Should writing be compelled or inspired? Is an author best served by pushing diligently through a task, or by waiting for a jolt of creativity to spark a writing spree? Let's examine both compulsion and inspiration.
“An idea arrives without effort; a form can only be wrought out by patient labor.” Henry van Dyke, Preface to The Story of the Other Wise Man
In this method, a writer sets himself achievable goals and determines to complete them, no matter how he feels about the matter. For example, a writer may resolve to write 500 words a day of his current WIP (work-in-progress). He may approach the project on Monday with great excitement, and he may even find himself exceeding his goal in his enjoyment. On Tuesday, after experiencing a bad night of sleep or an unexpected setback, he may approach the project with dread. He has no inspiration, the sight of his computer or legal pad makes him feel sick, and he doesn’t care if his project ends up at the bottom of the sea. What right does it have to demand his time and drain his energy? Still, he is compelled; it is his job. He sits down, cranks out 500 words that he despises, and departs with the grim satisfaction that at least he did his duty.
The disadvantage: This method can result in some very bad writing and is also very draining for the writer.
The advantage: Whatever is not written is of no use, but whatever is written can be edited, so at least the writer has a base from which to begin his revision process.
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” ~William Wordsworth
In this method, the writer writes only when his mind fills with the gentle propulsion of inspiration. On a good day, he brims with ideas and every sentence is imbued with enthusiasm. He may write 8000 words in a day (provided he has enough time for it, of course). On a bad day, when the words flow like molasses and every sentence seems apathetic and insipid, he takes a break. There is no sense in writing, he feels, if he will simply waste time on something in which he takes no pride and which will only fill him with a sense of distaste when he next approaches the project.
The advantage: The writer feels satisfied with the work that he has done so far, and his relationship with writing (and his current project) remain amiable.
The disadvantage: Inspiration is fickle and unruly and can result in getting no or little work done. The writer must wait for external conditions to do for him what his own diligence might accomplish.
In my opinion, good writing is a fusion of compulsion and inspiration. Of course, all things begin with inspiration, that conception of “a substantial idea…a large, collossal idea” (Puffin from The Swan Princess). But ideas take work to materialize, and that is where the compulsion comes in. Once the “sugar-high” of the inspiration subsides, it’s time to settle into the marathon pace and just keep the momentum going. This is how I practice fusion:
1. An idea must arrive solely through inspiration. It is not as if I can dredge up an idea through my own effort. If I don’t have anything to say, why make up something to say?
2. Once it is clear that an idea is ready to be written, achievable goals must be put in place. For example, I might write 500 words a week of each of my current fiction works-in-progress and 2 blog posts a week. Whether I enjoy it or not, I meet my goal.
3. Any writer can tell you that 500 words a week is like doing 10 jumping jacks a day; it’s peanuts. However, a small number has advantages. In a good week, I may exceed my goal by four-fold and therefore feel very satisfied with myself. In a bad week, no harm is done, as I can still make my goal.
4. I keep several projects going at once. If this is a bad week to pound out 500 words on a certain project, then I should write those 500 words of whichever other WIP most inspires me at the moment. Next week, I shall have to return to my dreaded project, but at least I will have accomplished something in the meantime.
5. Interestingly, I looked back on one story which had been completed mainly through compulsion. Because I had not enjoyed writing it, I expected it to be horrific. I was surprised to discover that it was clever, humorous, and altogether enjoyable. Whenever my writing drags, I remember this experience and remind myself to wait six months before reviewing the manuscript with a fresh mind. I might like it better by then.
Perhaps it is not a matter of choosing either method. Compulsion and inspiration don’t have to be enemies; they can be teammates, each lending its strength to the author.
Which method do you favor more? What works best for you?