Inspiration vs Perspiration

“Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” goes the old saying by Thomas Edison. We, as authors, would probably prefer to think of our ideas as being delivered from on high by the Muses, as we lay back on a chaise longue like Oscar Wilde spouting witty monologues. Doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.  The idea of the tortured but inspired artist goes back to the Romantics like Byron and Shelley and – while it’s a nice image – it’s far from the truth.

What the author would like to believe he looks like …

…what the author actually looks like.

The ideas themselves, of course, usually come through a flash of inspiration. It’s what we do with the ideas, though, that matters, and that’s where the perspiration comes in. I remember reading a writer talking about how people would often come to him with an idea for a novel, saying that he should write it and they’d both be rich. Ideas are ten a penny, he would tell them; it’s what you do with the idea that’s important. So, after the initial inspiration comes the hard part: making something out of it. And it is at this point that many writers scoff at the idea of inspiration. Here’s Anthony Burgess:

“I leave the myth of inspiration and agonized creative inaction to the amateurs. The practice of a profession entails discipline, which for me meant the production of two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included.”

And I understand what he means – oftentimes “waiting for inspiration”, is writer-speak for “checking out”. I also agree with Burgess’ workman-like attitude. And this is where the perspiration – the actual work, the putting one word in front of the other – comes in. Many writers say similar things:

“You should go to your room every day at nine o’ clock … and say to yourself, ‘I am going to sit here for four hours and write!’ … if you sit waiting for inspiration, you will sit there till you are an old man.” – Winston Churchill

“And, sorry, all those romantic notions you have of absinthe spoons, manic episodes and Kerouac-like rambling on a long roll of butcher paper really aren’t operative. Creative work is mostly showing up every day and enduring a million tiny failures as you feel your way to something a bit new.” – Chuck Close

“To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.” – Anthony Trollope

In one way, it’s as if all these writers are trying their best to deflate any notions of grand inspirations, and expose writing as a job, and a hard one at that. So, we’re back to the 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.

So, what do the other writers out there think about it? Do you sit down to work whether or not you have the ideas, or do you feel you have to wait until the muse strikes before you can do anything worthwhile?


33 thoughts on “Inspiration vs Perspiration

  1. For me its not a question of whether my Muse is awake or not, sometimes it just boils down to pure laziness!!!
    I don’t usually have a problem with ideas-if I put my mind to it, I always find something to write so I guess for me discipline is an issue. I Am working on it though, just let me finish drinking my absinthe and brood about my tortured life first… 🙂

    1. I think, just from looking at some of the other comments here, discipline is an issue for everyone. And it just gets harder and harder, I think. There are so many distractions these days. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook (he says while writing a blog :-)). You could spin around the internet all day and never write a word. But I think these things are important too, not just for networking but just for being able to talk to other writers and keeping us sane.

  2. Writing is work. Plain and simple. Even coming up with an idea is a job to do. You can’t sit and wait. If you haven’t got an idea, you need to go find one. I’m always thinking about my current WIP and what I might want to do for my next book, and the one after that. I don’t let myself run out of ideas.

    1. I agree, Paul. I think a good idea is – if you’re stuck on one project and don’t know how to continue it – move on to something else. Have a few things on the go at the one time. There’s bound to be something that you can get stuck into.

    1. Yeah, that seems to be the consensus, Michael. I think, to be honest, real writers get stuck in. The pretentious – or as Burgess calls them, “the amateurs” – are the ones waiting around for the muse to strike.

  3. Great post, Derek, but in the picture of Calvin stressing over his paper it doesn’t show how messy his house is or kids running around like maniacs!!? Speaking of house cleaning–anyone want to come help out with mine? 😉

    As you know, or should from my daily twitter posts, I sit down to write every single day unless I’m on vacation. I may not always pump out a bunch of beautiful words, and I may not have a clue what I’m going to write about, but I try. My inspiration comes while I’m driving along my fifty mile commute–unfortunately the story usually takes a turn for the dark as my road rage increases and in my head lots of people die, but that’s besides the point.

    I proudly carry my book around with me everywhere I go and any chance I get, whether it be lunch or a break or a moment where I lose my work ethic, I write whether the ideas are there or not. I’ve learned through experience, you won’t write anything if you don’t write anything. Know what I mean?

    1. Krystal, I think the notion of carrying a notebook around is hugely important. And in these days of modern technology, you don’t even need a notebook. Your mobile phone or iPhone will do the job just as well.

