The Labor and Magic of Inspiration

There’s this mysterious thing about writing, and I presume other creative endeavors, that others can tell you but you won’t believe until you feel it. I’m starting to feel it and I will try to describe it myself, because it’s one of the more magical experiences of my life.

I decided I wanted to write a story. I had some vague (very vague!) ideas about the sort of story I might want to write. Mostly, I had in mind a character and a some general thoughts about what might be interesting experiences for her. What I knew is that I wanted to tell a story. Somewhere along the line I decided that was going to take work and I was willing to do the work. I started researching the mechanics of writing a novel. I figured out what the basic building blocks were and I could see the frame around which the final product would be built.

This unlocked something that allowed me to start making serious progress coming up with the story. I started thinking about the character, and her backstory, and the mission she might be on. I thought about an antagonist and conflict. I started to have ideas about all of these things. I would think, “that’s it!” as I came up with something for a character or a moment or a scene.

Then later I would realize “that,” whatever it was, wasn’t actually “it.” And I’d be back to the drawing board on a particular piece. I’ve been through this a few times now. Sometimes the things that aren’t “it” are small things, and sometimes they are big things. So far, I’ve just accepted that realization when I have it and keep chugging.

The remarkable insight I’ve arrived at in the last few days is that this doesn’t feel so much like creation as it does discovery. THAT is the thing I’ve heard artists say in the past that I honestly thought was total bullshit. Like, either you hear the voice from God or the muses or whatever, or you don’t. Great. How inspiring. The only thing I heard was my own incessant self doubt.

I was totally uninspired by this idea, that inspiration was a thing that happened passively, by sheer luck or happenstance. Why even bother trying to create if inspiration hasn’t struck?

What I’ve learned recently is that inspiration is not passive. If you wait for it, you’ll wait forever. You have to sign up for the adventure. You have to take up the challenge, and open space in your life and set aside time to find the story. I’m looking for it. It’s a mystery I need to solve. I’ll see a tiny piece of it and then I’ll develop a theory about what might explain what I’m seeing and I’ll investigate that theory. Sometimes I’ll be real confident about it and then it will turn out that I’m wrong. That’s okay. I come up with a new theory and explore that. Along the way I’ll see other little pieces that set me off investigating something else. Basically, I’m a scientist.

I’m learning that the first step in the process of being “inspired” is to start working. You research and learn and you’re willing to put forth the effort to receive inspiration. You start by deciding to create and then you get to experience the magic of discovery.

If you have ever wanted to create something but don’t know where to start, I would HIGHLY recommend starting a “deep work” practice. You’ll be amazed at the way it changes your life. I read the book, Deep Work by Cal Newport. That’s as good a starting point as any.

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