Putting Your Muse on Notice

I just came across this Chuck Palahniuk quote: “All the effort in the world won’t matter if you’re not inspired.”

To which I’ll reply, Yes, but.

To be fair, I have no context for this quote, but that’s sort of how quotes work: most people only see them in exile from the environment in which they were incubated and hatched, and interpret them in a vacuum. So while Palahniuk may have meant something entirely different, I bet an awful lot of people are going to use this as an excuse not to sit down and work, i.e. “I’m not feeling inspired today, so any effort I put in is just going to be a waste of time.”

That’s an attitude with which I’m all too (personally) familiar, and it’s exactly what keeps so many “writers” from actually, well, writing. And if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer by any reasonable definition of the word.

Yes, inspiration is important, and even vital, to any decent creative endeavor. You can sew together a monster from a mess of corpses, but what good is it without life? But let’s be honest—it doesn’t take much. Inspiration feeds on itself like fire, so all one really needs is a spark and the willingness to fan the flames.

And here’s the important bit: the very act of expending effort can coax forth a bit of inspiration. Inspiration can be a product of effort.

It’s true. Muses, like many flying insects, seem to be attracted to sweat. So you’re not feeling inspired? Sit down and write anyway. It doesn’t have to be a project you’ve already started—start something new. Just write. If it’s dreck, you can always throw it away. (Every writer has to write a four metric tons of crap in his or her lifetime, so why not get some of it out of the way?) Do this long enough and you’ll forget that you’re not inspired. Do it a bit longer, pay attention, and you’ll feel that little itch you were missing.

I swear I am not making this up. You can make your own inspiration—hell, you always do. Let’s put aside the fanciful and seductive notion of “muses” just for a second. Seriously, does anyone still believe that inspiration comes from Greek goddesses anymore? It’s always been just you and your brain, digesting the stimulus you feed it (and you’re feeding it all the time, unless you have a penchant for spending all your waking hours in a sensory-deprivation tank) and turning it into ideas you want to communicate to others.

This is good, though perhaps unromantic, news. You don’t have to wait for some fickle Hellenic immortal to get around to making a delivery every other month. Sure, the occasional lightning strike can set a forest ablaze, but that doesn’t mean you should sit around waiting for one to light your campfire. Rub two sticks together long enough, put in the work, exercise some care and subtlety, and inspiration can rise as a faint reddish glow. Nurture it, feed it, and you’ll be making s’mores in no time. Hell, you can even burn down the forest if you want to. Even better, it gets easier with practice.

Like I said, I don’t know exactly what point Palahniuk was making; maybe he would totally disagree with me, maybe not. And he’s obviously a far more talented and successful writer than I am, and I love and respect the two books of his that I’ve read so far. But whether my unsolicited advice on this point agrees with his or not, it’s this: don’t waste time sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. Go find some. Go make some.