The Enemies of Our Progress, Part One

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For the next few posts, I want to talk about a subject that’s always in my mind – the enemies of our progress.  It doesn’t matter how much you love to write, or how talented you are, there are certain enemies we all share, enemies that slow us down or even bring us to a halt altogether.  Sometimes talking about the enemy is enough to get our brains charged and our typing hands moving again.  So I thought I’d spend some time bringing those enemies out into the open, expose them for what they are, in the hope that we all benefit.  Today I want to talk about waiting for inspiration.

I don’t know about you, but once upon a time I believed that writers lived in shadowed garrets, drinking wine and staring at blank pages until, at last, the muse deigned to reward the writer’s patience with An Idea.  I long ago learned that was a lie, but still, there’s a tiny part of me that thinks, “Something will come to me, if I just wait.  And in the meantime, I’ll do the laundry.”  Then I leave the keyboard and start the laundry.  Trouble is, doing laundry for three people can take the better part of all day.  So in between loads, if I’ve still not been blessed by a glittering idea, I’ll wash the dishes or start the dinner or clean out the car or whatever.  Pick a chore.  At the end of the day, I may have a tidy house, but not a word on the page.  I eventually go to bed, having written not one word.  “Surely the best idea will come to me tomorrow,” I tell myself as I drift off.  I can waste an entire day waiting for inspiration to show up.  Trouble is, inspiration didn’t get the message or forgot we had an appointment.  Instead of waiting, I have to get the work done on my own, and stop worrying about whether inspiration will show up.

Sometimes a brilliant idea does hit, like a bolt out of the blue.  Recently I was unloading books at the library, and picked up a tourist guide to Amsterdam.  Suddenly a scene flashed into my mind, as clear as if it was already written.  Not only did I know the scene, I knew who the characters were, why they had conflict with each other and what was going to happen next.  I dashed to my work computer and sent myself a detailed email so I wouldn’t risk losing what I had.  Later on, that same day, I noticed a children’s book with the word ‘fog’ in the title, and just as suddenly I knew an important factor of my main character’s life.  Once again, I ran to the computer and sent another email.  So yes, inspiration can strike, but sometimes it does so at extremely inconvenient moments, when you just can’t sit down and spend an hour writing. 

Most of the time, though, inspiration is not a flash from above.  It’s the result of getting to work and letting the words bring the ideas forth.  Open your document and just type anything, even if you’re pretty sure you’re going to throw it away.  If you absolutely cannot think of so much as one word to type, you can try typing your stream of consciousness thoughts, just to stop having to stare at the blank screen.  Something like this – I have no idea what to write and even if I did it would suck and no one would want to read it and what the hell is wrong with me anyway, thinking I can do this for a living, when there are so many other people who are far more talented and I guess I should just get on with it…  It sounds like vicious self-abuse, but what you’re doing is getting it out of your head and onto a page where it can’t hurt you.  Once you’ve gone on this way for a little bit, you’ll start seeing such meanness for the nonsense that it is, and you’ll be able to let your story come back to the forefront of your imagination.  Just don’t forget to go back and delete all that trash as soon as you’ve gotten moving again.

Another thing that can help is to change your environment.  I don’t mean redecorate your house – that’s expensive and noisy and takes a long time.  I mean get up and walk around.  Walk out to the mailbox and back.  Walk backward through every room of your apartment.  Dance to one song.  Stand on your head for one minute.  Sometimes getting your blood moving refreshes your brain and gets things chugging along again.  Just don’t neglect to return to your manuscript right away.  It’s easy to become distracted and do one little chore, and we all remember what happens then, right? 

The most important part of all this is to stop treating inspiration like a mystical experience.  As much as we talk about our muses (and Faith’s got a doozy – I’m a little afraid of him!), there is not really some supernatural creature standing one dimension over from your desk, cleaning her fingernails and yawning while she watches you suffer.  No one is stopping your  ideas from flowing.  You can’t blame the muses or the angels or the full moon for standing in your way.  If you really like writing, and you really want to do this for a living, you have to sit down every day and put something down.  The stories come from inside you, and it’s you alone keeping them locked away. 

I wish you lots and lots of words. 

