Rules for Writers – rule number two: don’t Wait for Inspiration
The second chapter of my rules for writers: inspiration.
Deconstructing a myth
I’m not sure how this particular myth developed: that writers sit around, waiting for inspiration.
There seems to be a general belief that we wait for the Muse to come to us, wave her magic wand, and off we go: another story, another poem or play, another novel will soon be born, fully formed.
All we have to do is wait for the gift of the idea. The writing will then take care of itself, fuelled by some sort of invisible, delightful, magical process.
I don’t think so.
At best, there are a couple of moments of illumination, and when they come, they are wonderful. A germ of something that has been lying dormant, perhaps, sometimes for years, will suddenly begin to sprout, reaching towards the light.
Sometimes, this moment comes in the form of an image: something arresting, startling, something that evokes an emotional – or an intellectual – response.
We find that the image won’t leave us alone. It begins to niggle at us, forcing us to pay attention to it. Or the moment might come in the form of an overheard conversation that jolts a memory; it might be a dream, or a nightmare. It might even be a voice inside the writer’s head.
All of these moments, no matter what form they take, are the novelist’s base metal.
The alchemy of the imagination is what transforms these moments into the stuff of a novel – if we are lucky. And the word ‘transformation’ is key here: fiction takes any such moments that the writer might be lucky enough to experience and transforms them through the act of writing into something that is completely other.
Just because we may have had an experience in the ‘real world’ that was profound or unsettling or fascinating does not mean that it will make a resonant story in itself. The moment of experience must be transformed by artistry into something that is authentic and that touches the reader’s own imagination.
Sometimes, those moments won’t lead the writer anywhere significant at all. They fizzle out after several thousand words and join their companions at the bottom of the metaphorical drawer. But even if ideas or characters don’t take wing initially, writing such as this should never be discarded. Nothing we write is ever ‘useless’ or ‘wasted’ – we need to hold onto it because somehow, some day, those moments will come into their own, often when the writer is least ready and most surprised to meet them.
The moments of inspiration, incidentally, are often waiting for the writer, rather than the other way around. We need to develop antennae that are super-sensitive to the stories that live in the ether around us. Many writers don’t stray beyond the confines of their own family for the initial moment that sparks a story.
Think of all those cupboards down through the generations of one single family: all the skeletons firmly in place until a writer rattles the handle and they tumble out of their hiding places, falling at the writer’s grateful feet.
All writing is a combination of graft and craft – and these twins are way more important than any single moments of illumination or inspiration.
Because once a writer writes, he or she sends out that gilt-edged invitation to Inspiration.
The magic of inspiration comes through the act of writing itself.
Writing is an organic process: ideas feed off each other and grow. Sometimes, while in the process of creating one character, another one slips into the frame.
This uninvited guest can occasionally be annoying – like the tolerated guest at a party who manages to get into all the best photographs. But more often than not, this guest’s quiet insistence brings something to the party: another point of view, another direction for the story.
They grow and develop into another, unexpected character: one who becomes, eventually, indispensable.
But in order for this to happen, the writer has to write the characters, nourish them, develop them – and frequently delete them before starting the whole process all over again.
There is no such thing as a short cut. All writing is rewriting.
Let me know how you get on – your feedback is welcome.
- Catherine Dunne’s Rules for Writers
- Be a reader
- Don’t wait for inspiration
- The contract
- Feed your imagination
- Finding the plot
- Show, don’t tell
- Keep a notebook
- All writing is rewriting
- Watch, Listen, Observe
- Passion. Persistence. Patience. Professionalism
Photograph: Noel Hillis