Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Inspiration vs. Perspiration

There's a discussion going on at Nathan Bransford's place about what writers owe their readers, in the context of sequels and delays and missed deadlines. It's interesting in its own right, but what struck me was the thread in the comments about inspiration and the muse and how impossible it is to write anything at all unless the planets are properly aligned, or whatever each individual writer takes as a sign that It Is Time To Be Creative Now.

I've run into other writers saying similar things, both online and in writing books and articles. But I've also seen writers saying the exact opposite, and it seems to be mostly the full time writers, the ones who pay all their bills with their keyboards, who think that the whole muse/inspiration thing is a lot of hooey and whining. As Mercedes Lackey puts it, all that's needed is to apply seat of pants to seat of chair and do the work. According to her, writer's block just means you don't feel like doing the work, but you get a lot more sympathy and petting if you say you're blocked than if you say you don't feel like working.

Me, I'm kind of in the middle. For me, there are times when the words just flow (my fondest writing memory at this point is last October, when I cranked out 40K words of my WIP in two weeks) and there are times when I have to hunt every word down with a flashlight and pliers. I have some techniques I can use to get past a blockage, but they all take focus and concentration, and there are times when I can't muster either one.

I'm bipolar, which I've mentioned before, and my moods (which affect such things as ambition and energy level) are subject to the whims of my wildly veering brain chemistry. When I'm in a low, I can't scrape together enough ambition or energy to do much of anything at all. When I'm sort of in the middle I'm just like everyone else, and the writing is usually work but I can do it if I decide to, including working through a block.

When I'm in a high, well, it depends what kind. The best kind is what I think of as a productive high -- lots of energy and ambition, the confidence to believe I can do anything at all [this is the part known as "mania," which is where the "manic" part of manic-depressive comes from, and no, it doesn't necessarily lead one to thoughts of taking over the world ;) ] and I do some of my best work, no matter what kind of work I'm doing, when I'm in this chunk of my cycle. Some highs are less productive, though, and if I'm irritable (pissed at the world, snappish, no patience of any kind) or if thoughts are racing around in my head so furiously I can't grab on to any of them, work is pretty much out the window.

[BTW, I have no problem talking about any of this. If anyone is thinking about writing a bipolar character, or is just curious, feel free to post here or e-mail me and I'll be happy to answer questions.]

Of course, the times I enjoy writing most is when I'm on a productive high. Story ideas pour out, and I have enough focus to concentrate on a single story and make significant progress with it. Even when I'm in the mid-range, though, I can usually manage. I might have to kick my butt to get it into gear, and put in some Seat Of Pants In Seat Of Chair time to work through whatever problems might crop up, but I can do it, and if I don't it's my own fault.

Recognizing where I am can be a problem, though. It's a forest-and-trees thing, where the person experiencing an episode is too close to the issue, and possibly too judgement-impaired, to be able to spot what's going on. I don't know how often it's suddenly hit me that, hey, I've been depressed for a while now. Or, wow, irritable high! Sorry, everyone! (The recognition usually hits after the fact, unfortunately, when I've shifted back a bit and my judgement is better.) So there are times when I'm trying to make the words come and they just won't, I can't focus enough to work on a story because there are six or ten other ideas all shouting at me from behind my eyeballs, and trying to chase them down is just pointless and frustrating. I'd rather do that, though, than not try to work when I could if I only would try, you know? Although I'm not successful at making that happen a hundred percent of the time, either. :/

That's me. It's hardly ever boring [wry smile] but I deal with it as best I can, and occasionally I crank out a story I think is pretty good.

How about you? Where does your opinion fall on the inspiration-vs.-perspiration scale, and what do you do about block?



Anne Vis said...

Insightful post, thanks for sharing!

writtenwyrdd said...

Sometimes it really is difficult to write, but if you make yourself get into it--and that there is the key point--you can write. I don't understand being blocked at all, and I've never believed in it because I can always think of something to write, to say. Whether it is worth bothering with is another story, lol.

