Six impossible things

Mailbag #5

What first inspired you to write?

I hate questions like this because they make so many assumptions about “inspiration.” But since you ask… Probably a combination of my mother, my father, and the family I grew up in.

This tends not to be the answer people are looking for when they ask this question, so let me explain. Both of my parents told me and my siblings stories and read to us, practically from the time we were born. My earliest memories include my father making up bedtime stories that included references to whatever had happened during the day. One of my earliest memories of my mother is of her reading “Little Women” to the three oldest of us when I was about five, to amuse us during a long train trip from Chicago down to New Orleans. And the family – well, basically, the only rooms in the house that did not have fully loaded bookshelves somewhere in them were the porch and the dining room, and in both cases the only reason they had no bookshelves was that there was no wall space on which to put them; both porch and dining room were surrounded by windows and/or double-doors.

In other words, I grew up with stories, with people who told stories, and with people who read stories. I didn’t need “inspiration” to start telling stories, any more than I needed inspiration to eat dinner every night or breathe. I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember. Dad says, even earlier than that. 🙂

What inspires you the most in the process of writing?

Having bills to pay. No, really.

Writing fiction for a living is a job. If I worked at McDonald’s, nobody would ask how I got inspired to go in to work every day. It’s expected; it’s what you do when you have a job. Same thing if I worked in corporate advertising or copywriting, both of which demand that the job-holder “get ideas” for new ads or copy. And Visa is not going to accept “I’m sorry I can’t pay you this month; I didn’t have any income because I haven’t been inspired for a while” as an excuse.

And while it is true that some days are more productive than other days, the unproductive ones are generally due mainly to lack of energy (I stayed up too late reading/watching TV/knitting/partying; I didn’t eat right the day before; I haven’t been exercising; I’m stressed out about something), not to lack of inspiration. There are, of course, some writers who have slow days on account of lack of inspiration, but in my experience they tend to a) have a creative process that is very different from mine, and from many, if not most, of the other professional writers I know, and b) be the sort of writer for whom ideas really are the problem. Which is kind of a rare thing among professional, write-for-a-living type writers.

Career writers have been saying this and saying this and saying this, since long before I was born, even. I’m not sure why people are still asking.

Do you write morning pages?

The first three times somebody asked me this, I had no idea what they were talking about. Finally someone explained: “morning pages” are an exercise recommended by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Basically, you’re supposed to get up a bit earlier and write three full pages of…well, anything: thoughts, descriptions, reactions, “I hate morning pages” 280 times, whatever, as long as you keep your hand moving to “dump” all the stuff that’s on your mind. And you’re supposed to do this every single day.

I am not very big on “supposed to”s.

I did finally read the book. I’d describe it as a twelve-step program for would-be writers, and for me it was absolutely worthless. I’ve met a few writers who’ve told me that they loved the book, that it changed their lives, and that they do morning pages every day, and it vastly improves their creativity. Me…well, I tried the morning pages thing. I lasted a week, and got no writing other than the morning pages done any day during that time. And I was bored.

So the short answer to this question is “No, I don’t do morning pages.” The slightly longer answer is “No, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them if you want.” The medium-long answer is “No; but if you think they’ll help you, go ahead and try them. They might work brilliantly for you, and if they do, you have a useful tool to help your process along. Just don’t be afraid to stop if you’ve given them an honest try and they don’t seem to be working for you…and if they don’t work, remember that you can still be a writer even if you don’t do morning pages. Every tool works for some writers, but not for other writers; if this one works for you, use it; if it doesn’t work for you, nod pleasantly, let it go, and move on to something else.”

  1. ‘Inspiration’ seems to me to have become one of those words like ‘joy’, ‘fury’, and ‘enthusiasm’, that have degenerated into feeble shadows of their former selves by rampant overuse. In particular, the expectation you target here:

    What inspires you the most in the process of writing?