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16 comments to The Enemies of Our Progress, Part One

  • MykaReede

    Thanks for the great reminder. My day job among other things includes technical and sales writing, but somehow it’s easy to fall into the trap that fiction writing requires the mystical muse to come out and dance at night for my WIP. I’ll have to try the declutter your mind trick and type out my frustrations first.

  • Misty, Sigh. I remember (vaguely) inspiration. In high school.
    I’m not even sure what inspiration is anymore. It surely isn’t a bolt from the blue. More like a kick in the pants to get to work. It is BIC and HOK, FT. It is work and sweat and aching body from forgetting to move. Good times. 🙂

  • Megan B.

    “I wish you lots and lots of words.”

    I like that!

  • “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
    —Jack London

  • Love this idea for a series of posts, and I love this post in particular. Once again, while watching TV the other night I saw a commercial that talked about “waiting to write the great American novel.” And I nearly screamed. I know I flipped the bird at the TV, drawing a shocked and perplexed look from my daughter. But waiting for inspiration, or thinking that eventually the muse will deign to move us, is a recipe for writing nothing. Great stuff, Misty. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • Ken

    Great post Misty. Looking forward to more 🙂

    The Muse needs to know when you’re going to be working so that she knows when to show up. Yes, my Muse is female. She needs to know when I’m working so that she knows when to show up. I let her know by example: BIC on a regular basis at a regular time (Your mileage may vary on that point…she’s my Muse after all :)). That doesn’t keep her from tossing things at me during “Off” hours–not that, as writers, we’re ever *really* off. It’s my job to be receptive to the things she tosses my way. It’s produced some pretty interesting answers to “What are you thinking?”

    Wishing you all lots of words as well!!!

  • Great idea for a series of posts! I have lots of enemies to my progress, and I’m always looking for ways to defeat them. Or at least keep them at bay. I have learned over the years not to rely on inspiration. Muses seem to be a sadistic group so I’d just as soon stay clear of them 🙂

  • mudepoz

    Normally I love being able to write. Reading and writing are the two things that almost hide the pain from my foot. Lately I just have these days, that I clear of everything else, and even with words on paper, stuff I just need to transcribe, I’m too tired to get it done.

    Maybe I need an increase dosage of Ritalin.

  • David – I saw that commercial too. Same response here.

    Okay – the office hours are over, the grading pile has been temporarily beaten into submission and I’ve got a deadline on a short story. Time to write!

  • Ohhhh. We get to talk about muses???? PROMISE?

  • I’m glad y’all enjoyed today’s post! David, I haven’t seen that commercial, but I’m sure I’d lose my religion over it, too. I remember a movie from a few years back, in which the mom wrote a book, got an agent, sold the book and had her release and book tour over the course of a few days. Made me want to throw things at the television. Fortunately, I was holding the remote, so I carefully changed the channel and no damage occurred. 😉

    Faith, my love, I probably can’t talk about muses. I just don’t have one. Or I do, but he’s a non-celestial, living, breathing human who lives in my house, who offers support and help when I ask and leaves me alone when the writing’s going well. Does that count?

  • He’s so much classier than my muse…

  • And did I mention mine is getting leather pants for Christmas? *grin* Now THAT’S inspiration.

  • Vyton

    Great post. Thank you, Misty. I don’t like this idea of a muse. I have an idea it would be an extraterrestrial in four-inch heels and so bad that not even Captain James T. Kirk would mess with her. And it’s crowded enough in here already.

  • Razziecat

    Well, between the image of David flipping the bird at the TV and the thought of a muse in leather pants, I have to say this post and the comments are FANTASTIC for inspiration right now! 😀 Thanks, Misty!!

  • quillet

    Fabulous post. I love this especially: “Most of the time, though, inspiration is not a flash from above. It’s the result of getting to work and letting the words bring the ideas forth.”

    So, so true. Inspiration (or the muse) generally doesn’t deign to show up until *after* you sit down and start working. Which is why I have pages that start with things like, “Um um um, my mind is so blank today, I don’t know what to write, um um um, let’s see, my characters were doing this and now maybe they should do that, um um um…” But I write that, and then I write something else, and *then* it gets going. And later I delete the umming. 🙂