It’s an age old question: Where does inspiration come from? Is it some magic fairy dust that sprinkles its electric twinkle on a lucky few? Is it something that wears overalls and looks like work? Is it 99% sweat? There have been many different opinions over the centuries, from sages and scholars of many stripes and feathers, so I might as well offer my own filthy bird mess. The word “inspire” comes from the Latin inspirare meaning to “inflame” or “blow into.” To the ancients, inspiration was something that came from outside – the spirit that came in. Similarly “genius” was not something possessed, like a skill or a faculty, but rather a separate being that worked through someone (hence the root word “genie”). I like the idea that there’s a transcendental gnome in the corner just waiting to explode the bonfire of my imagination. But not so much that I’m willing to shrug off responsibility for my own creative flammability. Even if the spark comes from a mysterious source, I can chop the wood, lay the kindling, and have a little gasoline on hand – just in case.
In other words, it’s the getting ready that matters.
A great way to get ready for inspiration is to engage with life, to notice the grade 3 girl on the bus with skeleton patterned winter gloves (they even glow in the dark!), or watch a favourite movie, or prance around to an epic soundtrack, or read a great book, or get a massage, or go to the grocery and talk to strangers in the fruit aisle. These and similar strategies can get you out of your rut and on to something fresh – but they’re not, by themselves, inspiration. At least not dependably so. The problem with that favourite movie or a kooky trip to the grocery is that the effects wear off fast. A first viewing’s brilliance is a second viewing’s continuity error. Even the best writing workshop winds up in dull pencils. Life has a way of taking over.
So how do you keep that mojo a-flowin’ when you’ve had a crappy night’s sleep and the sink is plugged and your credit card is putting on weight? How do you show up when you’re a complete fraud who’s never had a single original idea and only manages the occasional nice sentence through sheer monkey-at-the-typewriter, law-of-averages, dumbass luck? Because self-help is all fine and well. Workshops and courses can be life-changing and motivating. But when the coffee is poured and I’m sitting at my desk in front of an empty page, listening to the hum of my computer and watching the cursor go blink, blink, blink, I’m eventually going to run up against the burly, lipstick-wearing gorilla of action. I’m gonna have to ACTUALLY WRITE SOMETHING! And if I don’t, that gorilla is gonna peel my ego like a banana. Oh god, I need inspiration now! I need a great idea, fast!
Except that I don’t.
Really, I don’t.
I love Halloween, and not just for the kooky outfits and tooth rotting mayhem. I think it’s great that we have a special day to get playful about our deepest fears: death, violence, the supernatural, the unknown, the uncontrollable. By making fun of what scares us we can defuse some of its power. As a writer, I should probably dress up as something appropriately terrifying: a persistent blank page, a bad review, a hard drive failure, a rejection letter, a Visa statement.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” But I’ve only recently appreciated what great advice this is, especially for writers. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to solve my fears, to get past them so that I can finally be the writer I’ve always dreamed of becoming. Creative. Confident. Fearless. But somehow, I never quite got there. Fear was always the fart in the tent of creativity. Let me outta here! And though I claimed to like deadlines and “working under pressure” the truth was that although fear might make me type faster, it doesn’t make me write better. Fear repels and rejects while creativity involves, explores and, well, creates. Gosh darn it, if I could just overcome my fears, all would be good. I’d be unstoppable.
Or so I thought.