Dani Shapiro
June 25, 2010

On Inspiration

I’ve long been aware that the whole idea of being inspired is a dangerous one for writers.  What does it mean, anyway, to be inspired?  Is it necessarily a good feeling?  One of joy and incipient productivity?  The muse alighting, perched gently on the writer’s shoulder, whispering a stream of words that find themselves lining up effortlessly on the page?  I don’t think so.  At the risk of pissing off the gods of creativity, I think that the muse is elusive at best, and may well be a fiction we tell ourselves.

All I know is that if I had given in to this idea of inspiration over the years– if I had waited to feel that eureka moment each morning before I began to write, my output would be much smaller than it has been.  Instead of seven books, I might have had a story or two, or three, or five.  But not much beyond that — because most days, when I’ve sat at my desk, it has been with a sense of purpose, of desire, of longing, of diligence, of doggedness, but rarely have I sat down with a sense of inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong.  Inspiration has come.  It has tiptoed into my writing room when I’ve least expected it.  It has shown up mid-sentence, mid-thought, mid-idea.  But it generally doesn’t precede me to the desk.  Inspiration comes out of doing the work: the hard labor of laying each brick on top of the next, one at a time, until what you’ve done begins to resemble a wall.  Often, it doesn’t resemble a wall, or it’s come out crooked, or in some way less than you’d hoped, and you have to smash the thing up and start all over again.  Inside this painstaking labor is where inspiration lies.  Only when you’re up to your eyeballs, covered in dust, hopeless and bordering on despair, does the muse even consider paying a visit.

I remember once, working on a single short story for six months straight.  Draft after draft, I couldn’t get it right.  It was fine, it was polished, even (and often a piece being polished before it’s finished is the worst thing because it becomes harder and harder to see through its veneer) but it didn’t sing, and I knew it.  I despaired.  I wept.  I was convinced that I had thrown away six months of my life.  Then, one morning, depleted from the stress, I became sick with a terrible flu.  I became feverish, my body wracked with chills.  I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat in bed with my story, which suddenly, through the lens of my illness, became clear to me.  I tore it up and started all over again from that place of feverish misery which transformed itself into…you guessed it…inspiration.