    Having bills to pay. No, really.

    is utterly beyond me to distinguish from the ho-hum phenomenon of ‘motivation’.

    The way I’d put it is, I’m inspired by old tales, or new visions, or by heroes literary or real – including my family and friends – to boil up beyond my normal bounds like a full pot on a roaring fire. I’m motivated to tell the stories that come in these uncontrollable wild instances of inspiration, by the exceedingly mundane fact that if I don’t tell them, they will necessarily end up not told. And were I to get money for telling them, I’d be very highly motivated (but certainly not inspired) to finish them, by the fact that I like my cakes and ale.

    One of the reasons that – to speak only of my own process – I have to distinguish between inspiration and motivation, is that inspiration can storm the heavens for me, but not reliably get the dishes done or the drains rodded; whereas concrete or moral motivation offers almost the opposite set of virtues. The only real nexus I note between them is the bum emplaced upon the seat, which is done by motivation, and allows inspiration to accomplish something beyond blowing a lot of hot air.

    (In somewhat related news, the end of the Book painfully resumed in 2010 finally approacheth.)

    • Gray – Well, that’s kind of the point I was trying to make: that inspiration doesn’t actually have a lot to do with the process of writing. At least, not with mine. Inspiration has to do with ideas sometimes, but I don’t consider that writing, necessarily. One can have ideas about all sorts of things: spice mixtures for recipes, music, interior decorating, painting… It’s the motivation that’s crucial, because motivation is what gets the butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard part to happen.

      Most of the time, when folks ask about “inspiration” in this particular way, it’s obvious from context that they don’t want a list of all the odd things that have sparked ideas; they want the Sekrit Hanshak that will get the Words Fairy to supply them with a chapter per night in exchange for a saucer of milk left on the back porch (or, if you want a bestseller, a saucer of Scotch). They want to know what the trick is. And as you know, Bob, there isn’t one. 🙂

  2. My family is like yours. While we may not have a house full of books, no one was ever without a book in their hand. I’m the youngest and my mother jokes that I was reading before I could talk.

    In my case, however, I can pinpoint two specific influences that made me want to write: Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass. Reading them over and over unlocked a desire to create. The other influence is a group of people – basically the whole Liavek crowd of writers. Although I no longer have the books (something had to go in the move across to Spain), they represent to me the type of writer that I aspire to be.

    • Alex – Liavek? That is deeply cool. I don’t think any of us ever thought it would be an inspiration for someone else; we were mostly just having a good time.

  3. I almost never lack INSPIRATION, but I lack MOTIVATION a lot. I’ve made a goal to finish a short-ish novel of mine before school starts back up…pray for me LOL. I agree…deadlines really help :). I was able to win NaNoWriMo, so surely I can write a book shorter than 50,000 words in two months!

  4. I would personally love if the `what inspired you’ question was answered by specific glimmers and sparks that resulted in particular books, but I’m not the person who asked the question in the first place.

    I’ve heard that inspiration happens when you already are in the habit of getting your butt in the chair every day. (Don’t remember who said it, sorry.)

    Lack of motivation- now that’s been my problem all morning. I’m planning a tea with friends later this week, so instead of typing I set at my keyboard and think about what plates I want to use, and whether they go with the cups, and how to arrange the seating… I finally decided I’ll get motivated again after the event is over. 🙂

  5. Chicory – I don’t know about books, but Patricia Wrede wrote a collection of short stories called Book of Enchantments. At the back of the book, it tells where each of the stories came from.

  6. Pat – honestly I’m hugely regretting leaving them behind and am tempted to find them used. I’ve read them over and over until I have some of the extended storylines practically memorized.

  7. BTW, I suppose the reason I love them so much is *because* you were all having so much fun.

    Ever since Bordertown came back I’ve been thinking about what would be happening in Liavek 25 years later. The Levar would be ruling by now (if she stayed alive) and the twins would have saved or destroyed the Red Faith…

  8. nct2 thanks for the suggestion. 🙂

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,