It was sunset and I was sitting in a park when it happened, caught somewhere between panic and defeat. In forty-five minutes, I was expected at a packed venue to read never-before-heard work at arguably one of the most high-stakes poetry shows of my life thusfar, and I had absolutely nothing good in my notebook. For the past two weeks, while trying to produce new work for this show on a daily basis, every single image I’d written had been utter garbage—weak, flat, nowhere near interesting even to me. The entire day had been spent in pursuit of a solution. I’d started out writing at my desk at home, and crossed out each phrase moments after penning it. I went to the library, and stared into the abyss of my own brain with a dumb hopelessness you would think could only be achieved through blunt force trauma. I stuffed headphones in my ears and tried to gut it out in three different cafes, and all I had to show for it was crumpled receipts for coffee and the words, “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING???” writ large across a spread of pages. Nothing was working. Nothing felt right. I’d come to the park to sit on a bench and wallow in my talentless, bleak existence before faking an emergency to cancel my performance. And right as I was treading water in the sea of stress hormones that was my blood, a stranger walking by misused a colloquialism and it caught my ear, so I decided to try again. I wrote down my response to what I’d overheard, and stared at it—not bad, certainly the most promising start of the day. Then I followed it with a question, and suddenly I was in it. The poem unspooled ahead of me like an intricate underground tunnel, as though it was already built and I was just running through it for the first time. Every time I wondered what I would write next, the path ahead of me turned wickedly, and I was shocked again at what I was producing. I could barely write fast enough to keep up. Twenty minutes later, I had a rough draft so urgent and dear to me, it suddenly made the past two weeks of struggling worthwhile.
We were at a party. I’d brought together friends from disparate communities all over the Bay Area in the hopes that they would start to make friends with folks they wouldn’t otherwise hang out with. The music was a little too loud, and everyone was talking about how delicious the food was. The social worker who’d brought baked brie kept insisting that my poet friend try a bite. You won’t be grumpy ever again after, she promised. When he finally relented, something both broke open and lit up in his face as he chewed (which he did slowly, like he was praying). He looked her in the eye with this unexpected tenderness, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and said I’m going to disappear with my notebook for a half an hour, but I’m coming back to hug you. You have no idea what you’ve done. And then he was gone.
We were talking over breakfast. It was a fumbly, getting-to-know-each-other conversation. My new friend was saying something about his childhood, and his language was so hyperbolic that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. You really feel like that’s what it was like? That would make a great novel. He’d responded bashfully, Yeah, you’re right. How would that even happen, anyway? And without missing a beat, I’d answered, Well, obviously… and I can only describe what my brain did next as what it must be like to watch an entire forest blossom full grown from barren sand. The idea exploded with richness and an immediacy I’d never experienced before. I actually dropped my fork and stared open-mouthed at the air over the table, watching it unfold. I’m sorry, would you excuse me? I need to write something down. When I came up for air, all I could talk about was what it would take to build a fictional world that could support that story. I am still talking about it (and writing it) every single day.
There’s more to writing than whether or not you can find time to do it (and we all can, even if it doesn’t look the way you expect it too—a thing I’m telling you as a person who teaches six-week workshops where some of the busiest humans alive commit to writing every single day). There’s the (very real and understandable) fear of not knowing what to write or how to get it out. Sometimes there’s just this inexplicable sense of I have to say something and no words for it yet. Sometimes there are ideas—big, lofty, perfect and exact ones—and every attempt to pull them to the paper falls clumsily short. It’s a vulnerable and scary thing to grapple with inspiration, to wait for it to arrive. It’s where the real work of becoming a writer happens, though.
For every story I have like the three above, I have a dozen mediocre poems, essays, and stories. I have drafts on drafts where the idea I was reaching for just, well, stunk. And without the skills I was honing by producing work without the “eureka” moment, I don’t know how I’d get there. If I hadn’t spent two weeks sitting down daily and coming up with dissatisfying drafts, I don’t think I could have written that poem in the park. I’ve had baked Brie before, and it’s delicious, but if my friend hadn’t been practiced enough with imagery to capture it, that would have been a sweet moment and nothing more. Writers are training constantly to be prepared for these moments. We need practice.
After years of learning my own process and facilitating for others, here is what I know: Inspiration is what happens when you have the tenacity to show up and listen. It’s the combination of life experience and whatever habits you can build up for observing and capturing your unique perspective as it arises. The longer I’m at this, the more proud I am of the moments where I have had the presence of mind to make space for the process and let myself be surprised. It happens eventually, one way or another. We just have to keep coming back to let the lightning strike.
(If you’re looking for a way to build structure for your life as a writer, The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab is starting tonight! Click here to register. If you have any questions, please contact the Lab Director.)