I first discovered middle grade, YA, and adult fantasy and science fiction writer Sherwood Smith through her Wren books, though she’d already been writing for some years by then. Today Sherwood talks about keeping inspiration alive over the long haul–for the writer, and for the work as well.
When we were young and began writing, whatever our motivation—world renown, mountains of cash, artistic satisfaction, the ardent desire to share the stories in our head, or any combination thereof—I think it is safe to say that part of the fire of our enthusiasm was the conviction that everything we were doing was new! Exciting! Maybe even innovative, or shocking. But it would surely take the world by storm.
Again generally speaking, if we stuck to it long enough we discovered that those early projects into which we poured heart soul, guts, tears, rage, laughter and hopes, might not have been as new, exciting or innovative as we thought.
Even if our lack of life experience meant our stories tended toward a blend of everything we had read and either liked or disliked, we were telling the kind of story we loved best. But when many of us became aware that the world didn’t respond with anywhere near the passion we put into the work, we might wonder what we did wrong, or what did They want. Success seemed to point to writing what They wanted, not what we wanted.
I think that this is the point where so many gave up. I can’t make a living at this. I will never get any better. It is just too much work for the money. No matter how hard I work, it seems to disappear into the void, and the only response I see are One Star Slamdunks on Amazon, many of which seem to be about some other book that I did not write. The heck with this! I am going to knit, I am going to garden, I’m really meant to become an editor.
It is okay to decide, That’s it, and move on to other things. No one would say that Harper Lee is any less of a writer for having produced a single book.
Some still have the passion, the urgency, to press on. But inspiration isn’t as easy as it once was.
My feeling is that the author in “midcareer” (and I firmly believe that many of us will consider ourselves to be in midcareer until they find us face down at our desk, our lifeless, withered hands loose on the keyboard) must sometimes work to keep inspiration alive. It will probably be a different type of inspiration that moved us to write than when we were young. And that’s okay.
What to do to keep the flame burning? I think the first thing is to get out of that comfortable writing environment that it took us so long to build. During those early days of grind jobs, when we couldn’t get enough time to write, we gained inspiration from daily observation of our fellow humans, and from the humor, the pity, the outrage and compassion our interactions caused us to feel.
I think killers of inspiration are unexamined literary habits and complacency, but also, there is an insidious one: the conviction that one must speak an important Message. In my years of reading all the works of authors who had long careers, one pattern I’ve noticed is that for many, the earliest, written-purely-for-fun works are those that last, and forgotten are the later ones, wherein the writer—perhaps with sharpened skills, certainly with hard-won wisdom—gave in to the temptation to summarize all that hard-won wisdom in One Great Novel. I’ve tracked down and read some of these, wondering if I might discover a forgotten gem, but wow, what an earnest, vitamin-packed trudge. Every page well meant, earnest, sometimes profound (chapters and chapters of profound) . . . and the only thing easy about such books was putting them down.
Life experience definitely needs to be in the mix, but so does fun. Losing sight of fun not only within the story but also in the writing of it creates an experience that is not fun for all concerned.
We need wisdom, but we also need action. Instinct and control, sorrow and joy, deliberation and recklessness. Cherished ideas, and 52-pickup with cherished ideas.
Does that sound like contradictions? Why, hello human nature! Let me tell you a story . . .
Sherwood Smith has published more than three dozen novels and two dozen short stories over the past quarter century, including Crown Duel, the Inda books, the Wren books, the Exordium books (co-authored with Dave Trowbridge), and the Dobrenica series. She was also was a teacher for twenty years, working with children from second grade to high school, teaching history, literature, drama, and dance. View her complete bibliography here or visit her on livejournal and at the Book View Cafe.
Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:
– Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
– Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
– Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
– Kathi Appelt on the power of story
– Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity