Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October 7th, 2007

“All it takes is some grains of faith,
A few kilowatts of sweat and grace.”

– Ray Wylie Hubbard

One of the most persistent myths among wannabe writers is that they need to be inspired to write. However, professional writers know better. For them, inspiration is less a form of divine grace than a habit of mind. And, in some ways, it’s less important that the sweat of regular, disciplined work.

Oh, most professionals know the joy of being in what computer developers call “The Zone,” that trance-like state where you can see the whole of your current project laid out before you and can seemingly do no wrong. It’s a heady feeling, and probably explains why Isaac Asimov, when asked if he would rather write or make love, pointed out that he could write for twelve hours a day.

But here’s the secret: Work you do while inspired isn’t always flawless, or even better than what you write when the words come slowly. Sometimes, it’s complete junk. It just feels easier. Later on, you may even have trouble telling what you wrote while inspired from what you wrote while sweating every syllable.

That’s the main reason why most professional writers don’t worry about inspiration, or wait for it. Often, of course, they have no time to do so; for most of us, a deadline is the surest cure for writer’s block around. But, more importantly, it’s not reliable, and professionals soon learn from experience that it’s also over-rated.

Instead of striking a pose and waiting for the Muse – that favorite pastime of wannabes more in love with the image of the author than with writing – professionals soon learn to cultivate a state of mind where they are always watching for potential material. Writers of fiction are looking for plot elements and characterizations, or maybe the odd turn of phrase. Non-fiction writers like me are always looking for subjects that they can turn into articles. After a while, the search becomes automatic, a little piece of you that sits back and observes while the rest of you interacts with the world. Some writers even go so far as to keep a notebook or PDA at hand for jotting down notes, although many prefer to keep notes mentally.

(Personally, I think that mental notes make for richer material, since they can make new connections with the rest of the contents with your brain, while written notes just sit there lifelessly, but that’s just me. You might be different).

Once you have the habit of looking for material, you will rarely have trouble finding something to write about. For instance, I can almost always find four or five topics that relate to free software with an hour or so of thinking and browsing the Internet. Give me a free afternoon, and I can find enough topics to fill my quota for the month. As the American fantasist Fritz Leiber once wrote, “It’s part of my entire adjustment to life, to view things from the perspective of gathering story material.”

This approach to inspiration is one of the key differences between amateurs and professionals, but it’s not the only one. Just as importantly, writers write. It’s only amateurs who spend their time waiting for inspiration, or talking about what they plan to write. True writers sit down regularly – usually, daily – and write. They may be in different moods or states of health from day to day, and they may write more one day than another, but they write.

Why? Partly because Asimov’s joke is true: even if you don’t want to go as far as he did, writing is more fun than almost anything else. But, just as importantly, writing is like any skill or activity from singing to playing a sport: it’s easiest with practice. The more you write, the less effort it is. When you’re in practice as a writer, you no sooner have an idea than you start seeing seeing what points you can make about it and the gaps in it that you need to fill – to say nothing of the structure that you need to express it. Sometimes, how you develop an idea may change dramatically as you work with it, but, if you’re in practice, then you can usually see the possibilities early on.

Just as a trained runner often needs less warmup than a Sunday jogger, so a professional writer finds the act of writing easier. That, really, is the reward of disciplined work – although if you’ve never written regularly and long enough to experience it, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Of course, sweat also comes in with revision and editing. Possibly the best advice I’ve ever heard from a writer is Robert Graves’ comment that a writer’s best friend is the wastebasket. Many pieces of writing are made by careful editing or destroyed by its lack.

But editing, in my experience, is a far less desperate an activity than writing itself. By the time you get to editing, you know you have something to build on and improve. Compared to writing the first draft, editing is not nearly as harrowing – it’s usually just a matter of putting in the work. Editing is more an analytical process than a creative one, so in general it’s less mysterious than writing and easier to learn, even though it’s no less important.

These comments will seem obvious to most working professionals. However, I am equally sure that wannabe writers will read them, nod solemnly – and then go right back to their old habits of waiting for inspiration.

But if you’re ready to write seriously, then maybe they will reassure you that you’re doing the right thing. The romantic myths about writing are lovely, but they’re not a substitute for pragmatism and hard work. They no more make a successful writer than the myths about personal romance make for a successful marriage.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »