Inspiration—Or Not

Lately, I have been writing without inspiration. I am working on several writing projects—two on my own, two with collaborators—and the deadlines are mounting. I write because my writing partner wants me to, or because the deadline is looming. I am not moved to write; instead, I am often forced to write. It is frequently uncomfortable; I feel silly, unmotivated, dumb. I would rather clear the backyard of dog poop, clip my toddler’s fingernails, or make banana bread from scratch. I would rather pick up dirty socks, stand in line at the post office, or read the alumni magazine that just arrived. I would rather go to the gym. I would choose an injury, or worse, the boredom of yoga, over the act of compulsory writing. And yet, when faced with the decision, I always end up sitting down to write. Why?

Here’s the thing… I believe, actually, I know, that the inspiration will come. If I wait for it, without trying to write, it never seems to materialize, but if I jump in and get to work, something always shows up. It might not be genius, or inspired, but it’s something…and it often turns into something better. If not, there is always the next draft, or the next. I push on and push through because I believe in the promise of the other side. I believe that something bigger, better, brighter, will come—as long as I don’t quit.

But I know something now that I did not know as a younger writer. Sometimes, the best, most illuminated ideas come out of the pit of darkness. They arrive when you’re exhausted and bitter; when you want to quit, or have, or are about to; when you think you have nothing left. Marathon runners talk of the wall they hit, when they can run no further, when they are literally empty of energy, but with writing, I believe there is something beyond the wall—if we’re patient, if we stay engaged in the creative process, if we’re willing to show up.

What I’ve also learned is that “showing up” doesn’t have to mean sitting in your swivel-back chair staring at your screensaver for a seven-hour session. It might mean taking a break to swim or walk, frying an egg, making a phone call, or sneaking off to a matinee. The key is to return to the work in a few hours. Sometimes the temptation to break for the day is huge, but don’t admit defeat so easily by abandoning it over night. Go back to the wall and look at it. Don’t be afraid of rigorous examination, of failure, of the silence of your pen (or keyboard.) The thing to remember is this: you built that wall, and you can tear it down. Or better yet, climb over it.

Beyond the wall is a field of lush grass, a place you cannot imagine when you are looking at the bleak density of the wall. And there’s a reason for that: it doesn’t exist yet. Some ideas, perhaps the truly inspired ones, only show themselves to you once you have faced the wall and decided to surpass it. Which is why it is so important to push yourself until you reach those walls, to write when you don’t want to, to search for words when you think you have nothing left to say.

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