IMO, there really is no such thing as Writer's Block. There is only Writer Don't Wanna.

And I have Writer Don't Wanna all the time. I'm ADD and I get tired of a project suddenly, all at once fed up with it and want to go to something else now. It makes sticking to thinks hard for me.

As far as being bipolar goes, thank you for sharing. I've been accused of it a time or two when I get all cranked up on some artistic high or other, but i would have thought an actual manic phase wouldn't allow you to function creatively like that. It's neat to know this.

Angie said...

Anne -- you're very welcome. :)

WW -- one more hash mark in the Seat Of Pants To Seat Of Chair column. [grin]

About the bipolar thing, statistics show that biopolar people are, on the average, more likely to be creative than the general population. And some of the more commonly used meds prescribed for bipolar disorder completely kill your creativity; it's the number one reason why bipolar people decide to go off their medication. I was one of the [cough] lucky ones. The very first prescription my doctor gave me killed my creativity dead, to the point where I couldn't even do needlework beyond slavishly following a pattern, and it lasted for over a year after I stopped that particular prescription after taking it for two or three years. (To say nothing of several other nasty side-effects.)

Unmedicated, though, bipolar folks are more likely to be writers, artists, actors, musicians or whatever in their professional lives. Which is why they so often go off their meds; the disorder is progressive and more likely to be diagnosed in adulthood (in adolescence it often presents too much like typical teen angst and moodiness to be taken seriously) when the patient has already established a career. So, do you stay on your meds and start at ground zero in a new (and completely non-creative) career in your thirties or later, or do you bag the meds, keep earning a living doing what you love to do, and just deal with the bad episodes as best you can? :/

About ability to work, like I said, it depends what kinds of highs you get. If my thoughts are racing it's impossible to focus (on anything at all, or even to get to sleep because my brain won't shut up) and writing is pretty much a loss. If I'm hypomanic, though -- lower on the scale, all the energy but none of the loss of focus or judgement -- I'm incredibly productive. In an irritable high I can write, but I'm not very pleasant to be around.

Different people have different experiences. I've been so high on my own brain chemistry I was literally skipping and dancing around an amusement park (in my thirties, mind you) while my mother and her friends looked on with bemusement, which was actually a lot of fun while it was happening. [rueful smile] But I've never been so lost to reality that I, say, turned over control of finances to that nice young man I met in a parking lot yesterday. That's something Patty Duke (who's bipolar) did once before she was diagnosed.

It's a crapshoot, really. The whole lack-of-judgement thing can really trash your life, and I'm actually pretty lucky, comparatively speaking.


Charles Gramlich said...

Personally, I think it's all about the mental willingness to do the work or not. I get 'blocked' on occassion but I know the real reason is because I haven't put in enough thought and effort on the subject. I definitely don't go in for the delicate muse idea.

Angie said...

Charles -- another butt-in-chair vote. [nod] And yes, I agree that the actual muses aren't that delicate.


laughingwolf said...

when on a roll, i go til i drop... other times i force it a bit... but usually if i give it time to find its way, the thing nearly writes itself...

laughingwolf said...

ooops... i have another bipolar friend in california, you can find her in my sidebar: bipolar speaks

Angie said...

LW -- sometimes a story does need some time to get massaged by your subconscious. [nod] I think the trick here is knowing for sure whether that's true, and if so, how much time to give it. And if it really is an issue with this one particular story that's the problem, a writer should be able to work on a different story while the first one is marinating and keep the productivity up, even if it's split between multiple projects. I often have guilt issues about this, though. :/

And thanks -- I'll check out your friend's blog. [nod]


Steve Malley said...

Oddly, I'm going to attempt a defense of The Muse.

I say oddly, because I'm a *very* firm believer that, to paraphrase someone-or-other in the House of Atraides, "Moods are for lovemaking and cattle; everything else is work."

