Why You Should Wait for Inspiration

Too little discipline is not a good thing, but neither is too much. I very often hear writers talk about their impressive daily quotas and how they try to write every day so as to not fall into inertia. They will tell you how you should never wait for inspiration to come, but instead seek it out. I can understand why, but I would still like to argue the opposite.

What makes you the expert?

First off: Who the hell am I to speak about this with any kind of authority? Well, I’m a published writer of almost 30 books, and I’ve been writing since 2007, so I’d say I have a fair bit of experience. I’ve tried many different approaches and writing styles, and yet I’m still not certain I have the perfect recipe, but I’m getting there. Here is what I’ve learned.

It seems like there are two kinds of writers. Those who never get a book done, and those who do so regularly. It seems like the former are envious of the latter, and the latter are scared of becoming like the former. Almost like the poor and the rich. And what is the difference? Well, if you ask anyone in the latter category, they will probably tell you something about discipline. „It’s all about sticking with it, doing the hard work every single day!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone from the former category would answer the same if you asked them why they never finished their work in progress: „Well, I guess I just don’t have the discipline.”

And it’s true. At least a large chunk of it. I think you do need discipline. Especially in the beginning, when it’s usually harder to write, because you struggle with self-doubt and anxiety caused by thoughts like „Is this even good enough?” and „Will anyone ever read this?” and „Why do I even bother?” You need to be able to push through those destructive mind patterns and just write something. That’s the only way you learn.

And you still need discipline once you start getting books done and published, because you need to keep going. I think it gets easier for most people, once they cross that biggest of thresholds of getting the first book out there. The self-doubt decreases a little, because you know you did it once and can probably do it again. So, you probably won’t have to push yourself as much as you did before you got published. That was my experience, anyway.

Too much of a good thing

For some reason, I kept pushing myself once I started getting books out. I think I even pushed myself harder than before, demanding even more of myself. I had a quota of 1,000 words a day, and I didn’t relent once I started getting books out, in fact, I even tried pushing it to 2,000. And it worked just fine for a couple of years, or maybe even three or four. I kept pushing and kept pumping out books. From 2009 (when I published my first novel) to 2012, I published 12 books, that’s three a year. I’d say that’s a pretty decent rate for the first four years of an authorship.

Then I started feeling frustrated. Actually, I’d been feeling that way for a long time, I just ignored it. I grew impatient, annoyed and angry. I became obsessed with that number, the 1,000 or 2,000 words or whatever I was aiming for. That was all that mattered to me. On days when I got it done, I was momentarily satisfied. On the other days (which steadily grew in numbers) I felt displeased with myself, to put it mildly. Why the hell couldn’t I muster the discipline anymore? Why did it feel like a chore to meet the daily quota when it used to be fun?

It got to the point where I broke down from stress. It wasn’t only the writing causing my breakdown, a lot of other things in my personal life helped it along, but even those were caused by the same dysfunction in my way of dealing with life and work: I was constantly pushing myself, never satisfied, never enjoying anything, just pushing, pushing, pushing.

To write or not to write

At my lowest point I even questioned if I still wanted to write. And the answer I found was: not if the writing was causing the stress and suffering in my life. This was a big deal for me, admitting this to myself. What I came to realize was that I wanted something even more than I wanted to write. What I wanted most of all was to be happy, be at peace. And I had thought that writing was the way to achieve this. The more I wrote, the happier I would be. Which was clearly not the case.

So, I cut it loose. I stopped writing, and I promised myself not to write a single word before I truly felt like it. Before the inspiration would come naturally, as it once did. And if that never happened, if I had somehow broken my connection to the divine tank of inspiration of the universe, so be it. I would find something else to do with the rest of my life. All of this happened while I was in my mid-twenties, by the way. I guess a midlife crisis can come early.

It happened to coincide with me stumbling across a quote by Ray Bradbury. I haven’t been able to find it since, but it stuck in my brain. It was something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing): „I write almost every day of my life, not because I have to, but because I can’t keep away from the keyboard.”

(It’s kind of ironic that a quote by Bradbury would become so important to me, as he talked a lot about discipline and writing every day. But I think he truly was driven by inspiration, not pressure. It’s just that most people don’t know what that feels like, so they simply take the discipline part of his advice.)

Returning from the dead

That quote put into words exactly what I was after. A passion so true I couldn’t help but do it, without having to force myself. And so I waited. And I didn’t feel like writing, so I didn’t. Days passed. Then weeks. I think even a few months. And then, slowly, from deep inside, the inspiration started bubbling to the surface. But I resisted, I didn’t want any false start, didn’t want to jump right back into the old habits and the stress. That only made the inspiration grow. Something obviously wanted to come out. Something true. And finally, I sat down to write once again. It felt amazing! It was simple, pure creation, without any pressure.

I wrote a little the next day, too, and the day after that. But I only wrote for as long as it felt good, as long as the words kept coming on their own accord. It was kind of like learning to walk again after a major injury, I guess. I had to learn to listen to my system again, to not push anything, to feel the signals, and to stop when I was told to. It really did wonders. I truly enjoyed writing again, more than I’d ever done. And I knew I could never go back. Once I’d felt just how good, how effortless and how true it could feel, I would never again be able to suffocate it by demanding more than what came naturally.

Because that was the essence of my mistake: I wanted more than I could get. I wasn’t satisfied with what I got. I wasn’t thankful. I wasn’t humble. I know it may sound kind of religious, but that’s how I see it. Inspiration is something a whole lot bigger than the person. And creative people have access to it. They can learn to channel it. And you need a little discipline at first, to get the flow going, but after that, you’d be better off learning to step aside, to let the creation run through you, rather than thinking you are the one doing the creating. That’s why so many great artists of all trades give thanks to whatever god they believe in.

(As a side note, I also believe people who don’t create art have access to this realm of inspiration, it just comes out in different ways. Creating businesses, communing with others, caring for society and the world, building or designing things, be it clothes, buildings or cars—all of those things flow from the realm of inspiration, and the more you learn to open the channel, the better it flows, and the better you feel.)

What now?

So, how do I write nowadays? Because as you probably guessed, I still write books. And in fact, I’m more productive than I was when I pushed myself. From 2016 to 2018, I published 10 books. That’s three point three books a year. I’m not perfect. I still fall back into the old habits of caring too much about quantity, and then I feel the old stress, the clenching of the channel, the straining to force out the words. Whenever I notice that happening, I cut it loose, let go and give myself a break. I relax my system. Let the channel reopen, let the batteries recharge. Then, when the tank is once again flowing over, I start letting it out.

How long does that take? About a month. That’s how my flow goes: A month of writing, a month of resting. When I write, I write between 500 and 2,500 words a day. It varies, and that’s fine. When I don’t write, I don’t write at all. I focus on other things. My self-image doesn’t suffer because of that, as it once would. I wouldn’t have considered myself a true writer because I don’t write every day. And I would be constantly afraid that I would lose my ‘gift’, that my talent would fade, my tools become rusty.

All of that is nonsense to me now. I’ve never felt like a better writer, never felt more confident or happy. I know it’s not going away, that so-called ‘gift’ that so many writers take to be something personal when it’s really not. It’s true inspiration, and that inspiration always seems to find me again, gently urging me to go back to the keyboard once the tank is about to overflow. I think that was what Bradbury meant when he said he couldn’t help but write.

And if it someday doesn’t come back? That’s fine too. I’ve been incredibly lucky already. I can’t ask for more without acting spoiled. Every day writing from true inspiration is a gift—and I use that word in the true sense.


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© 2020 Nick Clausen