Have you ever had this happen? A friend calls. She’s just had a brilliant idea for a story. Or maybe even a novel. This friend doesn’t have time to write stories, but she knows that you do, so she thought she’d call and share her spectacular idea. You could write it up, your friend says, and you and she could be sort of like co-authors.
This happens to me occasionally (maybe once a year), and these “I-have-a-great-idea” phone calls tend to come from distant relatives—cousins I haven’t talked to in months or an uncle who lives across the country. I used to be able to shrug these conversations off, to politely dismiss the invitation to “co-author” a book. (“Wow. What an idea. Thanks for calling, but I’m really swamped with my own projects right now.”)
But I’m growing impatient with these people. Last month I received one of these phone calls, and afterwards, I started closing doors harder than I needed to. At dinner, I viciously stabbed my food. I kept brooding. Why? What about that conversation got my goat?
Apart from the obvious condescension in these conversations, I think I have another answer. I hate these “I-have-a-great-idea” phone calls because they assume certain things about storytelling, things I absolutely abhor, things like what I’ll call here the “inspiration myth.”
This myth is the belief that all you really need to write well is an idea or a premise or an insight, and that the rest is just scribbling. This myth says that complete stories can “come to us” as if delivered on angels’ wings.
But as a writer, I know the truth. I know that ideas are cheap, that they come not at rare times, but at all times. Ideas are nothing. Most writers, I imagine, produce more ideas in a month than they can write in a lifetime, and they pay very little for these ideas. Finished stories, on the other hand, are expensive. They cost time and sweat and anguish and energy.
Of course, dispelling the “inspiration myth” isn’t easy, and we get no help from the popular writers of the day. Take J.K. Rowling. While she’s been quite upfront about the pains she took to write and publish Harry Potter, what most readers remember about her writing process is that one day while she was riding a train, “the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into [her] head.” Voila!
Or take the ever-controversial Stephanie Meyer. She claims the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream on June 2, 2003. Presto!
All of this may be true, and certainly all ideas show up sometime and somewhere, but our obsession with when and where ideas come strikes me as misguided, for the “inspiration myth” favors idea over craft.
I’ve been teaching beginning creative writing classes at BYU-Idaho this year, and I think the “inspiration myth” is misleading a lot of young writers. Too many of them succumb to the easy belief that one day inspiration will come, and when it does, they’ll have whole novels in their heads.
Overemphasizing the power of inspiration is dangerous because we can use that belief to remain stagnant. If our writing careers have failed to take off, the “inspiration myth” allows us to believe that’s only because we haven’t had the right idea yet. This little lie lets us ignore the more important aspects of our craft, like the need to spend more time revising or reading or seriously overhauling our prose.
And the “inspiration myth” also offers us a convenient excuse. If we never do make it as writers, well then, that’s not our fault. The muse never favored us. The idea never “fell into our heads” or “came to us in dreams,” and we can’t really be blamed for that, can we?
So I’m skeptical of inspiration’s power. I’m skeptical of “good ideas.” Because I know the real business of writing takes place in the everyday, in the monotonous painstaking routine, in the endless hours of honing a story again and again and again. True, this thought isn’t comforting. Unlike the “inspiration myth,” it offers no easy path to writing success. It promises only work and effort and sweat, which is exactly why I believe it.