Inspiration is a sly devil. It visits at awkward times—in bed, while driving, in the middle of a business meeting—making it most elusive and often too fleeting to record. Complicating the matter further, motivation can be equally difficult to manage. A writing life, in many ways, is so linked to inspiration and motivation that it is easy to let the magic moment pass you by, leaving it for a more convenient time… which may not come.
As a writer and editor who spends many hours on deadline, I can’t afford to let either of those sneaky sprites drop the goods when I’m not prepared to make use of them. If you are serious about writing, neither can you.
Experience is a hard teacher, so spare yourself the angst and try a few simple methods for making the most of inspiration, and motivation, in your life.
Let’s consider visitor no. 1—inspiration—first.
Keep a notebook by your side.
It’s up to you whether you use a mini-recorder, an index card, a pocket notebook or a tablet. Just keep the darn thing handy, because inspiration comes in quick spurts, perhaps seconds, while you’re otherwise occupied. Jot it down now, no matter what you are doing, because ideas disappear as fast as they appear. Few of us have the wherewithal to drop everything and sit down to write up an idea and actually letting it gel awhile isn’t a bad idea—just so long as you record the main idea for later.
Inventors ask “what if …” and so should writers. Many writers learn to question the obvious, which may be why journalists can write whiz-bang mysteries and novels. They learn to examine what’s up front for other connotations, hidden motivations, unexpected outcomes. They don’t believe everything they see. Then they let their imaginations go to town.
Emulating that kind of questioning, even skeptical, approach to life may suggest stories that are not only fun to write but important to write. Your role as a writer is not only to record history, but to interpret it, not only to imagine what can be, but to draw it out for others. That’s the only way to enter new territory when you write.
Do your research.
I don’t believe it’s ever appropriate to sit down and make the whole business up. Why? Because readers expect fiction to be believable—not as specific as history or nonfiction, but genuine. Do your homework and spare yourself embarrassment later on. If you call an alien six-legged and two-headed that won’t matter, but if you say his ship landed in Central Park, you’d better know the territory well enough to describe it accurately. Inspiration is equal parts “idea” and “homework.”
Lastly, make time for inspiration.
If you’re coming home tight-lipped and worn out from work, or the family has been whining at you for hours about some must-do project, you’re not going to be able to sit down and “let it all hang out.” Nope. First, you have to unwind, somehow, and then find a space where no one and nuthin’ can bother you. That may mean exercise, dinner, kid time—and writing ‘til after midnight. Or it may mean a trip to the library (or wherever you best escape reality) while someone else fends for themselves (or a spouse takes care of the bloody minions). When I worked in an office, I got some of my best work done at 2 in the morning, while others slept. But I had the benefit of a late work shift then, with the chance to sleep a bit later in the morning; toddlers would complicate that. I’m not saying it’s easy to find time. It just has to be given equal priority with all of the other crying needs in your life. So figure out what it will take to give yourself the time you need, and forge ahead.
Motivation matters just as much.
Without dedication to writing, and respect for yourself and your time, the frustrated urge to write devours an otherwise happy soul. If you are to write, you must do it. There can be no notion of “later” in life. Motivation is like a muscle that must be used; it grows flaccid when ignored.
Live with it.
You can’t let everything else overwhelm your need to write. Some of the best writers I know are busy all the time with these things: writing, recreating (it’s called re-creating for a reason), a social life, volunteer time with related and unrelated projects, travel to visit book groups or bookstores, and family. They fall under the proverbial flag of “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” I’m not trying to say you can be all things at all times and still be a writer. I am saying, however, that making writing a part of your everyday life tends to make it fit with everything you do. You may find yourself writing a plot in your head while you commute or cook, composing a lyric at the gym, even doing some of your best writing not for yourself, but for a client. It all becomes one in your life, if you let it.
Face your fear.
Sometimes you have to force motivation until it becomes as much a good habit as exercise. That’s how life works. Write yourself messages if you must, but remember to dedicate yourself to what you value. If you can’t take this step, then perhaps you’re avoiding something—like a failed resolve, or a writing project that isn’t really going in the right direction. Not doing something is as strong a message as any other about who and what you are. Realize that you are hesitating for a reason, work it out, and then get on with it. Otherwise? Well, otherwise, you’ll never get there.
Don’t allow either one of those spirits to live apart from you. Inspiration and motivation belong in a writer’s life every day. It’s just that sometimes you have to pin them down!
Ann Connery Frantz