I’ve written before that there is no such thing as inspiration, only critical mass—when your thoughts and ideas about something collect sufficient content and momentum that they burst to the surface and, in the light of day, appear to be brand new and thus the product of inspiration. Maybe it’s just a clever trick the creative part of our brains play to motivate us to come up with ever new and better ideas.
Rather than contemplate what is behind some sudden flash of genius, we need to accept it for what it is—an invitation, a challenge even, to invest the discipline necessary to grow an idea into a fully bloomed poem, short story, book, or whatever. Indeed, there are examples certainly of ideas flashing into one’s mind virtually fully formed and needing little more than to be quickly written down before they escape back into the ether. But mostly, our flashes of genius arrive as fragments that require follow up effort to be fully fleshed out or pieced together in order for us to connect the dots and create something with substance.
That’s where many of us run into difficulty. We forget that executing an idea is always more difficult than coming up with one. We get high on our own brilliance and fail to consider the labor necessary to bring an idea to fruition. When we encounter the inevitable slowing of progress or occasional blockage on the road between dream and finished product, the task of creativity becomes too burdensome and we give up. The roads of our minds are littered with remnants of false starts and non-completions. How to overcome this? First, keep in mind that some things aren’t worth finishing, let alone even starting. So quit wasting time on pursuing them. Work to catch yourself slipping into old habits of non-productivity and literally yell in your own ear: “Stop it!” Try it. It works. Sometimes the best person to get your attention or keep you on task is you.
It’s easy to get bogged down in details and minutiae before they become the critical ingredients of an idea. That doesn’t mean you ignore them, just keep them at bay or in check until their service becomes necessary. In the meantime, capture such “wayward” ideas or thoughts in your notes before they speed away into oblivion. Ideas are little like catching butterflies. If you have your heart set on capturing a tiger swallowtail, learn to forgo the sudden urge to chase the monarch and end up with nothing. Eyes ever on your primary prize, or, put another way: don’t try to paint the barn until you have the siding on.
I’ve never been one to spend inordinate amounts of time preparing outlines. Likely my journalism training led me astray there. On the way to the typewriter a journalist drafts the lead paragraph in his or her mind and it typically contains the mini-outline of their article. Get the lead down and the rest will follow.
Stay with me here; I’m not driving off track: One of my favorite journalism professors offered this suggestion about life generally: Where do you want to ultimately end up and with whom do you want to end up there? Think about your life to date and how contemplation of that little question might have impacted where you are and might yet impact your future decisions and pathway selections. The older you are the likely more contemplative will be your response to that inquiry. You can understand why the question has stayed with me. It’s fundamental; it requires you to reflect on the roads you have taken and those that still await your selection. We all, especially writers, need to re-ask the question of ourselves. The question serves as a compass of sorts to help align or realign your efforts with your desired outcomes (goals).
This is especially important for the segments or stages of your life to which you have assigned the tasks associated with being or becoming a better writer. It’s the segments dependent on all the collected experiences of your life. Taken as a whole, your experiences, actions, inactions, and dreams are what creates what you write about and how you write about it. They are the elements of the compound that becomes you.
Writers swim in a sea of has beens, could have beens, might have beens, as well as maybes and will be’s. Writers are people who would not look at a single facet of another person or event but observe and explore each facet or character and personality and study the subtle differences in reflection and refraction between and among them as well as how they are interconnected. That is the process upon which writers rely to create the “individualness” of every character they create, and the uniqueness of each story they write, not to mention the writer they ultimately become.
However, a writer must constantly check his or her roadmaps and compass. It is easy to wander or be nudged, if not pushed, off trail. Life is full of tricks and enjoys playing them on us. The results range from being comical or cruel. Consider Ernest Hemingway. His fame ended in his 1963 suicide. That’s not the way things should have happened—for him and for his audiences. But strangely, leading up to that incredibly tragic moment when he put the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger, he maintained a disciplined commitment to his production and it was during this time he produced some of his greatest work: “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “To Have and Have Not.”
Whatever it was that drove Hemingway to succeed at writing but fail at life makes any discussion about being disciplined as key to a writer’s success perhaps come across a little bit hollow. There’s simply more to it then that. Of course, there were other factors at play in his life and there are other factors at play in each of ours. Some lead to success but few permit you to just hop on for the ride. They demand from you great commitment and continuous effort.
You have an edge, however. You can learn from Hemingway—and others. He was certainly more than dedicated—fixated might be the better word to describe the dedication to his craft. It started with a self-imposed requirement to produce 500 words each day come hell or high water. That effort alone would force you to think and contemplate, and, as a result, get incrementally better and better. Like many of the best formulas, it is quite simple. Execution is the hard part.
Keep in mind, five hundred words a day is 15,000 words a month, give or take. Based on what found their way into publication, a lot of his words were gleaned and preened and, as they say in Hollywood, left on the cutting room floor. And Hemingway wrote his way through the fog of alcohol and probably what today would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder—both conditions your better advised to avoid and should not be considered as conditions precedent to being a writer.
But his real “secret” was probably something very simple: the belief that writers write, no excuses. He sat down at a keyboard every day and wrote. Writing wasn’t a part of his existence, it was his existence. When you are that committed—or fixated—maybe writing becomes something more than a matter of discipline. Writing becomes the center of your being and everything orbits around that. Few of us can claim that level of commitment and perhaps that is why fewer still achieve the level of Hemingway’s success. But think about this: that level of commitment is the byproduct of the love for the written word. It doesn’t make the writing happen. You must reach that level where you don’t write because you want to, you write because you have to. In our modern society with all its demands and commitments pulling us in every direction, you’ll probably have to spread the investment of time to improve the quality of your writing efforts over a longer period of time. Few of us could afford getting a cottage in Key West and spending our days dashing off copy on a consistently committed basis.
And it’s not that you’re not disciplined. You become disciplined. You learn discipline. You practice it. From discipline comes your focused immersion into the world of words. Because life likely won’t permit you to completely immerse yourself in writing, you need to practice maximizing the available time and effort. Modern writers must master the skills of focused efficiencies.
Hemingway invested much of his time in cigars and sipping Scotch, too. It seems they were some of the “tools” of contemplation. The tools are not what’s important, it is the investment in the contemplation that needs to become your focus. For a writer, contemplation is necessary, but sober, and especially focused, contemplation probably work best for most of us. Most of us don’t have the luxury or the time necessary to loaf our way into creativity. We need to work at it and mine its depths to pry loose the nuggets that will enhance the quality of our efforts. We don’t have the luxury to wait for them to occur or evolve.
So you adapt.
There’s rent to pay and groceries to buy, and likely a litany of other obligations to fulfill. Having time isn’t the secret ingredient; it’s how effectively and efficiently you use the time you have. But fair warning: Writing is not just the product of commitment. Commitment is the product of discipline. And too, having or making time to invest in and develop your talents is what is absolutely critical. Sorry, but having the raw materials of talent still remains a precondition. To hone something, there first has to be something to hone. To become a writer or a better writer isn’t a dream to fulfill like a child’s plan to become an astronaut, it’s exploring talents with which you have been blessed or taking the time to discover that you have them but they have been lying dormant. Once you awakened them, you are then duty bound to explore them and bring them to life.