Someone on a writers’ post recently said that you must have inspiration in order to be a writer. I couldn’t agree less. But it’s complicated and subtle, so I will work it out with you here.
To begin with, I prefer not to use the label “writer,” because, to my mind, one does not “become a writer,” one writes, and keeps writing; that’s the deal. That’s the core of it. To twist semantics a bit, a writer is a constant verb, not a noun or title: a writer constantly writes. Not necessarily to schedule, repeatedly, through thick and thin; but regularly, seriously, and with full commitment.
If you are not ‘inspired,’ are you then not successful at writing?
So many people use the word inspiration so loosely that it ceases to have meaning, or becomes something cheap, something like magic. Theologically speaking, the word has a definite meaning, “a divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul.” So, are we saying that we are, or need to be, blessed with something from the divine before we can write well? Or are we using the word as some kind of generic, but amorphous ‘truthy’ about what energizes creative people? I personally think we throw the word about far too blithely.
Certainly, we have to be energized and thoroughly engaged with our writing in order to raise it above the pedestrian and mundane. (Although one could argue that some bad writers can be thoroughly engaged and still write badly, simply because they have not put in the work to become good writers. We each work within our own limits.) What makes a good or great writer – other than the consensus among readers that the writer is such – is not this generic happenstance we call inspiration. After all, if we are to use the word meaningfully, we must be clear on what we mean. Are we talking about imagination alone? A sudden moment of excitement about an idea, that we carry forth into articulation? A sense of mission? A commitment to speaking truth, or justice, or beauty? I would suggest that we use inspiration to mean all of these things and more, so that it has become a meaningless commonplace – in short, not a truth but a ‘truthy,’ something we cheapen by bandying it about so blithely, as if we, the artist- writers, own it. Romanticism aside, the notion of inspiration, or the muse, coming to the writer, is anachronistic, tired, and, to my mind, an insult to the serious writer.
That said, there has to be some drive, above and beyond the automatic, scheduled, sitting down at the desk and putting words together. I would think that is so obvious as to no longer need discussion. But what raises mere keyboarding and articulation of an idea from the pedestrian to the level of good or great? Your idea might be mind-blowing, but if you can’t adequately articulate it, in all its nuances, then you still have to develop as a writer. You have work to do; and you do it then, at the time, and later, when you re-think and re-write. That is the challenge, and that is what we dream ourselves into as writers, the expression of that which has not yet been said, made manifest. Only hard work will allow us to articulate, or express, if you prefer, the imagined thing, or the half-imagined, half-spoken thing in our mind.
Granted, if your ideas are not original, not above par, then you have little driving the writing towards greatness, or even competence. But if you have not put in the hard, hard graft of writing for years and years, no amount of so-called inspiration will make your idea come to life, or make it compelling to readers. A bad writer is bad not only because they haven’t done the work, and probably also haven’t the mental, imaginative scope to think beyond the superficial and shopworn; a bad writer is bad because he or she has not evolved, by exercising both mind and craft and pushing both to the limit of the writer’s potential. It’s not just applying oneself to the craft that makes you a writer (the perspiration of craft), it is also the perspiration applied to thinking, to testing meaning, imagination, rhetoric, even logic. The two, combined, represent what we call inspiration. You have to work at both, every time you sit down to apply yourself to writing you consider meaningful.
You generate the ‘inspiration;’ it’s called using your mind to its fullest. And you do that hand-in-glove with the craft of writing, for which there is no better teacher than doing the hard work. The source of “inspiration” may be ultimately unknowable, but the part of it that we can turn into words, can make manifest in mind and then on the page, clarifies through hard work and commitment to thinking and craft. The two are inextricably paired.
A propos of this, I’m reminded of a scenario involving (I think) Kurt Vonnegut. It may be apocryphal, but it still rings true. Vonnegut was asked to give a lecture at a university on the craft of writing. Naturally, the lecture hall was packed with would-be writers, agog for the wisdom of this so-renowned, even genius, writer. Vonnegut walked to the lectern, looked out on the audience and said, “What the hell are you all doing here? Go home and write!” He then left the stage.