Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Inspiration Trap: Guest Post by Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo:
The Inspiration Trap 

The novelist Peter DeVries once said, “I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.”

On the other hand, playwright Mary Chase, when asked how she got the idea for her famous play, Harvey, replied: “I looked up from the breakfast table one morning and there he was.”

This latter comment is the kind that can give new (and not so new) writers a heart attack. It reinforces the belief that a great idea just “comes to you,” that the lucky few are visited by the spirit of creativity and originality. Even Shakespeare, in his prologue to Henry V, implores the gods to inspire him: “O for a Muse of Fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention---”

Most of us, when having breakfast, rarely encounter an invisible six-foot rabbit. Or, for that matter, a Muse of Fire. Instead, we encounter the blank page, the empty computer screen. The damned cursor blinking impatiently. Waiting.

And that’s when we fall prey to what I call “The Inspiration Trap.” In my view, the idea of “inspiration” does a great deal of damage to a writer. For one thing, it devalues craft, which I think is the most crucial aspect of writing. It also affirms the notion that the writer him- or herself is somehow not enough. That some special talent or knowledge or divine gift---something outside of the writer---is necessary to create a compelling story.

Not that this belief is difficult to understand. Writing is a strangely contradictory process, in that it’s both fragile and back-breaking, elusive and demanding. Moreover, it’s work. It takes time. And it’s hard.

Thus the understandable yearning behind the myth of inspiration. It just shows up, as if by magic. Does the creative heavy lifting. Shines a light down a thorny narrative’s winding, dark path.

But think about it: By its very nature---hell, by definition---inspiration can not be grasped or looked for, and certainly not commanded to reveal itself.

Which means that whenever a writer hits upon an exciting concept, an intriguing character, or an unexpected plot twist, it’s tempting---but wrong---to chalk it up to divine intervention. Instead, I think these surprising ideas or plot turns arise from the efforts the hard-working writer’s already expended. That, unbidden, they emerge from the deepening levels of craft a writer develops after long years of writing.

(Or, as Hemingway once advised aspiring authors, “Write a million words.” Today we’re more inclined to refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Ten thousand hours.” Same thing.)

Here’s how I conceptualize inspiration. Learn the writer’s craft, write regularly, grow to love the practice of stringing words together for its own sake---and inspiration will either come on a particular day or it won’t. But, regardless, you’ll have done the most important thing: you’ll have prepared the way for it.

I think author Albert Morovia said it best: “I pray for inspiration…but I work at the keyboard four hours a day.”

Given the shifting winds of fortune that accompany any writer’s life, the smart money is on craft, practice, the doing of the thing.

If inspiration shows up, so much the better.


Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His series of mystery thrillers (Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors, Phantom Limb, and the latest, Head Wounds, all from Poisoned Pen Press), feature Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist and trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. For more info, visit

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