      The fact of having to sit down every day and just write, reminds me of Alec Baldwin’s character in “Glengarry Glen Ross”. He tells the salesmen, “ABC. Always Be Closing.” I think for us writers it’s, “ABW. Always Be Writing.” 🙂

      So, do you actually write the stuff in your head on the commute, or just brainstorm ideas?

      1. Some days the things I dream in my head during the commute are brilliant. I get to work early every day, so I open my book and write what happened. The thing is I don’t think in dialogue. I only see action, so often times I find what happened in my head changes a bit once dialogue begins to flow.

        Other days the things I dream in my head aren’t so brilliant once I put them to paper–or computer.

        If I think of something that I love so much I’m afraid I’ll lose it before I get to work, I wait till I drop off my slugs and use my voice recorder on my iphone.

        So to answer your question umm..yes? LOL.

  4. I’m similar to Nisha. I don’t have a problem on the ideas front but I have plenty of excuses as to why I don’t sit down and turn them into something…like not having enough time when the truth is that I should be more disciplined with my time and dedicate at least 10 minutes of my day to writing. I do carry a notebook and pen with me wherever I go and it’s full of ideas and I’ve been walking round with one particular idea for over a year, just simmering away.

    There’s plenty of things to inspire writing in everyday life. I’ve been inspired by a small article I’ve read in a newspaper and an advert I’ve seen on the tube.

    I think I just need to give myself a kick up the backside rather than my muse 🙂

    1. I spend a lot of my “free time” on the craft of writing, whether it is the actual writing of the story itself, or the crafting of its basic shape (outlines, notes, scene arrangement). The most important thing for me is to check my ego at the door and remember that the important thing is to get the words on paper, as it were, so I can get the raw idea out there. It doesn’t have to be perfect. A lot of writing is like mining, getting the ore of the story out of your head, then refining it down to the gold or diamond by editing out the crap I don’t need.

      Another big part of writing is READING. I read constantly. It’s another place where you have to leave yoru ego at the door. Too many writers tell me “I don’t want to pollute my voice with someone else’s style. I want my voice to be unique, so I don’t read other people’s work.” Get real. You need to expand your experience by reading other writers’ work. No great writer sprang fully formed into being without learning from those who came before.

      Inspiration, for me, comes from actualy writing, gettting into the scene, and letting my characters do their thing. I can’t just lay back and “wait” for inspiration. It makes me mindful of the Most Interesting Man In the World line. “I don’t always wait for inspiration, but when I do, I’m taking a nap.”

      1. I love the way you phrased that “A lot of writing is like mining, getting the ore of the story out of your head, then refining it down to the gold or diamond by editing out the crap I don’t need” I could not have said that better myself.

        I attempt to write clean versions of my story the first time, but when I go back for editing, that’s when I usually add subplots and such. The first draft of my last book was just shy of 70k words, after editing and subplot additions it now rests at 95k.

      2. Yeah, I often think of the first draft as a block of marble. You’ve got to hack away at it to get some kind of shape out of it. Then, in the edit, you refine it and gently chisel away at it until you’ve completed your ‘David’. 🙂

  5. I think the typical journey of a writer begins with either a story to tell or because it’s always been one’s dream to write. Whatever the motivation may have been, I’d bet none of us were ever prepared for the work it actually took. Let’s face it. It’s not easy. But the hardest part is how to tell the story. You know….the craft of writing? I highly doubt that it comes natural to anyone, so I agree on that 90% perspiration with you and Mr. Edison. Nice bloggy.

  6. The muse is a lot of nonsense. The “muse” or “magic” is what happens during deep revision. Writing it = 10%…working the subtleties, word choice, clever sentences, etc. = 90%.

    1. I do think some of the “magic” – if that’s what you want to call it – comes out in the initial writing also. True, a lot of the first draft tends to be rough, but you can often find a few “diamonds” – as Ben called them – in there as well.

  7. I use an app called Evernote. I t has a desktop, web, and mobile version that all stay in sync. When ever an idea for a blog post comes up I whip out my phone and jot down a few notes. Later, I can come back to it on my PC and use either the web or desktop app to flesh out the idea in to a full-fledged article. But, I must admit, there are times when I just don’t feel like writing. I start at all the scraplets of pre-documents and just feel overwhelmed.

