The Ruinous Myth of Inspiration

Got your attention with that title? Excellent, because I’m serious.

Inspiration is a myth.

Not the exhilarating surge an artist feels on seeing a bird burst through a bank of mist in the early morning, ribbons of water-vapor giving it a heartbeat’s sun-speckled veil, nor the solemn determination of a writer staring out at the fields of Prokhorovka, seeing the T-34s driving into the teeth and claws of the Panzerwaffe, hearing shells’ hard clangs and cracks as they glance off or gouge through, and swearing this story will come next, nor that of the musician listening to wind’s soft sighs through autumn trees and writing a spring-song in sudden defiance. This inspiration is real, sort of; we’ll come back to it later.

It’s just not the kind we hear about. The kind we hear about is how, supposedly, Isaac Newton developed the Theory of Gravity the moment an apple fell from a tree and hit him, with not a word given to the hundreds of hours he doubtless spent observing, documenting, meditating, writing and rewriting both before and after that fateful moment–if it ever even happened. I use Newton’s example because this ridiculous idea isn’t new. We’ve been saddled with the stupid goddamned thing since the dawn of creativity itself. I guaran-goddamn-tee you that one of our early hominid ancestors, when the spear was first invented 1.7 million or more years ago, looked at Gluk Who-Makes-Spears and said, “Ah! Genius idea! Must have inspire! Why me never think of that?”

Because, Ugnak, you literal dumb ape, Gluk was the one who spent hours hefting various branches, getting a feel for the hardness and grain of different woods, seeing which trees splintered on impact and which held firm, and decided to take his flint handax and file down the sturdiest branches he’d found. He was the one who eventually discovered, while investigating his new creation’s properties, that it could be hardened by fire provided it wasn’t allowed to burn too long. You just sat around thinking about sex all the time and idly wishing you could think of cool things. You ass.

Obviously this isn’t the real story either–the real story took vastly longer across millions more years of evolution, tool-making, and steady brainpower upticks until we reached Peak Human. Except, we haven’t: science says our brains are still evolving. The fact that they’re evolving at a rate we can measure in the limited time since we’ve become able to analyze evolution and brain growth is absolutely insane. I promise you it’s not because of “inspiration”–not the inspiration that comes from a bunch of people sitting on their thumbs doing sweet FA, anyhow.

Let’s come back to one of my opening examples. When the artist talks about that bird piercing the fog earlier as she sketches it out, she crystallizes it so naturally that her friends believe she’s just “a natural talent”. After all, it seems fluid and natural, so that’s how it must be! Right?

Ffft.

The truth is that it takes a level of skill and visual brain development a layperson can scarcely understand just for her to freeze that mist-busting bird in her mind. She’s not a camera–she only gets the one instant to process it. But because they haven’t put in the effort to make this possible for themselves, her friends assume it must not be possible for them at all. Now, I’ve talked about this before. Natural talent exists. It has to, or there’s no way that a jackass like myself, who actively refused to learn the rules of English grammar until this year–I needed them for tutoring work–could have internalized their exact functions by osmosis without know the actual rules and out-written countless people who genuinely studied.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m the bad guy. But I digress.

This advantage of mine didn’t start out fully-fledged. It didn’t begin with yours truly able to analyze a sentence for slant-rhymes to refine its sound, or provide a small thesis on the ways that a certain protagonist’s dialogue is a call-back to the magnificent heaviness of Gothic literature. It took me twenty-six years to reach the point I can do these things at a pin’s drop–note my use of possessive tense to maintain grammatical correctness while removing “of” and “the” from “at the drop of a pin,” itself of course modified from “at the drop of a hat” just because I felt like it. I needed no time to plan this paragraph, nor consult a book for all that text-dissecting (hey look! Another slant-rhyme).

That doesn’t mean I “got inspired”. It means I’ve practiced writing so many times that my very-conscious decisions take place faster than a blink, fast enough that the uninitiated think this must be inspiration or natural talent or “the subconscious” (another dangerous idea for a later date.) I was inspired when I started writing this a few days ago. I had to leave it for a tutoring shift that day. It’ll be 11 AM EST (ideally) when I post this. Right now it’s 9 AM. My sleep cycle’s still off from DMing a campaign session this past Sunday and staying up ’til 5AM after. I haven’t fully rehydrated yet, which means I also haven’t had coffee. I’m not inspired, just tired.

Full rhymes are hazardous because they feel tacky in many contexts, but you can get away with one if it just crops up on its own.

