A lot of advice is floating around out there about how to be a writer. Everybody who’s made any money in the business seems to have a book or a workshop offering guidance on everything from plotting to voice to marketing. Some of the advice is good, and almost all of it is well-intentioned.
Rarely do I come across any writing guru so wrong-headed that I feel the need to respond to them publicly. But last week, I attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and I found myself at a workshop that had me struggling not to jump out of my seat and argue with the instructor.
The instructor, whose name I won’t mention here, was lecturing on the correct state of mind one must have before sitting down to write a novel. Inspiration is essential, she said. You must think about the book, plan the book, and meditate on the book until the fire of artistic inspiration burns so brightly in you that you simply must write or you’ll implode into a cloud of pixie dust and repressed dreams.
I paraphrase, but that was the gist.
Only when you simply can’t do anything but write must you actually sit down at the keyboard and put words together. You write only when you simply can’t contain yourself any longer.
I have a response to that, and I’ll give it to you now because I’m aflame with the need to say it:
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
The advice is simply wrong. Writing is something you do, it isn’t something that happens to you like a fever or a lottery win.
Writing is an art, yes. But it’s also a job, a practice, a habit. It’s a skill that you have to hone through daily effort. It’s a profession that takes ongoing dedication.
The advice that instructor gave her eager students was not only wrong, it was destructive, for several reasons:
1. It makes new writers think they’re not good enough.
If you’re only fit to write a novel if the inspiration for it is bursting out of your chest like the creature in Alien, then most of us are, therefore, unfit to write a novel at all. I haven’t been at this very long in the whole scheme of things, but I’ve been at it long enough to know that if we write on a regular basis, we’re writers. What if I bought into the line that I’m only a writer if I feel that divine glow of artistic fire? I might conclude that I’m not a real writer at all.
And then I might quit, deciding that I’m unworthy.
2. It encourages sloppy work habits.
If I’m a plumber, I’m not going to refuse to work on a clogged drain until I’m simply so inspired that I can’t restrain myself from working on that clogged drain. I’m going to just get to the client’s house and remove the hairball that’s blocking the pipes. It’s my job, so I’m going to do it whether I feel particularly inspired or not. If I don’t, then I’m not much of a plumber, and I won’t have a job much longer.
Similarly, a writer can’t always afford to wait for inspiration. If you’re traditionally published, you’ve likely got a deadline, and if you don’t meet it, you’re probably going to lose your opportunity. Deadlines don’t wait for inspiration.
Self-published authors like me make our own deadlines, but the same goes. Our readers aren’t going to wait years for us to be inspired—they’re going to forget about us and move on to other things if we don’t keep publishing new work. And the mortgage isn’t going to wait for me to be inspired, either. It just needs to get paid, and that won’t happen if I don’t produce new work that will, in turn, produce new royalties.
I’m a professional with a job to do, and as a professional, I’m going to show up every day and do that job, inspired or not.
3. The writer’s brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to perform at top capacity. The more I write, the better I get at writing. It’s like any other skill, and like any other art. If you stop doing it, you’ll forget how to do it, or at the very least, it’ll become harder. This workshop leader’s advice completely ignores the fact that practice improves performance.
4. It reinforces the idea of writers’ block.
Writers’ block is like the monster in the closet that you were afraid of as a kid. The more you believed in it, the more it became real to you, and the more it became real to you, the more it interfered with your sleep and made it impossible for you to get out of bed to go to the bathroom.
If we accept the idea that we must be inspired in order to write, then we must also accept the idea that there will be times when we can’t write. And once you let that idea in the door, you’re pretty much screwed. The book won’t get written, and the sink won’t get unclogged. And good luck getting all the way to the bedroom door before the closet monster eats you.
What do writers do? They write. They don’t write if they feel inspired. They just write, regularly, because it’s their job, because it’s their thing. Because the words need to get written no matter what mood you’re in.
If I wrote only when I was inspired, I’d have succumbed to writers’ block long ago, and I’d be wallowing in failure and frustration.
5. It reinforces the idea that writers are a special breed, and you’re not one of them.
Writers aren’t some otherworldly creatures divinely chosen to bestow their ideas upon the world. A writer is anybody who sits his or her butt in a chair long enough to write something. And I know that idea is threatening to certain people in the industry who have a lot invested in feeling special. But the fact is that anybody can do it. Not everybody does it as well as others, but anybody can do it.
Bottom line: If I wrote only when the fire of inspiration made it impossible not to, I’d have written one book and stopped. Which means that a couple of the novels I’m most proud of wouldn’t have been written at all, and I wouldn’t have readers waiting for my next book, because there wouldn’t be one.
If I wrote only when I was inspired, that inspiration that I was waiting for might never come, because the mental muscles involved in making it happen would be so out of use that my brain simply wouldn’t work that way anymore.
I write because I’ve made the commitment to do it, and because I have things to say, not because I’ve won the Inspiration Sweepstakes and simply can’t do anything else.
Writers write, always. Inspired or not, special or not. Writers write. That’s the only requirement, but it’s a pretty crucial one. Inspiration can come along for the ride or not, but either way, this train is leaving the station.