Thomas Edison was to have said that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Apparently he made 1,000 failed attempts to invent the light bulb. After accomplishing it he was asked about all the previous failures. Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
The exercise of writing can be somewhat similar. If you wait for inspiration before you write, you might be waiting a long time. If things have to be perfect for creativity to commence; the desk arranged in a certain way, the lighting just right, the surroundings quiet or specific music playing, the dog is asleep, the children are elsewhere, the spouse distracted, the door closed….you might never write another word.
It is often the simple practice of putting words on the page where inspiration is found. It can be a delight when it happens!
The career writer knows to approach writing as a job. A task to complete. It is in the middle of a long project where things can bog down. You are tired of this project. Nothing brilliant is coming to mind. No great anecdote. No great story twist. Just blah, blah, blah.
Amazing how this is a universal experience for writers. I hear it again and again.
Embrace this sloth-like walk through your book as normal. But walk you must. Otherwise you’ll never finish.
Finding the Diamond
This past week a 121 carat diamond was found in a South Africa mine. Imagine the tons of dirt and rock that was sifted to find that gem. In the same way you will comb through your finished manuscript and discover many pieces of inspired writing. The key is to begin eliminating the sections that are not so gem-like.
I remember working with the late Calvin Miller on his great book Into the Depths of God. We were in his home office reading his manuscript out loud to each other. I read one page and Calvin exclaimed, “What does that mean?” I replied, “How would I know? You wrote it!” Calvin laughed and said, “That was terrible, cut it out and throw it away.” In the end, nearly one-third of what this genius writer had created was left on the editing floor. What was left was the best.
So Which is it?
I believe inspiration is the heart of what makes a writer write. It is an idea, an experience, a story, something that creates a passion to write it down. Otherwise writing becomes an assignment like school where it is an obligation or a requirement.
At the same time without hard work the book is never completed. But just because it is complete doesn’t necessarily mean it is genius. It only means it is complete. The determination of its commercial value or its literary quality is another conversation for another day.
Thus it isn’t an either/or but a both/and. Inspiration motivates hard work and hard work creates inspiration. They are part and parcel of the process.
So after you stop reading this post, it is time to apply a bit of perspiration (and a bit of coffee?) to your day. Wrestle with finding the best words today. Meet that word count goal you set. Surprise yourself with the words that flow. And try to enjoy the process even when plodding through the slog.
Thank you so much for this Steve, I am in the slog phase and truly I was beginning to think that it just wasn’t meant to be. The inspiration till has been vacant and try as I might, I havent been able to fill it. But I will just keep swimming 🙂 You sir are the inspiration that I needed…thanks for that!
Helping my husband work on his sermons has helped me understand this important point about slogging. There is no end to things that could be said about the Bible and our response to it so he types out pages and pages of whatever comes to mind, then I help him cut it down to 40 minutes worth of content. This has helped me with my own writing, especially the cutting part!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Thanks for the inspiring words, Steve. I make a commitment to write every day, though sometimes that commitment is kept through research needed to make the writing more believable or correct. My dissertation actually went through five re-writes and I did not recognize it as the same document when it was finally ready for publication. Like your posting said, it was necessary to cut out the parts of the document that were not “gem-like.” I have been in the midst of an operation to remove and adjust some things that needed rewriting in my singleness book. The result is a much stronger and more salient work. Thanks again for the suggestions!
I agree 1,000 percent, Steve! And all I would add is: don’t forget prioritization, which in today’s world probably adds up to isolation. Meaning we all have so much coming at us that it is increasingly difficult to focus, as well as to invest the time required by the craft. The constant “noise” of incoming messages is relentless —so much so that we wouldn’t be able to hear the voice of inspiration even if it was shouting at us. So maybe we could give both inspiration and perspiration more of a chance by habitually secluding ourselves with just our self and our muse and something to write with.
Barbara Tifft Blakey
It is good to be reminded that I am not alone in the slog-mine, and I resonated immediately with that feeling of putting words on the page knowing they were garbage, and then bam! There is the diamond after all.
I needed this post today. Thank you, Steve. I loved Thomas Edison’s description of the 1,000 step process to inventing the light bulb. Not 1,000 failures. Sometimes, I need to shift the way I perceive something to keep moving forward. Thank you for that too.
Now, off to make myself a large cup of coffee . . .
I’ve often compared my writing time to other people. Like if I don’t eat, breathe, sleep writing, I’m not as passionate as them or respect the craft enough. Quite the opposite is true! This is post is wonderful confirmation that I’m on the right path of quality over quantity. Many thanks today!
Hearing this familiar advice was like getting permission to write through the struggle all over again. Thank you for the faithful reminder…and the reassurance that no slogger is the only one.
I’m always obsessed with finding the perfect moment to write. Some days back, I was in church for four hours and couldn’t pull two thousand words, because people were everywhere. And I failed to do anything else (other than learn ping pong – called table tennis in our side – for half an hour). Worst stats since I started this story.
Thank you, Steve, for giving the advice of trudging through the slog. I’ve picked out about two scenes that requests serious cutting in my WIP, though I won’t go back till I’m done.