The romantic image of a writer is often that of a solitary genius, communing with his muse and waiting for inspiration to strike. When it does, he writes like a fiend, hammering out a fantastic story in a mad rush of glory. And, yes, I’ve had the experience of waking in the middle of the night with a burning urge to write and a story that won’t let me be until I’ve recorded it in its entirety. The fire of inspiration is an amazing experience, obsessive and surreal and fantastic.
But, like many of life’s other marvels, it’s not an everyday occurrence.
Anyone aspiring to be a professional writer cannot afford the time to wait for a muse to slap him upside the head and tell him to start writing her story already. What does one do with one’s time while one waits? If you’re anything like me, you get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, fritter away your spare time with other hobbies, and then, on New Year’s, realize that the only thing you wrote all year was that one story from that one weekend where you couldn’t sleep because the muse had taken control of you. That was the year I realized I wanted to write, professionally, and also the year when I realized that waiting around for inspiration was not the way to meet my goal.
If writing is a hobby for you (and that’s okay if it is—I know people who write, well, but prefer to direct their time and passion elsewhere much of the time) then it’s perfectly fine to wait until you’re really in the mood for some writing. But if you hope to make a career of writing, to be a professional writer as opposed to writing solely for personal pleasure, then you can’t afford to wait for the muse to strike. You need a body of work that you can shop around to publishers, agents, markets. To create those stories, you need to make writing a habit.
Set aside time on a regular basis to write. Prioritize writing—don’t cut short your writing time for socializing, housework, or other hobbies. Create space and time in your life to write and use it. If you’re stuck on one part of a story, try another part—or another story. What you’re writing is not as important as the fact that you’re writing. You’ll find out that the more you write, the easier it is to write; the less you write, the harder it is to get started or keep the momentum going.
Yes, inspiration has its place. There are times when I’ve needed to set a story aside and spend some time thinking in order to get a grasp of a character’s motivations, to pick between two or more alternate plot twists (each of which would lead the story to a radically different ending), or to stop a short story from bloating itself into a novella by picking out what themes and ideas are the vitally important ones. There are times I’ve needed to sleep on it, clear my mind by doing something other than writing, or hope to be ambushed by my muse in the shower or while making dinner. Stories, after all, are powered by ideas. But we cannot wait for an idea so strong that it wrests control from us; such ideas are too few and far between. Instead, we need to make writing a habit, in order to create fertile ground for new ideas to be born.