Is writing inspiration? Perspiration? Or both?

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Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2010 edition of Writers Digest.

At the keyboard, we experience moments when our muse bursts forth—words flow into inspired sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. But the opposite is true as well, times where each word typed is agony. So which is it? Is writing purely inspiration, when we hurl beautiful phrases to the page; or does brilliance come through sheer perspiration? Both, actually. Understanding the dynamics of each and how they relate to the final writing product helps us capitalize on inspiration and push through perspiration.

The following are four ways to work through the inspiration and perspiration paradox.

1. Remember the clutch-hitting phenomenon.

I recently came across an interesting study of baseball clutch hitters. Successful clutch hitters have similar statistics whether they’re batting in a stressful (clutch) situation or whether it’s the top of the first. “What they’ve found is that while there may be a small clutch ability . . .  that ability is dwarfed by the normal differences in overall performance. In other words, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s the best players who do best in the clutch.”[1] Taking that analogy from the diamond to the keyboard, it’s the writer’s patient dedication to the craft in the mundane (perspiration) that fosters brilliance (inspiration).  Andy Meisenheimer, a freelance editor, agrees. “Perspiration leads to inspiration, even though that seems counter-intuitive.”

Many want to be “clutch writers,” successful without the sweat. Though I tell my entire story of publication at writing conferences around the nation, I find most people latch on to the last few years of my journey, where I wrote a book, met an agent, and signed several contracts in the course of one year. What they don’t latch onto: ten years writing in obscurity, perspiring over hundreds of thousands of words before an agent ever expressed interest. My “clutch” story stands on the shoulders of miles of typed words.
2. Don’t trust your emotions.

Many writers I surveyed for this article found their best, least-edited work came from their hard won perspiration-filled words. They might’ve felt each sentence lacked luster, but that feeling didn’t confirm the reality of the final product.
When I wrote my first published novel, the story unfolded like magic. Detail upon detail came to me like a gift. But once I hit my third novel, agony arrived on the page. Each storyline felt like labor. The characters wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t tell me their plans in sweeping statements—just one terrible word at a time. And yet, I’m most satisfied with that book, and critical reviews confirm its merit.

Multi-published humor novelist Rene Gutteridge experienced similar worry about her supposedly un-inspired, perspiration-rich words. “I wrote one book that was nearly all sweat. I kept thinking I’d made a horrible mistake—that this wasn’t ‘inspired.’ I turned it in, terrified. This is going to be the book that cancels my entire contract, I thought. When my editors read it they loved it. I only had a half of a page of notes—the least rewriting I ever had to do. But each and every page in that book made me work for it. And about four times I was left bawling at my computer, believing I was, indeed, a hack.”

3. Stick your BOC.

BOC stands for Butt on Chair. Initially, when we’re naïve in the writing journey, we write for the sheer joy of penning stories and articles. We’re happy to keep our derrieres there in the chair because inspiration looms. But as we progress through this journey, inspiration gives way to simple, plain work. Award-winning novelist Susan Meissner elaborates. “I found it much easier to write in the beginning. But it’s like running up hill now. With a head wind. And rocks in my shoes. And a monkey on my back. And hecklers on the sidelines. And the top, if there is one, is shrouded in mist.”

What do you do when your words only drip out? When each phrase is like hauling water with a bucket full of holes? Several writers queried reported they started their writing day by sheer BOC determination, only to have the words flow after they’ve trickled a few words out. RITA award-winning novelist Robin Lee Hatcher asserts, “I would say that most writing days for me are heavy on the perspiration side, far more than the inspiration. But I believe, once you start writing, getting out the dross if you have to, that inspiration will follow.”

4. Embrace the ambiguity of the paradox.

Sometimes the words do flow. Sometimes they don’t. Write them either way. Critically acclaimed novelist Athol Dickson experiences both inspiration and perspiration when he crafts a first draft. He writes, “I assume by ‘inspiration’ we mean what some call being ‘in the groove,’ when the words just seem to flow without any pause to think. Francis Bacon said, ‘Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.’ That happens to me about half the time during a rough draft, and the other half I just slug it out to finish the scene, sentence by difficult sentence. When I go back to fix the slugfests, inspiration sometimes happens in the editing. If it doesn’t, I keep rewriting until it does. That’s why I’m a slow writer. I want the whole thing to be inspired, no matter how hard I have to perspire to make it happen.”

Seasons of inspiration come, weaving in and through long stretches of perspiration. As writers, it’s the paradox we must embrace to go forward in our careers. We may be reveling in the newness of putting words to page. Or we may be wrangling our words to the ground, trying to tame them into submission after years of success. Don’t despise the perspiration needed to write your words. And welcome the inspiration when it comes. Both will transform your writing.

[1] Fox, Dan.

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