I'll call my defense the Weak Theory of the Muse:

Inspiration is real. The tales are legendary, and as any of us in creative fields know, there's truth to the legends.

We've all experienced that sudden uplift, that giddy headlong rush into a world where our head's on fire and the work lays out before us with a golden clarity and our every move is just, absolutely, inexplicably, undeniably *right*.

And what about those times when the Muse visits to whisper in our ear? When we're typing along and suddenly realize, cold chill running down the spine, that our plot has taken a sudden left turn, and that turn is *GOOD*?

I was maybe halfway through drawing TEMPLAR when I woke up one morning after a creepy dream: a barren, windswept plateau with two small, dark figures moving closer. That morning, instead of my normal pages, I sat down and started drawing the dream, panel by panel. I told myself I'd get it out of my system and do my pages later that afternoon.

I never did get back to my 'regular' pages: by the time I finished that four-page arc, I saw my two dark figures. They were children, with faces like angels. Small, deadly children.

Those little kids ended up hijacking the book, and it was easier to go back and set them up earlier than it was to try to write them out. That morning, that nightmare, that was a moment of true inspiration.

So yeah, the Muse is real. Now ignore it.

See, the thing about inspiration, it can be like a drug. If you get too attached to that creative high, you come to depend on it. You get attached, and then you can't work unless it 'feels right'. And like any addict, trying to make 'high' your 'normal' state will make you ineffective.

The only way to chase that high is to ignore it, to work on and along as if it didn't exist.

The Muse whispered in my ear on TEMPLAR. And there were those surge-days where my output doubled, even tripled. But none of that would have been possible if I hadn't sat down at the drawing board and turned out two pages a day, every single damn day, until I finally wrote 'The End'.

Angie said...

Steve -- sure, I believe in inspiration too. [nod] But I also agree that you have to be working to really take advantage of it. I've definitely experienced that *PING* when suddenly an awesome idea appears, the words flow, everything's awesome. The problem is deciding you can't start working until you've felt that ping, when you really want to be working, or claim to. People can and do spend a lot of time watching TV or playing computer games or whatever while waiting for Inspiration, in sparkly-rainbow colors, to strike.

If that's what works for someone, then that's fine for them. Where I personally start getting annoyed, or at least eyerolly, is when people are whining and complaining about how awful it is that the muse has deserted them, and how much they want to write (or whatever) but they just can't because the muse isn't there -- the tide isn't right, the moon's in the wrong phase, Mercury is in Taurus, whatever the issue is. To me, that feels like someone just trolling for pets and cookies.

Sure, stuff happens. I went over my own issues in some detail, and yeah, there are times when I just can't write and it's a downward spiral of frustration to try. But there's a whole spectrum of "rightness" and if I only sat down to write when conditions were all the way at the PERFECT end of the spectrum, I wouldn't have produced (or finished!) much at all in my lifetime.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if waiting for everything to be perfect works for someone, if writing (or whatever) only when that pure flow occurs is what makes them happy and satisfies their creative need, then that's great. If producing one masterpiece (like Harper Lee did with Mockingbird) in their lifetime is cool with them, then it's cool with me. My gripe is with people who complain about what a terrible problem they have, but won't do anything to fix it.

Which is... pretty much what you said. :)


Shauna Roberts said...

I too roll my eyes when people claim they can't write because of a missing mused. Having worked as a nonfiction writer for about 20 years, I see inspiration as a luxury. The client expects a piece by the deadline, and so I write it and turn it in, even if there's a hurricane or I'm sick or I'm out of town. I approach my fiction writing the same way.

That said, I have days when I sit at the computer all day and produce 800 words with great difficulty and I have rare days when I produce 7500 words easily. But I don't know beforehand which kind of day I'll have, so I practice Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.

Angie said...

Shauna -- right, if you don't at least sit down and give it a serious shot, it can be tough to know whether you're having a good day or a bad one. And even a few hundred words is better than nothing. Add enough of those up and you've got a finished story.