Writing, inspiration and Steinbeck's hangover
"In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all"
I cannot write a monthly newsletter. I tried this throughout 2022, and ended up writing only 3 issues. What happened to the other 9? Devoured by the goblins of procrastination. The worst of all: the beast of waiting for inspiration.
What’s wrong with waiting for inspiration to write? Surely we need to feel inspired to produce anything good?
The cosmic antenna
That’s the prevailing view of the creative process: artists are like cosmic antennas picking up messages of truth and beauty from the air. When they pick up a message, they enter an effortless trance and transcribe the message into works of art.
If you want to write, it’s very unhelpful to believe this. If we think that even the greatest artists need that initial stroke of inspiration to create, how could we even bother to write a modest blog post when we’re just not feeling it?
One of my favorite authors is John Steinbeck. In 1938 he was working on The Grapes of Wrath. The book, set on the backdrop of the Great Depression, was to become one of the defining American novels of the XX century. It won him the Pulitzer and later the Nobel prize. Exactly how much was he inspired to write it, day by day?
Well, he kept a diary, so we know:
Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. (…) Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?
Did he struggle with self doubt?
I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.
Did he find it hard to focus when he was hung over?
Only a quarter page. Rodeo blues and weakness… Drank lots of whiskey and had a fair time. Empty feeling, empty show. (…) And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach. Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness.
So how the hell did he finish the book? (As a reminder, this is still Steinbeck speaking, it's not Atomic Habits)
In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. (..) There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot.
That’s right there, is the secret:
I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.
“I need inspiration to get started”
It’s liberating to let go of the expectation that you can only create when you feel inspired. And guess what tends to happen? Once you get into the habit, you start to feel like it more.
That’s ultimately the caveat of “I need inspiration to get started”: it’s almost right, it’s just the other way around. You need to get started to find the inspiration. (or for a more Buddhist take, to connect with the inspiration that is already there 💫)
That’s why I needed to make the newsletter a weekly issue. I thought I owe you a word of explanation. Thanks for staying along :).
More on this
📝 How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline ← longer article on the Steinbeck’s diary , source of the quotes I used
📖 The Grapes of Wrath ← Steinbeck’s resulting novel
📖 Atomic Habits ← similar thoughts on habits in persuasive self-help prose
Postcard from Tuscany
I was on vacation this last week, got more than a faire dose of renaissance art and panini in Florence.
Have a great week 💫,