Monday, August 2, 2010

Inspiration vs. "perspiration"

"Writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration," my first writing teacher told me.

It's a catchy slogan. It even rhymes! Never mind that writing doesn't require enough physical effort to actually break into a sweat. Never mind the exact numbers; I've heard other people cite the key ratio as 5%/95% and 1%/99%.

There is an important message at the heart of this slogan: creative work is a form of work. If you want to create something, to accomplish something, you have to be willing to do some work. It brings to mind another slogan, one that also happens to rhyme: "No pain, no gain."

Yes, creative work involves work. When we put it that way, it seems obviously true; how could anyone ever imagine it to be otherwise? But people do.

The thing is, "I want to be a writer!" (or songwriter, artist, whatever) is usually prompted by early experiences with inspiration. Somehow, something got created, with scarcely any effort involved. It was a magical and highly meaningful experience. Who wouldn't want a life filled with moments like that?

Writing teachers get impatient with students who haven't done their homework because they are "waiting for inspiration." And students are dismayed to find that they have to learn to write on cue, without any assistance from inspiration.

Alas, a creative career mostly involves hard work, and you don't get carried much of the way by inspiration. Indeed, we could dismiss inspiration entirely, as some kind of freakish psychological phenomenon, if it weren't for these facts:
  • Artists do their best work when following inspiration.
  • Most of the best things in the world are created by way of inspiration.
  • The results of inspired work seem to make life better for everybody.
Inspiration is not just a substitute for personal effort after all. Work is necessary, and inspiration is also necessary. And coordinating work and inspiration, making them dance gracefully together, is the way to produce your best creative output. This is a skill that, just as with any other skill, you can learn through practice.

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