The Magic Elves of Inspiration

I recently responded to a post over on Chuck Wendig’s excellent blog that I thought might be worth repeating here. Here’s the original comment I was responding to in italics – written by one Ali Craig – followed by my reply. I have edited my reply slightly from its original form:

Hi Chuck, I’ve liked your posts recently about that robber of time and lives, procrastination, and about just getting your ass in a the chair and writing. Well, I do. Write, that is. I think about it a lot (all the time), but I get a lot of words out too. Sometimes I have to tie them to a chair and beat some sense out of them, but hey, it’s all in a day’s work. But this thing happens to me, often. Really often. I have tons of ideas. Motivation and inspiration are not a problem. But then this thing happens where my head is burning and buzzing with an idea, it’s writing itself in my head so fast I just have to find a pen as quickly as possible, and then the minute the first few words arrive on the page or whatever is my means of commital (notebook, back of a receipt, laptop, notes bit on my cell phone), the idea dies a quick but ghastly death. I think it’s stupid, unoriginal, nobody else will like it, it’s just plain shit. What’s that all about? Does this happen to anybody else?

What you’re describing is really, really normal. Ideas are really easy to see in your head in all their glory – viewed from a big budget cinematic angle, if you will – but much more stubborn about making the transition to reality. Sometimes they really do leap out of your mind like Athena from Zeus’ forehead, nearly fully-formed and shining, but in my experience that is a rare and wonderful exception. Most of the time ideas take hours and hours of wrangling to get right.

For instance, take the famous lobby fight scene in the first Matrix film, Propellerheads music and all. It plays out in the matter of a few short minutes on film… but it took weeks to translate this actual shooting script sequence*-

NEO enters the lobby, looking super sweet. Some GUARDS stop him at the metal detector. He reveals a HUGE BUTTLOAD OF GUNS under his coat. A lot of shooting occurs, plus really cool anti-gravity parkour ninja flips and wuxia style wall-running. Everyone but NEO and TRINITY is ultimately TOTALLY SHOT TO DEATH. Our heroes then exit in the ELEVATOR as a single piece of masonry falls from a wall, providing COMIC RELIEF to cap off a scene of MASS MURDER.

– into a real thing. Actors had to learn a few lines and a ton of fight choreography, set design had to put together the perfect lobby space, stunt coordinators worked out all the wire tricks and taught the actors harness work, directors placed cameras and sought perfect angles, the music supervisor auditioned track after track for the scene, wardrobe tried and discarded a whole Vampire LARP’s worth of black trenchcoats and sunglasses just to find the right look for Neo and Trinity, etc. All for a sequence that, in the final film, runs for less than five minutes.

Hell, when I was writing RUNNER+, my zombie post-apocalypse novel, I had this bitchin’ idea for an action sequence. My protagonist, Rockaway, would ride down a really long zipline – during a thunderstorm! – and land on the roof of an old church. She’d slip on some debris and nearly fall off the roof, just barely pull herself back up only to see an enemy coming down the zipline in hot pursuit. She’d barely manage to get her rifle free just in time to shoot him and send him tumbling into the flooded city street below, then collapse exhausted against the bell tower as the storm raged on in ruined NYC.

It takes three sentences to describe it … and almost twenty pages to actually tell it in the book from start to finish. My mileage may vary – some authors would do that in less, some in more, depending in part on personal style as well as factors such as the importance of that scene to the story as a whole – but the point is that taking it from the visual I have in my head to a fully fleshed out sequence on the page is not an easy one.

What you’re describing that you see in your head is the three sentence summary. The reason it dies a quick death after you jot it down is that it needs more than those three sentences to live. It needs the time, attention and care of being brought to life a line at a time … and that’s not easy. Writing is very often the process of putting your head down, keeping your eyes on the end result and fighting your way through stubborn prose that just does NOT want to become the beautiful, awesome thing you see in your head. It’s easy to get discouraged after the initial rush fades, because you see the amazing thing in your mind and compare it to what you have on the page and the difference is frankly really depressing at times.

But you have to keep going.

And yes, self-doubt is often part of the process. As is hating what you’re working on from time to time, or being convinced no one will ever want to read it, etc. The cliche of the author staring at rejection letter after rejection letter – from agents, from publishers, from magazines – is so familiar that most people don’t realize just how hard it can be to cope with in reality. But that’s just it. You have to cope with it all. The rejections, the bad reviews, the self-doubt, the impatience of wishing it could just become on the page what it already is in your head, the fear that even if you do finish no one will like it. Neil Gaiman famously called this part of writing The Slog – the time between the rush of an initial idea and the satisfaction of wrapping it up, which incidentally is the majority of anyone’s time writing.

Mostly writing isn’t a cinematic moment of fevered inspiration, it’s just the day to day work of putting down one line after another, like a dot matrix printer slowly drawing an ASCII picture++. I think as a culture we do a lot of people disservice in how artists are portrayed in entertainment because we tend to focus only on those moments when everything is coming so easily, and imply that removing the fabled “writer’s block” can only be done by meeting a quirky soulmate at a coffee shop and going on a ski adventure full of wacky hijinks or something. That leads people to believe that being an artist is like being visited by capricious magic elves who bestow inspiration at random, when in reality it’s mostly about the capacity to stick with a vision even when it is dull or apparently hopeless. Because if you do, it generally does get better, or at the very least it gets finished, which is more than 95% of people get.

So I’m not telling you “sack up” or anything like that. Just that you can recognize what you’re feeling is normal, and that the only way to get past it is to realize that most every writer gets it – but the only ones who will ever know the satisfaction of a work completed are the ones who work through it.

True story.

*Not the actual shooting script.
+Shameless plug!:
++ Because I’m tech savvy like 1985.

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