Cassie Clare (cassandraclare) wrote,
Cassie Clare

On inspiration

I get a lot of questions about writing and questions about inspiration make up the bulk of them. It seems there are a lot of writers wandering around waiting for the muse to descend in a flood of golden light and getting PO’d that it isn’t happening. These sort of emails:

“I lose my inspiration after the first few chapters. How did you stay inspired writing these books?”

"How do I make myself sit down and write and not get distracted?"

“what's a good way not to lose interest while you write? or for the strength of your writing not to fade?”

“Every time I’m in the middle of a book I get a new idea and I want to work on that instead even if the other idea isn’t as good.”

Always leave me thinking: yes, well — welcome to being a writer. How do you stay inspired? You don’t. How do you stay in love with the book you’re writing? You don’t.

It’s easy in the beginning. The book idea is fresh and new and the characters seem appealing and the story is one you want to tell. Then you dig in and round about chapter four or five you start realizing that nothing is happening, or that what your characters are doing doesn’t make any sense, or that you’re telling the whole story from the wrong point of view.

At that point the characters and story stop feeling fresh and new and shiny. They have become problematic. They are no longer the lovely new sweater hanging in the closet that you can’t wait to wear, but are instead the wrinkly old sweater that has soup on it that you should probably take to the dry cleaner. And you want nothing more than to take the whole project and bin it and start a new project that seems like fun, because now you are not having any.

Now I am not sure this is the same thing as ‘writer’s block.’ To me writer’s block has always meant staring at a blank piece of paper with absolutely no idea what you want to put on it. This is more that stage of writing where you feel like you had a party but the fun bit is over and now you have to put all the trash in bags and clean the Silly String off the ceiling. The party was fun. The cleanup bit is not.

I have a few mental exercises I use to try to work through this part (which extends pretty much from a third of the way through the book all the way to the end, and also the editing process.) If I’m stuck on a scene I figure it’s usually because I’m approaching it from the wrong angle so I try to visualize other angles. But mostly it’s just grim pushing through. Like strapping on lead weights and slogging through the snow, no end in sight. You set yourself word counts for the day or whatever and you just keep going. Which is not to say that some parts won’t still be fun. They will be. But you may have to do a lot of slogging to get there.

So how do you force yourself to do it? Determination. The same way you force yourself to do anything — go to the gym, learn to speak Russian, climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Some things take hard work and determination to complete; novels are one of those things. Learning to force yourself to work on your writing is not appreciably different from learning to force yourself to do anything else.

Which is where I think the whole narrative of inspiration comes in, and is ultimately unhelpful. Aspiring writers who ask this sort of question often believe (because they have been told it) that inspiration is like a golden light shining directly into your head and filling you with ideas and energy and mystical whatsit. They feel it should light up your fingers and send them speeding over the keyboard. They figure the story should be like a movie that plays in your head. And they figure that if this isn’t happening, there must be something wrong.

But there’s not. I don't know any writers who talk about how inspiration comes to them in a silvery shower that makes their writing feel effortless, but they would probably get punched the head by other writers if they did. We don't truck much with that stuff (mostly we spend a lot of time complaining about how badly things are going writing-wise, and how our stuff sucks more than everyone else's. It's a misery one-upmanship thing.)

But if I am not inspired when I write, people will be able to tell, you say. No, they won't. I remember one writer who famously said something along the lines of “Some things I write for love, and some for money, and nobody but me can tell the difference.” In the same way, no one but you will be able to tell which parts of a book came easily to you and which parts you sweated blood over. Sure, inspiration comes sometimes — a sudden great idea you can’t wait to write down — but it’s not often and usually at inopportune times when you don’t have a pen. And you have to learn to treasure those moments, because they are rare,, and in between them are long stretches of slogging.

As Justine just said: "Ideas are not the hard part, making yourself sit down and write is.". That’s why it’s work and they pay you (ideally) to do it. And while it may seem depressing to be told that there is no secret way to access inspiration (like, “Go to this address in Cleveland and knock on the door and tell the guy that the red fox barks at midnight, and he will GIVE YOU THE INSPIRATION”), I hope it’s also helpful to think that you don’t need to. That everyone gets tired in the middle, or feels bored with what they’re writing, or wishes they were doing something else, and that, to quote Maureen in a post whose theme is not dissimilar to this one, “even the best books like to REPEATEDLY PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE while you are working on them.”

But the thing is, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. There’s fun to be had even in the slogging bits. Because inspiration, when it does come, doesn’t come from outside of you. It comes from the work that you do, from the process itself. So the truth is, you don’t need to be inspired to write. But you do need to write to be inspired.

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