Like most writers, or at least those still primed at the starting gate of their careers, I have another job — I teach at an elementary school. To call teaching a job almost feels like I’m trivializing it; teaching is arguably one of the most important jobs in our society, and I’m proud of the differences I’ve made in the lives of so many throughout my career. I consider it my privilege to have been a part of the education system for as long as I've been.
However, like any other profession, there are pros and cons to it. On the plus side, spending my work days in an elementary school gives me a front row seat to everything about the real world of middle grade and allows me to (hopefully) write my stories with an authentic tone. As for the not-so-plus side? It’s an incredibly difficult job. Any given school day can end with me feeling somewhere between exhilarated and accomplished or exhausted and frustrated, if not absolutely broken. When I show up at school in the morning, I need to be ready for anything to happen, because it’s going to. If I were able to share examples of some of the problems or events that comprise that unpredictable anything, a lot of people would either think or hope I was making it up.
So what happens on those days when I know I’m not going to be functioning at 100%? What if it’s all I can do to drag myself through the day and I end up facing any number of crises that life decides to test me with? I don’t get to toss aside my lesson plans in favor of a spontaneous six-hour kickball tournament because it would be easier. I can’t just give the kids a few sheets of drawing paper, then tell them to get out their colors and “impress me.” The mere idea of taking a long lunch so I can catch my breath is science fiction. I have responsibilities to fulfill and expectations to meet. I have a job to do, and it’s important that I do it well.
How is writing any different?
I guess that depends on what kind of writer you consider yourself. If it’s a hobby for you, as it was for me for so many years, you have some flexibility. You can wait for the perfect idea to tap you on the shoulder or whisper in your ear, and then play around with it at your leisure. If that’s your situation, I wish you all the luck in the world in your endeavors, and hope you enjoy every moment of the work you do.
I don’t think that describes most of us, though. I think most writers are caught up in that cycle where they keep writing because they simply have to. Maybe your drive comes from financial concerns, or general ambition, or just the necessity of protecting your peace of mind. Any of these could mean you might not have the luxury of waiting for perfect inspiration to come knocking on your door and offering to buy you dinner.
Real inspiration has more to do with the culmination of the work you put in to begin with. Sure, sometimes you get that idea that seems gift wrapped and fully-formed upon arrival, but once the real work begins, it’s inevitably going to evolve. One idea spawns another, which opens up other possibilities, which introduce new directions to explore, and before you realize what’s happened you have so many ideas spread across so many notes to work with you have to find a way to organize them all.
If you’re looking for inspiration to nudge forward a work in progress you're struggling with, or something that will help light a fire under that new project you’re thinking about? Make it yourself, first a word at a time, then a sentence, then a page or a chapter. And if what you’ve done isn’t lighting you up? Set it aside and try again. The inspiration is there, just waiting for the right time to come out and flick you behind the ear. Keep pushing, and trying, and trying again, and writing, and rewriting, and restarting, and revising, and revising again, and whatever else you need to do to find your way there. Put it the work and the inspiration will follow.
So get out there and get it done, people! You have a job to do! You have responsibilities to fulfill and expectations to meet. You owe it to your story. You owe it your characters. You owe it to your friends, and family, and critique partners, and all of the people making up your support system.
Above all, you owe it to yourself.