“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” -Chuck Close
I realize this is a funny thing to say given that my work is largely infused with inspiration/motivation, but you’ll see what I’m really getting at. As writers and/or artists, we know that 90% of the battle is just putting your damn butt in the chair to write, or picking up the paintbrush (or pencil), or whatever implement you use to create. Yet all too often we expect this flash of inspiration to hit us like a gift from the gods.
Sure sometimes that happens, but more often than not it’s a slow build.
For me, creative writing, especially nonfiction about my life, is often an arduous process. There’s the occasional moment where the clouds part and the Universe says, “here you go, honey,” as they hand me a nugget of flow.
But usually, it pretty much goes like this:
As a kid I was a good student. I hated disappointing anyone almost as much as I hated being anything less than perfect. For the most part I got straight A’s. I was highly disappointed in myself if I didn’t.
Classmates would often remark that I was “so smart” or how they wished they could get A’s like I did. Frankly, this kind of pissed me off. Sure, on the surface this was a compliment, but underneath was the assumption that I just had some special gift that they didn’t. Bear with me, I know I sound like a bragging asshole right now.
I spent hours studying, doing drills, and practicing to earn those grades. In fact, in fourth grade when I got my first D ever (ironically, in spelling), Dad and I worked every night for months to bring that up to an A.
I was lucky that my parents definitely passed down their genetic propensity for traditional intelligence (make no mistake there are many different types of intelligence), but after that, it was up to me to get the grades even in subjects that felt like my brain was being torn apart. I’m looking at you math and conceptual physics!
In seventh grade this girl Mary and I competed for the best grades, we were often neck-in-neck for who had the best percentage A. This was when I realized there were smarter, harder working kids than me. She wanted it more and maybe she was smarter than me, too. I backed down a bit from my quest for perfection and sometimes settled for B’s or C’s (conceptual physics, you bitch). If I couldn’t be THE best, I’d get by with my reasonable best.
The thing is, I never applied this drive to physical activity as a kid. When it came to sports of most kinds, I was riddled with self-doubt and self-pity. If I couldn’t hit the ball, run fast enough, or catch often enough I just gave up. I needed to be at the top, and if I couldn’t I bowed out. It didn’t occur to me that hard work might just get me to “decent” eventually. I understood how to apply hardwork to school, but not as much to other things.
Fast forward twenty-some years to when I started out at UCLA X Writers Program. I entered thinking I was a pretty good writer who just needed to learn some tools in order to write better. From my first class, I realized I was an amateur. I was not even close to the top tier. Again, I wanted to be THE best.
I secretly dreamed of being the next Joan Didion, or Mary Karr, until I realized I would likely not only would have to work for decades, but also was not born with their level of talent either.
Something had shifted. After a brief mourning period around not being born a golden child, I was able to better fight the urge to be perfect. I cared so much about becoming a better writer. Writing was something I’d wanted to learn since high school, and now I was finally doing it. I wanted to learn as much as possible, and push myself to my best, but not THE best.
The initial momentum of my dream to become a writer propelled me, but it was the revisiting of it that got me through the hundreds of edits and thousands of hours of writing. I still feel as if I have a long way to go, but now just being on the path is enough to keep me going.
I liken creative work to walking. When you’re doing the work, you often feel as if you’re just staring at your feet as they step over the earth. You’re not sure where things are going, or even where you’ve been. There’s beauty in that presence, but if you don’t look up occasionally you’ll likely fall off a cliff or wander into a bad neighborhood.
On the other hand, if all you do is look up and around and your surroundings, looking for inspiration or motivation, you’ll never effectively see the path that leads you to your goals. And we all know the path is always a winding one.
I think then that our best bet is to do both. Observe what’s happening in our world, look forward toward our goals, our ultimate vision, as we call it in my personal branding course. But we must also remember to look down at our feet, be in the moment, so we don’t stumble over that rock, or we can step over that brook, or clear out those branches that have fallen to block our path.
The rewards are all around us and even within the work of our path. But it’s that combination of steps, moving forward–the daily work–that leads us closer to our dreams, while that looking up that reminds us why we’re here.
The more we do the work, the more inspiration follows. We don’t have to be the best, but when we are relentless in the pursuit of our calling, dream, or purpose, our most inspired work bursts forth.
Could you use some inspiration?
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