Neither I nor any other creator has ever been inspired all the way through a piece. In fact, my moment of inspiration for The Necromancer and the Revenant came way back in the murky depths of 2016. Having written up an incredibly bland male necromancer as a possible contribution to my cousin Eric’s universe, I was mulling the scene over one day. I don’t remember whether I was debating how well the name worked, but I guarantee you it was something like that–not that I just mentioned the name in idle conversation and then said, as I realized in my quiet contemplations: “Grada could be either a male or female name. I should try rewriting this necromancer as a woman.”

That was it. That one simple change ultimately spiralled into the creation of the entire North Tonnish culture, with its blend of Chinese and Celtic overtones (bogs? Animist overtones? A perception among the outside world that these people are lunatic barbarians? All checkmarks), its overbearing matriarchs and own internal mythos. This was the moment of inspiration, sure. As I said, it happened two years ago. I didn’t finish The Necromancer and the Revenant until my total breakdown while working retail. Up until then, I worked when I was inspired. I’d occasionally have this or that idea about the book and decide to write about it.

In August 2017, I stopped waiting for inspiration to help me. I rammed a spear through the lazy fuck’s chest, cut his throat and bled him dry.

Obviously, with that kind of wrathful energy, I finished the first draft in a couple of months. It clocked in at around 103,000 words, but has since been lost–I didn’t think to rename the Word document before I started on V2. I could’ve done it in one month (I was writing a minimum 5,000 words a day, peaking at 10,000 some days), but I was also reconstructing my identity after a near-total mental collapse and needed off-days, so I think I did just fine. This is also why I don’t feel any guilt for “failing” NaNoWriMo. I basically just did my own, but ahead of schedule.

Even NaNoWriMo is, to me, a flagrant belch-knell from the rotund heap that is Inspiration Culture. Think about it: the implication is that writers, instead of writing consistently throughout the year whenever they have time, should seek to create everything in some sudden, mad burst. These are great when you get them, but they are not a sustainable writing model. The first thing I saw from all the writers who completed NaNoWriMo was:

“Okay, I finished my book, time to get published!” STOP. You know, I know, Uncle Sam and the disapproving ghosts of writers past all know that you didn’t revise that goddamn thing! It’s chock-full of unnecessary details, inefficient prose, and who knows how many ideas that just don’t work. You can write a book twenty times, but only submit it to an agent once. Once they refuse it, that’s it–that manuscript no longer has a chance with them. Even this comes from the myth of Inspiration: the idea that we must hurl books out there in amidst this heady rush or we’ll never get them out at all.

We return, once again, to those oh-so-pretty starter examples. You’ll see the artist gushing over the finished sketch, but not the dozens of times she swiped this or that part of the pad clean. You won’t hear her suppressing a growl or feel the flash of irritation she does when she realizes that the line of the bird’s beak is just slightly out-of-sync with its body, and it’s subtly but clearly ruining the scene’s motion. The writer will be the worst: he subsists on capturing moments anyway, so even he probably talks too much about his trip to Prokhorovka, and not the thirty-odd times he rewrote Hauptmann Becker’s introduction because holy fuck, it’s not easy writing a sympathetic Wehrmacht character who is nonetheless an accurate depiction of the bigotry and cruelty which were far more common on the Eastern Front than most of us like to acknowledge.

Run-on sentences are generally bad writing, but can be effective when consciously used to convey breathlessness, frustration, and difficulty.

The musician, at least in this instance, is likely to come closest to conveying the real process. It’s hard for her to speak about the song she wrote without explaining why she feels the sounds she chose form the best counterpoint to that autumn gust. But odds are pretty damn high that not one of them is going to tell you what you really need to hear: even the inspiration they did receive wouldn’t exist without painstaking ages’ thought, study, rethinking and polishing.

There’s only one way to grow a mind, and that’s by pushing it over time. Your brain doesn’t suddenly grow a new set of connections bestowing you with the mystic power to art good. When I say inspiration is a myth, that’s what I really mean. Oh, sure, we all have inspired moments–which we are only able to have because we’ve spent years cogitating on our skills.

I can craft an entire scene from looking at shadowy fields through a car window on a nighttime drive because I’ve practiced the process so much. I’ve extrapolated characters from actions and vice-versa so many untold thousands of times over the years that counting them is absolutely impossible. I’ve written and discarded more stories than I will ever publish, I’ve mercilessly carved my peers’ work and my own like a surgeon whose whole life knows two forces: perfectionism and abject, unreasoning hatred.

