“Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” goes the old saying by Thomas Edison.
We, as authors, would probably prefer to think of our ideas as being delivered from on high by the Muses, as we lay back on a chaise longue like Oscar Wilde spouting witty monologues. Doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. The idea of the tortured but inspired artist goes back to the Romantics like Byron and Shelley and – while it’s a nice image – it’s far from the truth.
What the author would like to believe he looks like …
…what the author actually looks like.
The ideas themselves, of course, usually come through a flash of inspiration. It’s what we do with the ideas, though, that matters, and that’s where the perspiration comes in. I remember reading a writer talking about how people would often come to him with an idea for a novel, saying that he should write it and they’d both be rich. Ideas are ten a penny, he would tell them; it’s what you do with the idea that’s important. So, after the initial inspiration comes the hard part: making something out of it. And it is at this point that many writers scoff at the idea of inspiration. Here’s Anthony Burgess:
“I leave the myth of inspiration and agonized creative inaction to the amateurs. The practice of a profession entails discipline, which for me meant the production of two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included.”
And I understand what he means – oftentimes “waiting for inspiration”, is writer-speak for “checking out TMZ.com”. I also agree with Burgess’ workman-like attitude. And this is where the perspiration – the actual work, the putting one word in front of the other – comes in. Many writers say similar things:
“You should go to your room every day at nine o’ clock … and say to yourself, ‘I am going to sit here for four hours and write!’ … if you sit waiting for inspiration, you will sit there till you are an old man.” – Winston Churchill
“And, sorry, all those romantic notions you have of absinthe spoons, manic episodes and Kerouac-like rambling on a long roll of butcher paper really aren’t operative. Creative work is mostly showing up every day and enduring a million tiny failures as you feel your way to something a bit new.” – Chuck Close
“To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.” – Anthony Trollope
In one way, it’s as if all these writers are trying their best to deflate any notions of grand inspirations, and expose writing as a job, and a hard one at that. So, we’re back to the 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.
And the perspiration process can take many different forms. Anthony Trollope, who was just quoted, wrote every morning for three hours. If he finished a novel before the end of his allotted time, he would start another. And, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the famous story of James Joyce, who when asked one day how many words he’d written, replied despondently, “Seven.” “But, that’s good,” the person said. “At least for you.” “I suppose it is,” said Joyce, “but I don’t know what order they go in!”