My writer friend Margaret and I meet for lunch about every other month. Inevitably, we sit down and ask “What’s new?” and often a variation of “Not much” comes out of both of us. She writes for children and young adults; I write literary fiction; we both have various pieces in the works. If neither of us is creating anything new here, then a large chunk of the written spectrum is getting short-changed in Denver, Colorado. (One glass of water, Margaret; this lunch is gonna be short).
And yet, nature abhors a vacuum.
So my theory is that there actually isn’t a void of work on our parts. Even if we just think about writing, we’re working. Even if it takes us eight hours to produce one word, that’s enough. We joked about this the other day. Most likely that word is “Shit.”
The point is that writing is fickle stuff. And just like an iceberg, 90% of it happens below the surface, in the furthest recesses of our brains, where the inspiration receptacles live that capture the gossamer threads of new ideas…or old ideas…or solutions to the nagging problem on page 38 we haven’t been able to solve. Those receptacles are wired differently than the rest of us. Our regular neurons might be firing away, allowing us to digest food and watch TV and honk the horn at the person making an illegal turn in front of us, but the inspiration part of our brains sits down on a couch, crosses one leg over the other, folds its hands in its lap, and simply waits. And we wait along with it. Do you know how hard it is to watch waiting?
But that’s what it feels like. We wait to turn up a gossamer thread that advances us a little bit further in the story. It’s totally maddening. And totally humbling.
It’s probably not even our brains at all. Some people theorize that memory is actually contained in every cell of our bodies, so perhaps literary inspiration works that way, too. I’d like to think that Chapter Six can be found in the cells of my left elbow. If I stick it out a little as I walk, maybe I can catch a breeze and the words will float free.
The other thing is that sometimes “not much” becomes “I’m on a roll.” And those are the best kind of lunches. They are unexpected and light-filled. The hair rises up on our arms and we smile. This is when something happens called mudita—a Buddhist term (I’m told) that means “sympathetic joy” (although someone else told me that it’s also an Arab concept, so if that’s the case, respects should be paid there as well)—which is that feeling of unconditional joy in witnessing someone else do well in his or her craft / sport / calling / talent / affinity, and probably life in general. On these days, we go back to our respective desks and bask in the glow of mudita, because surely, in addition to sticking an elbow out, just sitting in close proximity to inspiration works, too.
One day, Margaret and I will sit down and ask “How’s your ninth book going?” and we’ll both say “It’s OK” with lackluster aplomb…because by then Margaret and I will have the oh-so-weary task of living up to expectations (sigh). But it will be fun, nevertheless, just to say those words. We will have befriended the enigma on the couch; we will have made peace with waiting. Until then, the best we can do is meet for lunch and strum our angst-filled chords and greet the occasional roll with a generous amount of butter and jelly.
By the way, if you’re interested in harnessing inspiration and understanding where it comes from, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and his follow-up, Turning Pro. I also rave about Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creative genius. All resonated with me deeply, and may with you as well.