If you want to see the perils Inspiration Culture creates for young artists, just look at any given young artist. You’ll see so many of them convinced that they can’t do this or that because they’re not inspired. When they don’t feel joyful about their own work, they believe it must be because it’s bad. They’ll start and stop so many different things, always hoping that this time the excited spark will survive… and it never does. In order to start a fire, you need more than a spark. You need tinder and fuel, and so many days the winds will be high and the rains heavy, and you must shield that little light with all your body, kindling furiously until at last it catches.

Sometimes it blows out minutes later. But not always. Not every time.

We teach creators that inspiration is this incredibly delicate thing caressed into life by the most carefully-curated circumstances. Will those circumstances make it easier? Well, maybe. But the effort wasted trying to figure out exactly what those circumstances are is effort that could’ve gone into the art itself. Also, the first sentence of this paragraph could easily be read as a phallic metaphor, and I’m consciously choosing to run with it. Unreliable, troublesome and ludicrously overhyped? Yep, that sounds like a penis alright.

But even that is a calculated move on my part to bring down the tone of this highbrow dialogue and keep you all engaged with a little humor. I know that I need to do this, despite my eyes stinging, despite my muzzy-headedness, despite the fact that while focused, I’m not emotionally engaged here, because I studied writing. I didn’t study my feelings about the writing, I didn’t study my friends’ feelings about the writing, I looked at the writing in raw mechanical terms. I learned the cathedral-arch concepts every writer’s needed since they were first introduced, and applied them a little better to each new story I wrote. I considered the sounds, definitions and implications of this word and that. I examined every character, asked myself where they came from, what they’d been through, and which parts of them I wanted to transcend both their origins, and how those traits fit into the themes, the worldbuilding, and the plot itself. In most cases, I even try to keep the color balance of individual scenes in mind.

You may be thinking all this sounds horridly industrial, and if that’s the case you’re wrong. I cannot properly convey to you the snarls, the hair-pulling, the desk-beating, and the thousand sledges to the soul that I’ve experienced to achieve what skill I have in writing. Somehow Inspiration Culture has convinced us that it’s nobler, more heroic, more–Irony incoming–inspiring for someone to effectively sit around for ages complaining about having no idea how to move forward, then suddenly pull the right idea from the ether, than it is to grind away with grim determination, with solemn fury, because this matters more deeply than light and feeling and breath.

Inspiration Culture puts creators in a place where they can only evaluate their work based on how it makes them feel. You may all recall a little something called bias, and that we also all tend to have it towards our own work. You may also realize that constantly turning to one or more completely-impartial writers asking, “Hey does this work? Hey, does this work? Hey, does this–” is not a viable writing strategy, nor can an artist constantly ask multiple friends if her lines are good. Sooner or later, we have to learn the skills on our own. Inspiration Culture teaches creators that instead of putting their emotions aside and evaluating the work for its true quality, they should expect to be immediately struck dumb with its wonders.

I hated every draft of The Necromancer and the Revenant up until somewhere around version 2.36. Also, yes, I have version numbers for my novel. Now, if I was still entrenched in Inspiration Culture, if I was still convinced that the work could only turn out well if I had Athena herself descend from Olympus and bop me on the head with her spear, saying, “Cullen Edward McCurdy! You are now inspired–here is the story you will write with me as your patron!”–then I’d have trashed The Necromancer and the Revenant half a year ago.

While working on version 2.43 recently (having thought of a few more tweaks to make after months sans revisions), I experienced a sudden, startling notion: “This book is actually amazing. I can’t believe I wrote this.” It turned out that despite having had no inspiration to speak of since 2016, despite having written the entire novel and all its revisions–which add up to several novels more in effort, though not length–with almost robotic analysis, I still produced something excellent, something I genuinely enjoy reading through. It turned out that inspiration had no bearing on the book’s final quality.

It took four years of college to beat the stupid out of me on this one. If there’s one unique benefit to learning an art via college, it’s that you don’t have the option of waiting for inspiration. You have a deadline, you have a certain topic and amount of work you must turn in, or else you fail the course. Sooner or later you either learn discipline–which is vastly better than inspiration in every way–or you learn defeat.

Through all these things together, it finally comes about that a creator starts experiencing something like what we call inspiration. It still isn’t. The truth is that when I listen to a new song and envision a whole sequence of events to go with it, when a musician later reads the story I wrote and crafts an entirely different song about it, when an artist uses that song to fuel her webcomic (this has never happened, but hey–it’s not impossible either!) every single one of us is doing it with a mind and skills honed by huge amounts of painful work. Just as a powerlifter is able to lift a thousand pounds once only because he’s lifted lesser weights a hundred thousand times, creators are only able to glimpse “inspiration” because of all the deeply uninspired grind they subject themselves to.

Inspiration is a myth, and we have far more fascinating ones to make real.

(If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)

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