How does inspiration happen? Where does it come from? Do we wait for it or simply get to work? And how does one go about capturing such a thing? Most importantly, how does a writer actually write?
Recently, I was chatting with a coaching client who’s working on a book, and she somewhat sheepishly confessed that she was behind on her word count goal. I asked where she was at, currently, and she told me she was at 17,000 words when she should really be closer to 25,000 at this point.
No problem, I said. This is how it goes. You’ll catch up soon enough, I explained. One day it’s 500 words and another day it’ll be 2500. This is how it works. Inspiration tends to happen in fits and starts. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, sometimes. At least, it is for myself and almost every creative professional I know.
One day, you turn on the faucet and all that comes out is a small drip. The next day, it’s like a fire hydrant exploded in your kitchen. Your job is not to predict when the explosions happen. It’s to simply go to the sink every day and turn the handle.
Keep doing the blue-collar work
Writing is manual labor. It’s good old-fashioned blue-collar work. You sit down and write until you’re done. You show up in your coveralls, punch the clock, and stand at the assembly line, doing your work until the whistle blows.
Some days, you write a few hundred words. Other days, you write thousands. It doesn’t matter. Don’t try to figure out the mystery of the process. Don’t try to squeeze all the productivity you can get out of a single writing moment. It won’t work. Those efforts tend to do more harm than good. Trust the process.
That said, I cannot in good faith tell you that writing is just hard work, because it seems to be something more. Don’t get me wrong. The hard work is necessary. It’s the setting of the table, the essential foundation before you can build anything significant.
Something spiritual tends to happen on occasion when you give yourself to the work. Call it flow or inspiration or being kissed by the angels of insight, but most writers I know experience it at some point or another. And almost everyone agrees that it’s wonderful when it happens but a terrible thing to try to hold on to.
We don’t control inspiration. We don’t even know where it comes from or how it works. That’s not the point. But it comes to those who are patient and willing to put in the hours, maybe even years, before seeing a single ray of light in what feels like a vast sea of darkness.
Professional writers rely on routines
When you do show up, what does that even look like?
I don’t know a serious professional writer who doesn’t have some kind of routine, at least when they’re on deadline—which, for a professional writer is almost always.
What, then, is a routine? It’s simple. I’ve touched on this before in an article about how to get your writing done, but I’ll expound a little on these ideas below. A writing routine is essentially three things: It’s a place, a time, and an amount. Here’s how it works.
1. Pick a place to write in every day.
This is the first job of a writer who is becoming more serious about her craft.
Where will you do your work? At a desk? In an office? In bed? At the kitchen table? Find a place that will be your consistent writing home. It’s important that this be a location that you can make all your own, at least during the time that you’re writing there.
Try to make it a place free from as many distractions and outside noises as possible. So if you’re doing it at home with family around, pick a place that isn’t heavily trafficked. Ideally, there is some solitude or anonymity, not a place where you will likely get interrupted or distracted.
Do whatever you can to protect the sanctity of this place. It’s important.
2. Pick a time to write every day.
Once you’ve picked your place, then pick a time. Schedule it in the calendar, even.
When people ask you if you’re available for coffee or lunch or whatever during that time, your default response must be, “Sorry, I’m busy.” Protect this time. Initially, shoot for a relatively short amount of time. Maybe 10 to 30 minutes.
Block it off and do it every day, or as often as possible.
3. Pick a number of words to write every day.
This will help you make a dent in whatever project you’re working on or simply create momentum if you don’t have a project (like a book) right now.
I usually shoot for about 500 words per day, because it’s a short enough of an increment that it’s easy to do in 15-20 minutes and long enough that if I do it every day, it adds up quickly.
Every book I’ve written, I always planned on writing about 500 words per day on it, and I always finished them on deadline.