  8. I think you’re right on the money. Writing is hard, hard work. The learning curve is never ending. Though I love what I do, I am toiling. If that were not the case, I’d be at the beach watching the hardbodied boys (who are now young enough to be my sons–or maybe I’ve gotten old enough to be their mother).

    Thanks for a good–and true–post. 😀

  9. Hmmm. All very well but time is the biggest barrier, particularly for women, who for the most part write late at night / early in the morning or not at all due to conflicting domestic commitments. But then again, perhaps women writers are less able to keep their priorities “write” by not keeping the focus on writing first? I know I’m hands up guilty of that sometimes. Men, for example, have no difficulty in ignoring the dishes while women tend to feel guilty and do them before writing. This link might explain better what I’m trying to say here:

    1. I take your point, Caren, but I wonder, is time – and the lack thereof – really gender-specific? Certainly, it was the case in the past, but doesn’t Virginia Woolf’s advice to women to find “a room of one’s own” apply equally to men nowadays? Especially in the current climate when men may be the stay-at-home partner minding the kids, while the woman is out earning. What do others think? (I do love Brenda Ueland advice to “shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say: ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in black verse!'”) 🙂

      1. Certainly men play a far more active role in caring for children etc. Two friends of mine care full time for their children while their wives work outside the home. If they wanted to write, they have five clear hours a day in which to do so. But it’s not really about that. In my experience, women find it much harder to disengage and be selfish with their time, particularly when starting out writing.

      2. Woolf never had to juggle the demands of children with the demands of writing. If she did, she would have realised what a glib statement it was to say “shut the door”. Of course, one can do that. One can even go further and physically lock the door. But Mothers find it harder to resist their children banging on the door than Fathers. Indeed, one of the reported reasons Woolf never had children was because husband Leonard believed Virginia did not possess the mental or physical strength.

  10. My best writing comes when I’m not forcing the words out, so I tend to wait until I’m absolutely clear on my idea and its message before I start work on anything. That is, unless I’m just free writing or blogging or what have you.

    Of course, if I’m working on a deadline, I don’t have the luxury of waiting. In that case, just throwing words down on paper, even if they’re a jumbled mess, helps me get started.

    It’s never easy, though.

      1. Not at all. I suppose I shouldn’t have said “absolutely clear,” as that makes it seem like I never, ever write unless I’m 100% on an idea, which isn’t the case.

        I simply prefer to have an idea as clear in my mind as possible before I sit down to write. It makes me feel more confident in what I’m writing, and the words flow more naturally (and therefore my writing, itself, is better). Doesn’t mean it always works out that way, but that’s an ideal situation.

  11. Great blog Derek. I especially like the “what an author hope he looks like” vs “what an author actually looks like”. Writing is hard work, even putting aside research, editing and promoting. Just sitting down in front of a computer screen (or notebook) and actually putting words to paper is difficult without the right inspiration or idea.

    For me, inspiration comes in spurts. I have plently of basic ideas and a good deal of them sit there until one day it suddenly strikes me (the hammer that is) and I figure out where I’m going with that basic idea. For instance, I thought of an idea for a crime fiction novel about 8 months ago, but had no characters (or plot) until about three weeks ago. Now I’ve got four fully fleshed out main characters and about 18 chapters plotted out.

    Writing for me comes in spurts. Once I get on something, I go with it until I finish it or get burned out. Sometimes I just go with the general idea and see what comes out. Other times I plan till I’m sick of the thing (not literally of course) then write it. It depends on time really.

  12. After today, deffo perspiration – sun shining sitting in dark room, words refusing to arrive and when they did, not very good – but kept going even though, yes I know, someone once said it should be fun, which made me want to declare them a lunatic for saying it! Is that a good old rant for you Derek? Just let me know when the 10% inspiration is going to arrive! LOL

  13. Show up. Stay longer than it is comfortable to do so. Sweat, bleed, cry.
    Do whatever it takes. Commit fully, no half-measures.

    That way, if “inspiration” visits your atmosphere, you can tell it to take a seat and wait in line, but you know you will get to it.


  14. Ideas – I have hundreds of them. Fear stops me committing them to paper. I’m scared I’m not up to the job so put it off til I feel more confident and…confidence is more fleeting than the Muse. I’m my own worst enemy. Good post, Derek.

  15. If I have a writing job from a client who is certain to pay, it’s 99% perspiration. If it’s writing something that matters to me but might pay off eventually, it’s 50/50.

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