Forcing It

Listening to: Guster, “Demons”

When I was quite a bit younger, I used to think that inspiration was this hazy, mercurial creature that would strike when and if she felt like it. I thought that ideas were like Newton’s apple without the gravity–they didn’t have to come down from that tree, and if they did and you weren’t sitting around under that tree, thinking about nothing…then it would just be another apple fallen from the tree.

Everyone always said–and by everyone, I mean non-writers in my life, and even a few writers–that you couldn’t “force it”. To this day, I still hear that whenever I’m suffering through a frustrating scene or desperately trying to tie my plot threads together. “Well, you can’t force it!” they all say cheerily, as though I should just sit around waiting, twiddling my thumbs or doing a crossword, until lightning miraculously strikes.

After many years of writing various things–research papers, angst-ridden teenage poetry, countless newspaper articles, short stories and creative non-fiction essays, and finally novels–I call bull. Actually, I called bull a long time ago, but now I’m blogging it. Not only can you force it, but in many cases, you must force it.

The best poems I ever wrote* were scrawled out in five minutes during study hall or late at night in bed, after I’d written twenty awful ones.

The singular best short story I ever wrote was furiously typed out at 7 a.m., when it was due that very day in my 9:30 class.

The very best articles I wrote, the ones that drew the most attention from readers, were written after a long day of research and interviews, when it was 4:15 and I had to pick my little brother up from daycare at 5:00 and if I had to come back to the office, I’d have to deal with the night editor who didn’t like me very much.

And finally, the best novel idea I have ever stumbled upon struck me while I furiously brainstormed for a title for the last novel.

Some might say that, in most of the cases cited above, a looming deadline played a big part. Well, yes, but there’s something more. In those cases, mostly, I had to force it. I wasn’t sitting around, painting my nails and dreaming about…I don’t know…cheese. I was working, and my brain was actively involved in the writing process. When I was, goshdarnit, forcing it.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve written dozens of awful poems, teeming multitudes of dull short stories, and many a dreary article that will put you to sleep faster than Ambien. And those all happened while I was working, when my brain was actively involved in the writing process, too. They just happened to suck. You’ll have that.

There’s a famous quotation that, when I first read it, completely changed my life. It seemed like a door had been opened in a long, dark hallway, and finally a burst of light appeared to guide me.

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
-Jack London

And damned if that isn’t true. Although when writers take up that club, it often looks very much like writing or reading or even talking to interesting people. But don’t be fooled–we’ve got our clubs ready, and we’re goin’ a-hunting. I can assure you that twiddling your thumbs, doing crosswords, painting your nails, or dreaming about cheese…well, while these are all perfectly fine ways to spend time, none of them will result in a freshly-clubbed inspiration that you can proudly drag back to the cave.

So, for God’s sake, grab your club, get out there, and force it. Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to knock on your door, certain that your freshly painted nails will entice him or her to enter. Because that knock, much like that of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse people, isn’t going to come.

*Although that ain’t sayin’ much.

One thought on “Forcing It

  1. I can’t say I wait for inspiration. But I do look for it. Sometimes, I find it in stuff I wrote long ago. Other times, I see something on the news that strikes me, somehow.

    I usually have enough writing projects going on that I can work on something else while letting the ideas peculate on the thing that I am stuck on.

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