s) why I write, I write to entertain. In Kenya the book market is saturated with educational books to the dire neglect of works meant just to entertain.

  7. Interesting to read these. Wonderful post. For me, it’s the joy of creating a story, the process of making one event lead to another, all while making the reader want to keep turning the pages. I also like the logistics of it–almost like a puzzle (this needs to go here, this here, etc.) I suppose these are more left-brain reasons, but that’s where I spend most of my time. As for Jan. 8th being the perfect time to start one’s work? Delighted to hear it, since I’m just starting my new project today! (Well, I haven’t accomplished much today, but at least I started. 🙂 )

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